There are important lessons here. What these two places also had in common was a succession of leaders who told educators, parents and the public the truth about educational underperformance and who worked closely with educators to bring about real changes. They pushed hard to raise expectations for students, even though a lower bar would have made everyone look better. And they remained committed to doing the right thing for children, even when it meant crossing partisan lines or challenging ideological orthodoxy.
To meet those higher standards, these leaders invested in strengthening the quality of classroom instruction and revamping systems for teacher support and evaluation. They ensured that teachers could use good data from multiple sources to identify learning gaps and improve instruction. They also sought ongoing feedback from educators and others.
These concepts — developing and supporting the people who do the most important work, using data to inform improvement — are what strong organizations do.
Yet these common-sense steps took uncommon courage. Tennessee had previously set one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency in reading and math. The resulting proficiency rates — 91 percent in math and 92 percent in reading — were a lie. By raising standards, Tennessee’s leaders forced the public, parents and politicians to confront brutal facts.
When Tennessee raised its standards in 2010, the proportion of students rated proficient dropped to 34 percent in math and 45 percent in reading. But in a bipartisan act of courage, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stayed true to the reforms begun under Democrat Phil Bredesen. They refused to dumb down standards to try to make Tennessee students look better.
Were students actually doing worse? No. For the first time, the state was telling the truth.
Just as important, leaders in the District of Columbia and Tennessee worked with educators to transform industrial-era systems of support and evaluation for teachers and principals that had little or no link to teachers’ impact on student learning. That meant continuing the work of political predecessors, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson did in the District of Columbia.