Hundreds of Memphis students with red pom-poms welcomed Secretary Duncan to town on Wednesday, the final day of this year’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour. Tennessee — in its fourth year of a federally funded Race to the Top grant — was one of the first grantees tapped to implement a comprehensive statewide plan for improving education, with broad community support.
Race to the Top — an investment that represents less than one percent of total education spending in America — has combined with other federally supported reform programs to fuel significant education improvements in states across the country. But, as Arne pointed out, the credit for encouraging early results goes to state and local partners—educators, families, faith-based, business and civic leaders — who’ve been determined to make things better for children, even though change can be hard.
“What’s going to sustain this is the hard work, the heart, the commitment of folks doing this,” Arne told more than 100 supporters of district and charter schools in Memphis. “The cumulative impact of all that hard work has been extraordinary.”
That impact is evident at Cornerstone Prep, which serves children in one of Memphis’s poorest neighborhoods. Once a school where only 2 percent of students were proficient in math, scores in that subject have increased by 23.1 points over the past three years and scores in reading and language arts have increased by 13.2 percentage points. T-shirts worn by the faculty and staff at Wednesday’s rally also attest that Cornerstone is “Proving the Possible.”
College banners are everywhere on campus, to keep everyone focused on the end goal. To the students cheering in the hot schoolyard out front, Arne delivered a back-to-school pep talk.
“A lot of people will tell you what you can’t do,” Arne said. “Don’t listen to them. Use that as fuel to keep you going.”
Changes, Challenges and Champions in Nashville
Earlier in the day, Arne joined National PTA President Otha Thornton and parents and teachers from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to discuss the impact in classrooms of some of the largest changes America’s schools have seen in decades.
Tennessee, like nearly every other state in the country, is in the early stages of implementing new and higher standards, better assessments and ways to use data and technology to boost student learning, as well as new efforts to support teachers and principals — all aimed at ensuring that all students are truly ready for college and careers. These changes are starting to show results, but challenges remain.
America’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high and dropout rates are down, but one-third of high school graduates report having to take remedial classes in college. “What that tells you is they weren’t ready,” Arne said, citing the statistic. “They weren’t prepared…And that simply isn’t good enough.”
In a town hall at Nashville’s William Henry Oliver Middle School, Arne applauded PTA members for their strong stand for student and teacher success during this transition.
“This is new for everyone,” said panelist Kayleigh Wettstein, who teaches third grade in Nashville. “As teachers, we have to get on board and be really great role models for our students.”
Parents need support to understand these changes, too. Many nodded knowingly when ED Principal Ambassador Fellow Jill Levine, who leads a magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, talked about the new ways that educators are teaching math and how those methods can be unfamiliar to parents who learned a different way to work with numbers.
For Wettstein, whose students tend to come from homes where English isn’t the first language, “not all parents are the same. We have to differentiate for our kids and we have to differentiate for our families as well.”
Parent Anita Ryan marveled at a recent project at her daughter’s school, involving All of the Above, a novel about four students and their quest to build the world’s largest tetrahedron and prove their urban school isn’t a “dead end.” Ryan’s daughter and her class read the book. They studied the math behind pyramidal shapes and the engineering involved in building giant ones. They wrote persuasive essays about winning approaches to break the record. And they worked in teams to test their theories.
The Common Core State Standards that Tennessee developed with more than 40 states encourage that kind of multi-faceted, project-based learning, Ryan said. As a result, students like her daughter “get it.” “They know it. They retain it,” she said.
One risk of this big transition in education is the potential for over-testing of students, Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register said. In his district, they have identified redundancies — “we were doing too much,” Register said — and are looking for ways to scale back testing without sacrificing important data and accountability.
“Where there’s too much testing, let’s have an honest conversation about that.” Arne said, reflecting on how he views testing in his own children’s public schools. Measuring what students know and where they need more help is a way to “make sure great teaching is leading to good results, not just teaching to the test.”
Talking about another form of accountability, Arne encouraged parents and educators to look behind politicians’ rhetoric and press them to genuinely value education and invest in public schools. For too long, politicians let standards slip to make themselves look good while students were being handed worthless diplomas. Elections, he said, are the ultimate form of accountability for officials who control education budgets and policy, but campaigns rarely focus on education, especially at the national level.
Arne threw out an idea for the next race for the White House. “In 2016, could we have a presidential debate about education, where the entire nation focuses on it? Could PTA host that debate?”
“I don’t learn much sitting behind my desk in Washington. I need to get out.” (Arne has visited all 50 states and more than 350 schools in his five-and-a-half years as Secretary.) “This is a time to get better … and to do it together,” he said.
From the tour’s kickoff with First Lady Michelle Obama in Atlanta, where counselors, mentors and other role models are inspiring students to set their sights on higher education, to Space Camp at NASA’s Rocket Center in Huntsville, where kids explore the wonders of STEM, to an early learning center in Chattanooga, where parents are determined to give their babies a great start in life — partners across America are coming together to build a better future for all students.
And that’s real progress.
Melissa Apostolides is a member of the Communications Development team in the Office of Communications and Outreach.