“It’s a privilege to be in your school and we’re here with some really good news,” the voice said. “Tennessee has been named the state with the fastest improving education results in the entire country.”
That disembodied voice belonged to Gov. Bill Haslam, who was paying a visit to the school as part of a tour to tout the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more commonly known as “the nation’s report card.”
The report released Thursday showed the state’s students had a 22-point growth in all subject areas during the period of 2011 to the present.
Those results mean Tennessee fourth-grade students went from 46th to 27th in math and from 41st to 31st in reading in national rankings.
The governor was joined in Cleveland by the state’s first lady, Crissy, and State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Haslam entered the facility with good humor telling students he came to salute them and their teachers, while he was actually there in his role as Tennessee governor and to “try to figure out why the principal of your school (Mike Collier) has a picture of (former Alabama football coach) Bear Bryant in his office.”
As part of the celebratory spirit of the visit, the governor rolled a cake into the library joking he wasn’t sure eating was allowed in the room.
He was quickly reassured by Cleveland City Schools Director Dr. Martin Ringstaff there would not be a problem on this occasion.
The governor took a few moments prior to touring the school and visiting with students to address the main purpose of his visit.
“We want to thank as many teachers as we can for what is incredible news,” he said referring to the new education report.
“Not only do we have the best scores in the country this year, we have the best scores since this test has been given over the last 10 years,” Haslam said. “No state has ever shown the improvement we have this year.”
He noted the state had normally ranked in the 40th percentile in comparison with other states.
“Now, we can solidly say as a state we’re in the 30s when it comes to education achievement,” Haslam said.
The governor said while the improving scores are good this does not mean the effort to improve the state’s educational system will end.
“None of us are satisfied,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want to be the 35th best out of 50 states in anything.”
He said those who work within the educational field are now looking at Tennessee “with jaws wide open.”
“This news is such a big accomplishment,” he said.
Commissioner Huffman said he has heard from many other states since the scores were released Thursday.
“They want to hear what’s happening in education in Tennessee today,” Huffman said. “It’s been very gratifying.”
The commissioner said the state has not just focused on growth alone, but on growth for all students.
“We want to make sure truly all kids are improving,” Huffman said.
By way of example, he cited the growth for African-American students was higher than for other students.
“We also had this growth while increasing the number in special education students who participate,” Huffman said. “We are trying to include more special education students in mainstream classes. To have that happen and have our growth says a lot.”
Huffman wanted to add to the governor’s praise of the work teachers have done in attaining the recent successes.
“We know teachers are working a lot harder than they had to work a few years ago. We hope they feel incredibly proud of these outcomes because they are the ones on the front lines leading the charge,” Huffman said.
Huffman called Ringstaff “one of the state’s leaders when it comes to thinking thoughtfully about how to raise standards.”
“We’re doing the right things in Cleveland City,” Ringstaff said. “Our teachers are working extremely hard and our administrators and students are doing some great things.”
He added his agreement that the schools were not “settling at all.”
“We’re excited to take the next step and are looking forward to it,” Huffman said.
Collier said Cleveland Middle had “a great group of people who work hard every day.”
“We’re excited about where we’re going and what the future holds for us,” Collier said. “We’re going to continue to work and see how far we can climb that ladder.”
Haslam said the main thing now for the state is not to lose focus.
“We can’t take our foot off the pedal,” Haslam said.
He acknowledged there have been some critical discussions about the implementation of the Common Core program.
“I honestly think we are already three years into it and one of the reasons we’ve done well is that,” Haslam said.
“Our message is it’s not the time to let up on that. It’s time to put on more steam because we’ve shown we can do it in Tennessee. There’s not a doubt and there shouldn’t be a question that every kid in Tennessee can make significant educational gains.”
Huffman said it was difficult to point to any one item of the Common Core that have led to the recent positive scores.
“We’ve raised standards over an extended period of time,” Huffman said. “All of that together leads to higher standards as to what is being taught and I think that leads to a different level of performance.”
Ringstaff said much of the success comes from the educational environment.
“From the school board to the students to everybody in the school system, there is an understanding this is not politicized whatsoever,” Ringstaff said.
“This is about what’s best for students. Every decision we make is about what’s best for students. We don’t get into the squabble about where it came from in 2009. There’s no doubt in our mind the Common Core state standards set a very strict bar of where we need to go. I think it’s showing dividends.”