NASHVILLE - Governor Phil Bredesen today addressed a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to urge swift passage of a range of education-reform proposals designed to spur improvement in Tennessee's education pipeline - specifically, improving student performance and graduation rates at both the high school and college levels. Collectively, the proposals are known as the "Tennessee Education Innovation Plan."
The two bills that comprise the Plan were introduced today as the special session on education convened. The "Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010" will make changes in law as part of the Volunteer State's push in the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top competition. Second, the "Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010" will make changes in law needed to improve college completion rates, which lag behind the nation.
"The stars have aligned this year to create opportunities to make significant improvements in public education in Tennessee. When that happens, we're obligated as public officials to seize the moment," Bredesen said. "That moment is now."
The first opportunity is the federal government's Race to the Top competition. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law by President Obama in February 2009, provides $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top Fund, a competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward states that are implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas:
1. Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
2. Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
3. Recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
4. Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.
Tennessee is viewed as competitive in Race to the Top by national education-reform groups as a result of key successes in recent years, including the adoption of career- and college-ready high school standards through the American Diploma Project. Tennessee is also recognized for having one of the nation's oldest and most robust databases for tracking "student growth," or a child's improvement in the classroom over time.
"To effectively compete in Race to the Top, we need to unlock the prohibition on effectively using that information to help improve teacher quality and drive change in the classroom," said Bredesen. "That needs to change. And it takes legislation. The quality of the teacher is so important to a child's success. Making these changes will move us dramatically toward the goal of improving high school output of our public educational pipeline."
In addition to removing limitations on the use of this Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data, the First to the Top Act includes measures to establish an Achievement School District to intervene in consistently failing schools, require annual evaluations of teachers and principals, create a 15-member teacher evaluation advisory committee to recommend guidelines and criteria to the State Board of Education, and to allow local school systems to create local salary schedules for teachers and principals with state approval.
The second opportunity comes as Bredesen concludes nearly year-long talks with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on how to improve higher education in Tennessee, consisting of colleges and universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems.
The Volunteer State lags the nation in completion of bachelor's degrees, ranked 40th, and associate degrees, ranked 45th. On average, only 46 percent of full-time students at four-year schools graduate within six years, and only 12 percent of full-time community college students attain associated degrees within three years.
"We can do better. We've got to do better," Bredesen said. "Our economy hinges on our ability to develop a more skilled workforce and, more fundamentally, giving kids a quality education so they can earn a good living."
The Complete College Tennessee Act proposes key measures to improved Tennessee's college-completion rates. "These strategies are a natural extension of K-12 education reform measures," Bredesen said. "In fact, Race to the Top places a premium on states that aren't simply focused on getting kids through high school, but also are looking at college enrollment."
The legislation includes a new approach for funding higher education.
Currently, the state's antiquated formula for funding education is based almost exclusively on enrollment.
"At a time when state resources are tighter than ever, we've got to prioritize how we spend those finite dollars and retool our funding formula to make it based on success and outcomes, including higher degree completion rates," said Bredesen. "It's the responsible thing to do for the budget and, more importantly, that change, as much as any other, will drive decisions at the campus levels and help really focus us on the core mission of college completion."
In addition to changing the funding formula, the Complete College Tennessee Act makes community colleges a centerpiece of the state's strategy by expanding common programs and common courses to promote consistency and quality across the two-year system, create a statewide transfer policy so any student who earns a two-year degree at a community college can move on to a four-year university as a junior, and requiring the Board of Regents and University of Tennessee to establish dual-admission and dual-enrollment policies at all two- and four-year colleges and universities.
Bredesen urged lawmakers to move swiftly to approve the Tennessee Education Innovation Plan.
"Our Race to the Top application is due at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington on January 19th - just one week from today," Bredesen said. "In the November guidelines, the federal government made it clear: Those states that will be the most competitive will be the ones that have new policy changes in place at the time of the application. But I want to be clear, while our share of $4 billion would be significant, there are no guarantees. Furthermore, money can't be the main reason for making these changes. The fact is, we've been talking about these ideas for years. In 2010, this is the way the education world is moving. Tennessee can and should lead the way."