As both a businessperson and the Chair of the Chattanooga Chamber Board, I applauded the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, which revealed that Tennessee students are improving their academic performance more rapidly than students in any other state. Our students performed so well, Tennessee leaped from ranking among the bottom 10 percent of states in academic performance to competing in the top 70 percent.
What changed in Tennessee to produce such a remarkable improvement after languishing near the bottom for many years? Education reforms adopted by the State of Tennessee in 2010 played a big part, but among the most important improvements was the decision to adopt a more honest standard of academic performance that challenges our students to excel at levels allowing them to succeed in the real world.
Four years ago, the crisis in educational performance across the state became a catalyst for reform. Tennessee chose to institute higher standards, improve teacher evaluation methods and accountability, and invest in STEM education. Along the way, the Volunteer State became a national model of educational reform.
The list of people who deserve credit for Tennessee’s rapid turnaround is long. Teachers were asked to take on the Herculean task of implementing reforms in the classroom while undergoing more rigorous evaluation themselves. Administrators led their schools and their school systems in the implementation, and our legislators and policy makers showed immense courage in undertaking some of the boldest reform in the nation.
Sadly, the very standards we adopted to finally put Tennessee on par with the rest of the nation have become the subject of a vicious misinformation campaign. The Common Core State Standards have been portrayed as a United Nations conspiracy, a mandate from the federal government, and an exercise in brainwashing our youth. These claims are nonsense.
Actually, the Common Core State Standards are higher than the standards they replace and were developed at state and local levels. They shift the focus towards real learning and relevance to real-world applications. They set an expectation that realistically prepares our students for the future, placing the focus on student engagement in the learning process rather than on rote memorization and test preparation. The Common Core State Standards emphasize the critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills that children will need to succeed in life.
They directly address the most critical issue facing our region and, indeed, our country: ensuring that our children will learn the math, reading, writing, and problem-solving skills to succeed in future careers. This is precisely why the business community across the state supports them. Businesses need great employees, and they want to hire them locally if possible.
In short, the Common Core State Standards are the linchpin of our best-in-the-nation educational reform efforts that are producing such incredible results. Our student performance is competitive with other states and rapidly improving. That’s why I believe Common Core State Standards are a critical ingredient in fulfilling the promise of Thomas Jefferson’s dream to provide a quality public education that focuses on work skills, life skills, and good citizenship for every child in the United States.
I applaud our teachers, administrators, and policymakers for their bold leadership and can-do spirit in moving Tennessee forward more rapidly than any other state in the country. I am highly confident that continuing to implement our reforms, especially Common Core, will result in Tennessee having one of the best educational systems in the country. Our school children deserve nothing less.
Howard Levine is board chair of the Chattanooga Chamber and an attorney with Miller and Martin, PLLC.