Governor Bill Lee will give his first State of the State address on Monday, March 4, 2019. The speech is highly anticipated, as it will signal to the state the administration’s priorities for the immediate future. It is where campaign promises, either become realities or go to die. He will undoubtedly address issues across the board, from roads to mental health to criminal justice, and all things in between. My interest will be squarely on public education.

What do I expect the Governor to say about education?

  1. His administration will focus on getting students ready for work.
  2. He will work to strengthen the public education system.
  3. He will look for innovative and student-centered strategies for public education.

How will he do that? Here is what I suggest he might say on Monday night:

He will stress the need to build better connections between labor and education. This will mean facilitating improved linkage between school districts, community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and local industry. Meaning the state must assess our progress towards the Drive to 55 Goal. Which may include outreach to middle school students about their goals and aspirations. This is likely why one of the first assignments given to the new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has been to meet with students. Likewise, we will want secondary students to start thinking about their career. Governor Lee will probably push toward greater access to high-quality dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities in technical fields across our state. Work-based learning may be referenced. Governor Lee sees this as an opportunity to help students develop the practical abilities that help them perform in project-based environments, learn to work with others, and grow the discipline needed for success in a competitive workplace. This will require new partnerships between industry and our schools, and may facilitate a more concrete connection between labor and education, which is a direction that the federal government has taken the past few years. The state will also need to expand and improve offerings in STEM.

Governor Lee will likely continue to highlight the work of his predecessors, namely Governor Bredesen and Governor Haslam, in looking at ways to strengthen the foundations of our public education system. It is uncertain if Pre-K will be included. I would argue that he will look at some of the efforts underway and consult with State Representative Bill Dunn on this matter. All success in public education hinges on quality instruction, so it begins with our educators. We all agree that every student deserves highly effective teachers and administrators. So, it would be no surprise to hear the Governor talk about his plan to better develop a pipeline to secure educators here in Tennessee. Compensation is the key to recruitment and retention. Our teacher compensation model needs to be competitive nationally. I expect the Governor to send a message to educators that he recognizes and appreciates their efforts, and he will work to see they are paid for their efforts. I also expect that the Governor will stress the need to build upon Governor Haslam’s efforts in literacy. We know that school safety will also be a priority, as well as the need for additional school counselors. It is important that focus in counseling goes beyond mere college and career, but also into helping students with mental health issues—-especially children who have experienced physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Governor Lee must address the testing issue. Too many policymakers and stakeholders have been waiting on a message from the governor about how he plans to improve our assessment system, to ensure that our metrics are empowering and informing, not inhibiting quality instruction, while providing accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students.

On the innovation front, the question is, will he or won’t he bring up parental choice, specifically regarding school vouchers and/or education savings accounts? The administration has signaled more of a wait and see approach thus far. If he plans to bring up school choice, it is more likely to be done in his first term. There has been some indication that the votes are simply not there for a proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly. The Governor is more likely to discuss changes he envisions in creating a modern high school. He is correct that for the last 50 years the way high school has educated students has largely remained unchanged. He may suggest that it is time to embrace new, flexible school models in our high schools. This means he must also discuss supporting locally-driven flexibility and innovation. On the campaign trail, he argued for the need to break down the barriers that have held our teachers, school leaders, and school districts back from creative solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. I would not be surprised to see something like innovation grants from the state for our districts. The question is whether he is willing to make some adjustments to testing, like a pilot project that allows some districts to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment in high performing districts. Lee understands when we empower school leaders to bring new solutions to the table and hold them accountable for results, we all win. By piloting innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles, he could send a huge message across the state. Hopefully, Governor Lee will grab the bull by the horns on school finance and discuss the possibilities of a school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. Because of our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies, businessman Governor Lee understands better than most policymakers the required formula that will support teachers, fund facilities, and facilitate innovation and technology, while looking to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.

I expect the speech of a lifetime from Governor Lee on Monday night. The State of the State is his one opportunity to lay out for all Tennesseans why we are the best state in the nation for education and in turn, the best place to raise a family. Tennessee continues to be a state that is moving forward.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

nOne of the challenges we face in Tennessee moving forward is the need to further develop and align the education-to-career pipeline.  Governor-elect Bill Lee probably expressed this better than any candidate on the campaign trail, and his potential as governor in this arena offers great hope for a brighter future for Tennessee.   The objective is clear:  we must prepare students for the demands of the modern workforce.  This will require targeted strategies in our schools to help ensure every child has an opportunity for success.

The Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) did a good analysis of Postsecondary and Career Readiness in Tennessee with their study:  Educating the Workforce of Tomorrow.  As they point out a “rapidly changing economy requires urgent focus on student postsecondary and career readiness, with greater intensity than ever before.”  This is where Governor Lee can make his greatest impact in education and future economic growth of the state.   He has pledged to “establish a seamless path between our school districts, community and technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and local industry to empower students with the real-world skills they need to get a great job once they graduate.” 

Lee has stated that “Coding, mechatronics, logistics, and computer science will become fundamental skills for the modern workforce and I will ensure every student has access to coursework in these areas by investing in the technology, materials, and instruction to get our students the opportunity they deserve.”   This means that we must continually reimagine what education looks like for our students.  And as Governor, Bill Lee will work to make that a high priority.  This is exciting news for educators, who have seen constant change yet understand that we are transforming our schools to the next generation. 

The state has started trending this way, especially in some communities in the state.  Lyle Ailshie, the current acting Commissioner of Education, began his work on high school redesign as a Superintendent in Kingsport.  He received national recognition for his effort.   In Maury County, Dr. Ryan Jackson, principal of Mount Pleasant High School, is also garnering much national attention for his work with STEAM initiatives, dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities and is a champion for the school’s and the district’s Project-Based Learning curriculum.

It is likely that many communities in the state will move toward these flexible school models to support new opportunities for career and technical education, work-based learning and apprenticeships, and dual-enrollment courses for students preparing for their career.  The future is bright in Tennessee.  Let’s make our state the envy of the nation. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

Bill Lee

I am excited about the future of public education in Tennessee.  Many critics like to point out some of the shortcomings of our system, and rightly so.  A one size fits all system does not work for everyone.  It never has, and never will.  The system will continue to evolve, albeit slowly, and adjustments will always be needed.  We should welcome debate on public education, which remains our greatest priority.

In order to attract and keep industries and business that we need for a global economy, we must build and develop a quality workforce.  A quality education system ultimately provides economic mobility for all of our citizens.  It is imperative that taxpayers understand that education is an investment for our state’s future, not merely an expense to bear.  It is also a constitutional requirement in our state.

As a businessman, Governor-elect Bill Lee understands that higher salaries will encourage more people to join the teaching profession and hopefully entice current educators to remain in the field, resulting in better outcomes for Tennessee students.  Lee has stated his three major priorities: 1) Getting our students ready to enter the workforce; 2) Strengthening the foundations of a quality system; and 3) Encouraging innovation.  It is a K12 education agenda we should embrace.

Tennessee’s business community has expressed increased concerned about workforce development. In the future, people with solid, transferable skills that are open to continued learning will be critical for our workforce.   To get our students ready for the workforce we must better link state and local efforts for economic development and job creation.  This will also necessitate expanding post-secondary vocational training. Many occupations are developed through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. That does not always mean expensive, four-year degrees for which many students are not suited.  In high school, Tennessee may want to consider giving students the option to use the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate examination, rather than the ACT/SAT in the 11th grade year.

Strengthening the foundations of our public-school system, begins with support for local control of public education.  It is also critical to look at how we fund our schools.  The methodology we use to fund our schools has constantly been litigated by school districts.  These lawsuits prove we must incorporate and take into consideration the dramatically different cost of living and doing business in different counties across the state. We must update our school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs.  At the state level we have to improve the teacher pipeline.  This means we must identify and develop a community of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession.  Any investment we make in education must be high quality, and position our children for success in the classroom, career and life.  We have much work to do.

We need our new Governor, our new Commissioner and our new Tennessee General Assembly to listen to educators and continue to champion innovation in public education. Educators want that chance to be inventive, and they understand the need to challenge the status quo.  The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators.  Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. We should pursue reliable standardized tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. No single test should be a determinant of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success. True measurement of progress should instead consist of several benchmarks, not just testing.

We must also break down the bureaucratic barriers that have kept educators and school districts from pursuing solutions to the unique challenges of their communities.  Governor-elect Lee has promised to “pilot innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles.”  That is a wise strategy to pursue.   Lee, like many other business and community leaders, understands that the solutions to many problems we face in our hinge on a quality public education system.   Our future depends on that success. Let’s all work to make that happen.

JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.