Growing Prosperity by Furthering College & Career Readiness
Earlier this year, Governor Bill Haslam shared what has motivated his administration’s tireless work on behalf of students, “I do believe in, as much as possible, trying to level the starting line, and the best way to level the starting line is education.” This thought succinctly encompasses the mission our state has set forth: to provide all Tennessee students with a clear, attainable pathway to economic prosperity through education. Not only does a well-educated workforce benefit our state as a whole, but it also ensures that year by year, more Tennesseans will have the ability to support themselves and their families through quality jobs.
Over the last decade, Tennessee has taken bold, purposeful steps to improve the quality of education students are receiving and to support their overall success. After years of progress– and with a change in state leadership forthcoming—we must set our sights on the path ahead, as our next steps will be some of the most important yet. To do that, we need to remember where we have been and evaluate what challenges still lie ahead.
High Expectations and Accountability Laid the Foundation
In 2007, Tennessee received failing marks from the US Chamber of Commerce for “truth in advertising” related to student proficiency results. This became a galvanizing moment for our state, a chance to raise expectations around education in our communities. Tennesseans came together to create and adopt rigorous K-12 standards and addressed tough issues like mandatory assessments and teacher evaluations.
By implementing high standards— and holding our teachers, schools, and students accountable to them— Tennessee has become one of the fastest improving states in the nation and stands out among our Southern peers for student growth.
Although there is much work still to be done, Tennessee has laid a formidable foundation to improve student outcomes and to increase the number of well-prepared students sent on to college and career pathways. We cannot continue this improvement unless we maintain our commitment to high standards and the continual assessment of student learning.
Post-Secondary Education Opportunities are Key to Economic Success
While 87 percent of high school students say they want to go to college, 34 percent of Tennessee’s students forgo higher education to enter the workforce immediately after high school. Without any post-secondary training, these students can expect an annual salary of $10,880— not nearly enough to live on or to raise a family. It is also important to note that at least 55 percent of jobs in our state will require some form of higher education credential by 2025.
All students deserve a bright future, a life that includes a steady job and a living wage, no matter the path they choose to take after high school. For this reason, the stakes are high for our students. The question is no longer, “How do we get students to graduation day?”; but “How can we ensure high school is an on-ramp to college and career?”
Next Step: Building a College-Going Culture
Tennessee is implementing innovative programs and approaches to increase readiness and to create seamless pathways from K-12 to postsecondary certificate or degree attainment after high school.
- As a state, we have set a goal to improve participation rates and performance on the ACT, a key metric of high school students’ college readiness. In 2018, more Tennessee students took the test than ever before and scores are improving.
- Through the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect programs, now any Tennessean has the opportunity to attend two years of community or technical college tuition-free. As a result, our state leads the nation in FAFSA applications; and postsecondary enrollment is up.
- Early Post-Secondary Opportunities and Career and Technical Education programs at our high schools are helping to give students more exposure to potential postsecondary options and equip them with the tools and skills they need to be successful on their chosen path.
- The Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) Program has helped thousands of students get face-to-face instruction time in high school to catch them up and avoid remedial coursework in college. Since launching statewide in 2013, the program reduced the percentage of students needing math remediation by 15 percent.
- The Labor and Education Alignment Program (LEAP) brings together business and education to identify and address high-need skills gaps in a region. LEAP grants created opportunity for students to participate in dual enrollment, work-based learning and career exploration programs for high-demand jobs.
Through the programs above, Tennessee is redefining what it means to go to college. By offering students both financial and educational support, our state is ensuring that Tennessee students have more onramp opportunities for postsecondary education and then stay on track to complete a degree or credential. Technical colleges, community colleges, certification programs and 4-year universities are all producing the certifications, degrees and credentials that the workforce of today and tomorrow will require; our students should view each of these options as a powerful pathway to prosperity.
Tennessee will welcome new state leadership in the coming year. Our new governor, in tandem with our state legislators, will have a prime opportunity to shape education policy in ways that will have lasting impact on our workforce and economy. These leaders should focus on accelerating our progress by building upon education policies and reforms that have been shown to work, and finding innovative solutions to persistent challenges.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed the ways in which our students can benefit when elected officials from both parties join forces with education, business and community leaders. If we encourage the leaders of our state to dedicate themselves to expanding the programs that are working well, enabling more students to exit K-12 well-prepared for their next steps in life, we could forever change what it means to live and work in Tennessee.