Bill Gates eyes the work ahead for Tennessee in education during visit to Nashville
Tennessee is making strong improvements in raising academic achievement among its students, but Bill Gates believes there is plenty of work still ahead for the Volunteer State.
Improvements for the state over the last several years include changing its academic standards, curriculum and feedback to teachers, Gates said.
But low academic achievement in concentrated sections of urban areas and poor rural counties continue to plague the state. Tennessee is near the middle when compared nationally on academic achievement in math and reading.
“On a relative basis, Tennessee is still below average,” Gates said during a Friday interview in Nashville with The Tennessean. Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest men, pledged during the visit to continue investing millions of dollars in the state’s education through his foundation.
Nationally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focuses its education efforts on minority and low-income students near urban centers. The foundation has invested about $34 million in Tennessee statewide, with an emphasis in Memphis.
Gauging support for Gates Foundation work
The Gates Foundation works in higher education, K-12 and early learning in Tennessee and that is “one of the very few states that we do all those things,” he said.
The billionaire philanthropist came to Nashville on Friday as part of a flurry of meetings to gauge the climate under first-term Gov. Bill Lee, who was elected in August.
Gates said in his interview that his foundation focuses primarily on working with local and state governments. The effort can be difficult if they change priorities, he said.
But after Thursday and Friday in Tennessee, Gates indicated his foundation will continue to invest in the initiatives it is undertaking. Gates was encouraged by Lee — who hosted Gates Thursday at the governor’s residence — and said it looks as if there will be another seven years with a governor whose focus is on education.
“Tennessee is a big focus state for us because education has been prioritized,” Gates said. “I am not sure what we would have done if the governor didn’t have education as a priority, but he does so … we are committed to keep working here with the partners in Tennessee.”
He was complimentary of Tennessee for its collaboration, and also for tackling tough changes under Govs. Bill Haslam and Phil Bredesen. Tennessee is shown to be one of the few states from 2009-2015 seeing academic improvement in almost every county.
Recent changes — such as the state’s academic standards — need patience, he said.
“The lag time in all these educational-related things are very long and you have to stay the course,” he said.
The work in Tennessee
Over the course of a 35-minute interview, Gates touched on aspects of Tennessee’s work in education.
The foundation is spending money in higher education, Gates said, to help systems align resources for students. Nationally, he said he worries that more than a third of students are not ready for college.
In Tennessee, about 46% of students enter Tennessee’s colleges needing remediation in math. About 33% need remediation in reading.
“You shouldn’t have more than a third that needs remedial classes,” Gates said.
He said the state is delving into dual credit opportunities for students, which allow students to come out of high school either exposed to college classes or earning some type of college credit. Under Haslam, the state also embarked on a concentrated effort to help 55% of its residents earn a degree or certificate by 2025.
The Gates Foundation also is working heavily in early education in Tennessee, which has been the focus for districts such as Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools.
The quality of voluntary pre-Kindergarten programs across the state varies, but those two districts are showing strong results.
Gates and his visit to Chattanooga
Gates shared thoughts on Chattanooga’s efforts, which were also part of the reason he was in Tennessee for his two-day trip.
He applauded Chattanooga for its efforts to get businesses involved in education through a community effort.
“… I am a huge believer that communities, especially the private sector, if you draw them in that is where you get things done,” he said. “That is where get permission to raise the community tax rate.”
He also visited with students, whom he said were positive about their experiences but complained about teacher attrition and resources.
Students told him resources were focused on students either in the top or bottom 10%.
“They said the teachers are amazing, but then they would leave,” he said.[Read more at the Tennessean]