Archived Information

The Tennessee Way: Lessons for the Nation

The Howard H. Baker Jr. Distinguished Lecture, The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy
University of Tennessee at Knoxville


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Press Office, (202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


Greetings to Senators Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum Baker. And to Dr. Cheek and other education leaders from around the state, thank you for having me here today.

I'm honored to be a part of the Distinguished Baker Lecture series. And I am thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about how Tennessee is helping to lead the nation to where we need to go in education.

It is no secret that for many years Tennessee has lagged behind most states in academic achievement and college attainment. But I am not interested in where you were—I'm interested in where you are going. And my hope—my challenge to you—is that Tennessee be the fastest improving state in the country.

Tennessee's students have made rapid progress in the last four years in a number of areas. State assessment scores have jumped, high school graduation rates are up, and college enrollment appears to be on the rise.

Yet everyone here knows that urgent challenges remain. Tennessee still has unacceptably large achievement gaps. And I would like to see Tennessee expand its' preschool program for four year-olds, so many more disadvantaged children can begin kindergarten at the same starting line as children from more privileged backgrounds. In many ways, it's now clear Tennessee has created a model for education reform for other states to follow. And it's a model, quite frankly, that Washington can learn much from as well.

When the history of education reform is written here, I believe it will show that the state's success in advancing education has three key elements.

First, Tennessee's leaders, from the statehouse to the governor's mansion, have worked in a bipartisan manner, instead of insisting on ideological litmus tests and partisan purity.

Tennessee's legislators and governors have treated Pre-K-to-12 education as an investment in children, in its workforce, and in Tennessee's future—and not as just another expenditure on the budget line. Working across party lines, Tennessee's leaders have not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Second, Tennessee has raised the bar, it has raised expectations for student learning, with the aim that all students will be college- and career-ready.

The state has insisted that improving student outcomes and students' life chances is the ultimate purpose of strengthening education—and you have not flinched when raising the bar exposed even larger achievement gaps and opportunity gaps.

Staying the course in the face of what I call "brutal truths" takes real courage, and you have demonstrated that. Tennessee's commitment to do the right thing, not the easy thing, for students, parents, and teachers has been apparent for the world to see.

And finally, Tennessee has provided a great model of governance and partnership. Through its Race to the Top grant and other initiatives, Tennessee has done a fantastic job of partnering not only with us at the federal level, but with non-profits, higher education, and the private sector. This work is so hard and so important—and we must do it together.

State and local leaders in Tennessee took the lead in elevating education. That's how it should be. It is not the job of the federal government to be a national school board. The best ideas for strengthening education almost always come from the local level—and Tennessee has been a fount of innovation and creativity.

The federal government should play second fiddle when it comes to education. But second fiddle is an important part, too.

Our department works to partner with states and districts to support their efforts. We provide incentives to encourage courage and innovation. And we support states and districts to experiment with effective, research-based solutions to educational challenges.

Under the law, the federal government also must meet its obligations to ensure equal opportunity for students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Earlier today, I was at an event with my good friend, Governor Haslam, over at West High School. He has done a great job of moving Tennessee's education agenda reform forward.

Governor Haslam, a Republican, and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, a Democrat, embody these three traits of the Tennessee's education model that I've just articulated: Real bipartisanship; an insistence on setting a high bar; and a deep commitment to doing the right thing for children in partnership with all levels of the community.

I can't say enough about the quality of their leadership and political courage. But the truth is they didn't pioneer the Tennessee way in education.

That tradition starts with the precedent set by Senators Howard Baker and Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

Over the course of his remarkable career, Senator Baker earned the title, "The Great Conciliator." Frankly, today we desperately need more lawmakers in Washington who are willing to search for compromise, and who are willing to listen respectfully to those who see the world differently than them.

Senator Baker's commitment to civility and his belief in civic education and engagement helped inspire the Baker Center's mission.

And I want to add that Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker's career also epitomizes this commitment to education, to local control, to working across party lines, and to doing the right thing—even when it sometimes meant disagreeing with her fellow Republicans.

The Bakers' record is all the more striking today because both of them were rock-ribbed Republicans. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, Nancy Kassebaum Baker was Nancy Landon, the daughter of Kansas governor Alf Landon, who ran against FDR in 1936.

Howard Baker's father, Howard Baker Sr., was a seven-term Republican U.S. congressman from Tennessee. And Howard Jr.'s father-in-law was Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader.

So if you'll allow me, bear with me while I tell a couple of stories about the Bakers. Let me start with Senator Kassebaum Baker.

In September, I had the honor of speaking at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Nancy's hometown.

The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is the former Monroe School. It was the segregated school Linda Brown attended in 1953 as a ten-year old and that helped launch a civil rights revolution.

When I spoke at that historic landmark, I was struck by the fact that so many of our civil rights heroes were often ordinary men, women, and children.

Oliver Brown, Linda Brown's father, and the named plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, was not a legislator, a civil rights activist, or a fancy Ivy League lawyer. He was a shop welder for the railroad. Other plaintiffs who sued to end school desegregation in the Brown case were secretaries, teachers, and students.

One of them was Lucinda Todd, the first plaintiff from Topeka to join the NAACP's lawsuit in the Brown case.

Lucinda was a teacher. She joined the Brown lawsuit after her daughter was nearly hit by a bus while waiting for her daily ride to school. White children in Topeka could walk to the 18 all-white neighborhood schools in Topeka. But black children often couldn't go to their neighborhood school and were forced to be bussed cross-town.

And it just didn't seem right to Lucinda that her daughter, who played piano and violin, could not participate in district-wide music recitals.

Gov. Landon and his wife knew the Todds. They had great respect for them. Lucinda's husband, Alvin, would sometimes help out with dinner events at their house.

As a teenager, Nancy didn't know about Lucinda's fight against segregation. But as I'll get to a minute, she never forgot the Todd's either.

In 1950, Nancy didn't think much about segregation. That was just the way things were in Topeka—and many parts of the South were much worse.

But as she married and had children, Nancy developed a passion for education, a reverence for teachers—and the sure knowledge that segregation was wrong.

She started by helping out at her children's elementary school in small-town Maize, Kansas. The school had no library, so Nancy Kassebaum got the school to let her use the broom closet for the auditorium to create a library.

Soon, she help raised money to open a real library at the school. And then Nancy won her first election—to the Maize school board.

Nancy Kassebaum went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate and chaired the Senate subcommittee on education. But as William Faulkner, that son of the South, famously said, "the past isn't dead and buried . . . it isn't even past."

As it turned out, by 1990, the Monroe School—the segregated school little Linda Brown attended—had been closed due to declining enrollment. The school was scheduled to be auctioned off.

But Nancy, working with Senator Dole and Congressman Dan Glickman, intervened. They wrote the Interior Secretary asking that he designate the Monroe School as the Brown v. Board National Historic Site.

That critically-important piece of our national history was saved—and exists today so folks like me can still visit it—due in part to Nancy Kassebaum's efforts.

And Senator Kassebaum didn't stop there in righting a wrong. Against the wishes of the Reagan administration, she supported economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime. Because if it was wrong to mark movie seats "Colored" in Topeka, it was just as wrong in Johannesburg.

When President Reagan vetoed congressional sanctions against South Africa in 1986, Senator Kassebaum helped lead the charge to successfully override his veto.

Nancy Kassebaum didn't forget Lucinda Todd either, the teacher who first signed on to the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit.

When Senator Kassebaum was chair of the African Affairs subcommittee, she was fortunate enough to meet Nelson Mandela in 1990, shortly after Mandela was released from prison. During their meeting, Senator Kassebaum asked Mandela—one of my heroes—to autograph a picture for her to send to the Todd's and their daughter.

She told Mandela about Lucinda—the teacher who simply wanted her daughter to be able to walk to school and play the violin in school recitals.

Mandela gladly autographed a picture for the Todd's. And then he told Nancy Kassebaum something she remembers to this day: While Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island, he read every word of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A half-a-world away from Mandela's spartan cell, a teacher from Topeka had stepped up to do the right thing. With courage and commitment, ordinary people drive extraordinary change.

Now, for Howard Baker, education wasn't at the top of his legislative agenda. But like Nancy, Howard Baker believes deeply that education must be the great equalizer in America, the force that overcomes differences in race, privilege, and national origin.

He knows the federal government has a role to play in protecting equal opportunity for students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners—and he was not afraid to say so, even when it put him at odds with his party.

He believes that education, like charity, begins at home—but it does not end there. In fact, Howard Baker first co-sponsored legislation to create a U.S. Department of Education in 1978, a quarter century ago.

"Education is an investment of no small measure in our Nation," he said when he introduced his bill. And when President Reagan tried to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, Senator Baker, the Majority leader, opposed him.

In a very personal way, Howard Baker has understood that education is the civil rights issue not only of our generation but of our predecessors'. So let me tell you a quick story about Howard Baker.

Not long after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, lawmakers from the South banded together to oppose racial integration in public places. The entire delegations of seven Southern states signed the Southern Manifesto, a screed to segregation. But in an act of political bravery, Congressman Baker, Howard's father, refused to sign.

That was Howard Jr.'s legacy—and he lived up to it. Several years later, in the summer of 1963, Howard Baker Jr. had yet to begin his political career. He was just a young lawyer heading through Washington on business on his way to National Airport.

But traffic was totally jammed all along the Washington Mall that day as his taxi inched its way toward the airport. It was August 28, 1963—and the historic March on Washington was taking place.

The taxi driver had his radio tuned to the event, and one speaker after another challenged America to fulfill its promise of equality before the law. And then Howard Baker heard a 34-year-old minister who had spent part of that year in a Birmingham jail cell start to speak.

As he listened to Dr. Martin Luther King begin his speech, Howard Baker knew he could not sit in his taxi any longer.

He hopped out and made his way on foot toward the Lincoln Memorial. And there he watched Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

Twenty years later, Howard Baker was the Senate Majority Leader. And without support from the Reagan administration, he went to the Senate floor to call for a national holiday to honor the birthday of Martin Luther King.

Before the Senate voted for the Martin Luther King Day holiday, Senator Baker told his colleagues about listening to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It was past time, he said, to expand "the horizon of human freedom still more."

And so it is that the Baker-Kassebaum model of treating education as a civil right, of setting high expectations, of bipartisanship, of combining local leadership with federal oversight, has characterized Tennessee's approach to education reform.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning here the bipartisan work of my friend, Lamar Alexander, who was Tennessee's first "education governor." He has been amazingly kind, generous, and thoughtful to me from the day I arrived in Washington, and I will never forget that.

But let me tell you where Lamar got his start in politics—as a legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker.

With the educational transformation now under way in Tennessee, it is easy to forget that just a few short years ago, Tennessee had some of the lowest educational standards in the nation.

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an "F" for its academic standards, one of only two states that flunked the Chamber's report card.

Tennessee had the largest gap in the country between the percentage of students that were deemed proficient in reading and math on state tests—90 percent—and the percent that were deemed proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—26 percent.

Because Tennessee was actually lying to children and parents—telling them they were doing fine when they were not—the Chamber gave Tennessee an "F" for "Truth in Advertising about Student Proficiency."

The cut scores for proficiency on Tennessee's assessments were not only dishonest, they were also set as low as they could go. They corresponded to a student GPA of a D-. And as low standards always do, they concealed huge achievement gaps that are especially damaging to disadvantaged students.

After the Chamber's report, a Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, moved in tandem with the Tennessee Board of Education to set more demanding standards for students and develop more rigorous assessments with higher, more honest cut scores.

The new cut score for proficiency corresponds to a B average. To graduate, students must now take Algebra II and a math course in all four years of high school, instead of earning three math credits. And they must earn 22 total credits, instead of 20.

When Tennessee boosted cut scores in its new assessment in 2010, proficiency rates dropped by more than half. Achievement gaps, already too large, more than doubled.

Were students actually doing worse? No, they weren't. For the first time, the state was actually telling the truth.

And in an act of bipartisan leadership and courage, Governor Bredesen and Governor Haslam refused to dummy down the state's standards to try to make Tennessee's students look better.

This bipartisan, Tennessee two-step, has also extended to reforming teacher evaluation, one of the most controversial areas in education. Tennessee was the first state in the nation to push ahead with implementing a new teacher evaluation system. And its example shows other states how to smartly reform teacher evaluation.

The new evaluation system was developed by Governor Bredesen's administration—and in 2010, Governor Bredesen called the Republican-controlled legislature into a special session to pass the First to the Top Act.

In a brilliant move, at Governor Bredesen's urging all seven major candidates running to succeed him—Democrat and Republican alike—signed letters saying they would support Tennessee's Race to the Top application. This impressed, and frankly, stunned me—no other state demonstrated this type of foresight, leadership, and planning for success.

Since then, Governor Haslam and Commissioner Huffman have done an outstanding job of implementing the new teacher evaluation system.

Under Tennessee's old system, tenured teachers were evaluated just twice a decade. That does not send a signal that teaching is a valued profession, or that teachers do incredibly hard, complex work every day.

And a teacher's impact on student growth did not factor at all into their performance evaluation. Please stop and think about that for a minute—teacher evaluation had no connection, zero, to growth in student learning.

Under Tennessee's new system, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student achievement data—initially divided up into 35 percent for student growth, with 15 percent based on other measures of student achievement.

The remaining 50 percent of evaluation is based on traditional qualitative measures, like observations of teachers by principals.

Using multiple measures is always, always the best way to evaluate success in any true profession. Ignoring student growth, or, at the other end of the spectrum, focusing only on test scores, are equally bad ideas.

But what has been just as instructive about Tennessee's approach is that the state department of education hasn't ignored or downplayed the critics of the new evaluation systems—in fact, it has sought their feedback. Department officials met with 7,500 teachers around the state and surveyed 16,000 teachers and 1,000 administrators for input on the new evaluation system.

Because of the candid, thoughtful feedback the state received—and with the benefit of real evidence of teacher impact on growth in student learning from almost 20,000 teachers—the department adopted or sought a number of changes to the teacher evaluation system. They listened, in a non-defensive way, and moved, based on what they heard. That is leadership in action.

So, this commitment to continuous improvement in Tennessee is real, not a slogan. And other states can learn from it. It takes courage to make yourself vulnerable but it also makes you better.

Tennessee has shown the nation that it's important not to ignore a teacher's impact on student learning just because it is difficult to measure.

And while there is no perfect system of teacher evaluation, Tennessee did not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Tennessee showed that better teacher evaluation propels better classroom instruction.

Perhaps most important, Tennessee's Race to the Top program and other reform initiatives are not change just for change's sake. They are producing better outcomes for children and expanding opportunities in real ways.

In 2012, Tennessee's students' performance improved more on state assessments than in any previous year. Student learning was up in 23 of the 24 assessments offered in grades three through eight.

During just the first two years of the Race to the Top grant, from 2010 to 2012, an additional 55,000 students in Tennessee were at or above grade level in math and 38,000 additional students were at or above grade level in science. Is there still a long way to go? Absolutely. But this is real progress and should be celebrated.

More rigorous standards are opening educational doors and creating new opportunities. Tens of thousands of additional students are graduating from high school and enrolling in college.

Those new high school graduates and college students now have a better chance of getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family. This is not about test scores—it is about improving the life chances of young people who are desperately striving to end cycles of poverty and enter the mainstream of society.

Since 2009, Tennessee's on-time graduation rate has jumped four percentage points, to 87.2 percent. That helps put to the lie the myth that when you raise standards, more students drop out. All my life, I've seen that when you challenge young people, they rise to meet higher expectations.

And since the implementation of higher academic standards in 2009, 15 percent more students have enrolled in college, according to Tennessee SCORE.

The final area where Tennessee can help lead the nation is higher education policy.

Today, virtually all states use an enrollment-based model to determine funding for higher education, though several states are adding performance-based elements to determine a portion of state funding.

Simply put, the enrollment model provides incentives for enrollment growth—the more students you have, the more money you get. But it doesn't support excellence. It doesn't encourage people to stick with college to get their degree. And it doesn't enhance productivity. It focuses on inputs, not important outcomes, like student success.

Tennessee is the first state to have dropped its enrollment-based approach for state funding in favor of an outcomes-based model. In fact, Tennessee no longer has any enrollment-based allocation of state funds. All state higher ed funding here—not part of it—is outcomes-based.

Tennessee has also pioneered unique and innovative post-secondary technical education in its 27 Tennessee Technology Centers. Every one of Tennessee's Technology Centers graduates more than half their students—well above the national rate—and students at the Technology Centers don't end up trapped in remedial classes. They are being trained for real jobs that too often now go unfilled due a lack of qualified applicants.

I want to close today by talking about the urgent educational challenges that remain in Tennessee. We all know there is still a long way to go.

Students in most states still out-perform Tennessee's students. And Tennessee has not bettered its standing, relative to other states, or among Southeastern states, since 2009. Compared to other states, achievement gaps in Tennessee between low-income students and other students are still larger than average.

Tennessee's college enrollment and completion rates remain unacceptably low—and that is a big barrier for businesses and young people looking to succeed in today's knowledge-based, global economy.

That's one reason I hope that Tennessee will reverse its steep cuts to higher education funding since 2009 and reinvest in higher education—just as it has done with K-12 schooling.

And, at the start of its cradle-to-career educational pipeline, I would like to see Tennessee expand its high-quality preschool program for four-year olds from low-income families, English language learners, and children with disabilities.

Tennessee invested significant resources in expanding its Voluntary Pre-K initiative in 2005 under Governor Bredesen. Today, Tennessee invests more than $85 million a year in its pre-K program, with more than 18,000 children served in over 925 state-funded classrooms.

The National Institute for Early Education Research ranks Tennessee as a high-quality program. And research studies from Vanderbilt University find that the program is significantly boosting early literacy, language, and math skills.

In fact, the one-year preschool program's positive impact is roughly equivalent in size to reducing the black-white achievement gap by 28 to 42 percent.

However, the unmet need for high-quality preschool in Tennessee is still large. Nationwide, less than 30 percent of four-year olds are enrolled today in high-quality preschool programs. And the truth is that Tennessee's pre-K program is the kind of state initiative that President Obama wants to provide incentives to states to expand.

The President's landmark preschool plan is enormously important to our country in the long-term. It would provide the biggest expansion of educational opportunity in the 21st century.

Briefly, here is how it would work.

The President has proposed to create a federal-state partnership that would enable states to provide universal, high-quality preschool for four-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line.

This new partnership would not be a new mandate or federal entitlement program—it would be an investment in states to jumpstart access to high-quality preschool and to take the leading states to the next level.

States would use federal funds from our Department to create or expand high-quality, state-run preschool programs, administered in partnerships with local school-based and community providers.

Now, in an era of tight budgets, it's absolutely fair that we ask, what is the smartest use of our education dollars?

The answer, I believe, is that high-quality early learning is the best educational investment we can make in our children, our communities, and our country.

Longitudinal studies of both the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers have projected a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs. That's a much better return than you'll historically get in the stock market.

Today, states like Oklahoma and Georgia are leading the way in creating high-quality, universal programs. In fact, many states, led by both GOP and Democratic governors, are investing heavily in quality and expanding coverage.

In Alabama, Governor Bentley, a Republican, has asked for a 65 percent increase in preschool funding to cover an additional 2,200 four-year olds.

And at the polling booth, voters are approving referendum to expand preschool programs, even if it means paying higher taxes. In San Antonio, in Denver, and in St. Paul, Minnesota, voters approved tax increases last November to expand publicly-funded preschool programs.

I have every faith that we will soon see Tennessee expand its preschool program, too. Because if you favor state-led partnerships, want to set high expectations for quality, aim to close insidious achievement gaps, and seek to invest education dollars wisely, then this is the right thing to do for children. It is time that we finally level the playing field—and stop playing catch-up in our public schools.

Improving education is a collective effort that begins at home—and I thank all of those who have strived to better education here in Tennessee.

Tennessee has done so much to help lead the nation where we need to go. I love the progress and clear sense of momentum here—and please hold me and my team accountable for being good partners in this transformational work.

I look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of Tennessee's journey. I look forward to seeing how you will meet this urgent challenge, Tennessee-style, of providing a world-class education system to all of Tennessee's students. Our children, our families, and our communities, deserve no less.


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