You were appointed Commissioner of Education in December 2014 by Governor Bill Haslam. Why did you accept the position?
Over a year ago, the governor initially engaged me in discussion about serving in the commissioner role. While I had to initially wrestle with the decision, as I loved the work I was doing at Lipscomb [University], it is hard to say no to the governor when he asks you to serve. It has been an honor to serve this year and a pleasure to work for Gov. Haslam – a governor who has prioritized education in both word and deed – and to work with a committed group of administrators and educators across Tennessee. Most importantly, I accepted this role to help improve the educational outcomes for almost 1 million students in Tennessee. We must ensure that all students can confidently take advantage of opportunities past 12th grade – especially Tennessee Promise. My experiences in both K-12 and higher education, especially teacher preparation, allow me to make connections between these worlds so we can create better alignment.
Can you tell our readers what a typical day looks like for you?
There is no typical day, but I can say they are all very full. On many days during my Classroom Chronicles Tour, I am leaving with my team very early in the morning – 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m. – to be in East or West Tennessee to visit school districts, schools, educators and students. On other days, I start the day in meetings with various leadership team members and external stakeholders on the work of our strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds, or meeting with several task forces we have in process that bring collaborative voice and ideas to our work. Almost every day, I am talking to groups or at events where I am able to share the vision we have for all students.
The state of Tennessee continues to improve its performance on TCAP and ACT scores. What other areas have you seen marked improvement in over the last five years?
Our graduation rate has continued to improve. We also continue to be the fastest improving state on the National Assessment of Education Progress or the Nation’s Report Card.
Is there a common misconception about Tennessee’s public schools that you would like to address?
I often hear that public education is driving good teachers away and they are leaving the profession at high rates. This is actually not the case in Tennessee. We are retaining our best and most highly rated teachers at a very high rate. Not only are Tennessee’s highly effective teachers staying in the classroom, but we continue to hear that teachers feel increasingly satisfied with working conditions at their schools, according to the Tennessee Educator Survey administered annually. In fact, nearly eight out of 10 teachers report that teachers in their school are satisfied, like being there and feel recognized for their work.
What role do charter schools play in Tennessee’s schools, and why are they so controversial? What is the argument on each side of this issue?
Charter schools are public schools that have autonomy from the district-run schools, as they are independently run with their own boards, policies and practices — they literally have a charter or agreement with the authorizer about what they will accomplish during the specified number of years of their charter. Charter schools began some 25 years ago with the intent to incubate new ideas, structures and practices in an effort to improve all schools in our systems. Charters still provide this, particularly if this is a stated goal within a community. Over time, charters became a viable option for communities to use to help build capacity or introduce competition to encourage more educational innovation and choice. This has become controversial for many reasons — from accusations that charter and traditional schools are compared on outcomes, but the playing field is not fair to the financial implications for the district that continues to run schools even when kids leave for charters and funding goes with them, to the continuing challenge of developing new scalable systems that adequately incorporate different structures of schools. While not all charter schools nationally are high quality, many in Tennessee continue to be some of the highest performing schools in the state.
As commissioner of education, what are the three top priorities you hope to accomplish in your tenure?
- As a state, we don’t have enough students going on to postsecondary to meet the workforce needs we have in the state. We know that 55 percent of all new jobs in Tennessee will require some form of postsecondary education by 2025, so we must continue to prepare, mentor and inspire our K-12 students to take advantage of opportunities like Tennessee Promise. Our priority is to increase our college-going rate by improving K-12 outcomes every year, increasing the number of early postsecondary opportunities available to students (dual credit and dual enrollment, AP, etc.), increasing our ACT scores, increasing the number of students with early industry credentials and improving our engagement with students related to career pathways much earlier than we currently do.
- We have too many students needing remedial coursework once they get to postsecondary, which contributes to too few of them staying past their first year of college. This is why it is vital that K-12 education set up our students for seamless entry into postsecondary through higher expectations, a focus on assessment for improvement and support around students’ gaps in learning every year.
- We have too many students who don’t have the literacy skills to be successful. Less than 50 percent of fourth and eighth grade students are proficient or above in reading. Less than 40 percent of high school students are proficient in English III skills. This is why we kicked off a new initiative called Read to be Ready in February. Our goal is to better support community partners, educators and parents to ensure that children are given a stronger foundation in literacy, particularly focusing on early childhood and younger grades.
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
Always listen more than you talk.
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
I love so many things about Nashville, especially the people and the education community here. Hands down, I want to continue to positively change and improve the futures of every young person in Nashville. Ensuring that all students are reading on grade level is one of best ways to open doors and possibilities for our kids. In particular, I believe our English language learners in Nashville need to be fully supported in their literacy development.
What meal at a local restaurant has recently wowed you the most?
I always enjoy Eastland Cafe.
What books are on your bedside table?
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Really anywhere with my family — we love to travel together.
Is there something our readers would be surprised to know about you?
I was an egg cookery champion in 4-H while in high school, representing Tennessee in the national competition.
Do you have any irrational fears?
No, but I have been known to ask my husband or colleagues to kill spiders for me.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
- Starbucks coffee
- Great nonfiction books
- A good run
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photographs. See more of her work on her website — click here.
There are so many inspiring women in Nashville. Read all about them in our FACES section — click here.