During a morale-boosting visit to Nashville Wednesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan challenged Tennessee’s schools to become the fastest-improving in the nation.
“Tennessee is well below the national average in just about every indicator, so there are many states that are higher performing,” Duncan said at West End Middle School. “That is a reality. But this state is one of a handful that might be uniquely positioned to be one of the fastest improvers, so that has got to be the aspiration here.”
During a panel discussion with Duncan, Gov. Bill Haslam called the wide gap in Tennessee between the achievement scores for white and black students “immoral.”
“In Tennessee, we are really committed to closing that achievement gap between white students and students of color,” the governor told reporters later. “We know that to move the needle in education, we have to address those issues. I really want to be a part of any conversation in Tennessee that starts and ends with, how do we help children learn more.”
Duncan added: “This work is tough. It is challenging. Nothing is easy about it. There’s a reason why these gaps haven’t closed. There’s a reason why education has been so slow to improve. But I am very hopeful that Tennessee could possibly become the fastest-improving state in the country. If Tennessee can do that, the implications not just for the children here but for the nation are profound.”
This week, the Obama administration announced it will waive the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law for qualifying states because Congress has failed to overhaul the program.
Duncan said the law's benchmarks are unrealistic and brand schools as failures even if they make progress. Haslam already has asked Duncan for a waiver to let the state replace No Child Left Behind standards with ones the state has set for itself. Duncan said he expects Tennessee to qualify for a waiver.
“We’re still working through what the final waiver package will look at,” Duncan said. “But we think it’s important that states have high standards. We’re not going to play ball with a state that’s reducing standards. I have no interest in doing that. We want to work with states that are doing interesting things around teacher and principal evaluation and effectiveness. Tennessee is doing a great job there. … I have every reason to be hopeful about Tennessee’s submission.”