Dr. Candice McQueen talks to parents, educators, and community members at Douglas High.
Ericka Sanders patiently waits at a table in the cafeteria at Downtown Elementary in Memphis for her kindergartner to enter for lunchtime. She finally catches a glimpse of her among the pint-sized students. A smile comes across her daughter’s face at the same time as she realizes her Mom has brought her a special lunch today, “just because.”
“I enjoy having lunch with my daughter. It gives me a chance to check on her and see how her day is going,” says Sanders, who also has a fourth grader at the school.
It’s those sorts of encounters that educators, including Tennessee Department of Education commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen, say have a big impact on the education of a child. McQueen came to Memphis — to Douglass High School — a few weeks ago as part of a statewide listening and feedback tour to discuss taking education to a new level in the state.
“We can’t change the level of education for kids by ourselves,” McQueen says. “But if we work through the districts and schools, we can put children on a pathway for success.”
That pathway is now going through a new federal K-12 law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
“Under ESSA, we will focus on the whole child and how that supports academics,” says McQueen. “We want to address the whole child from before the school day to afterwards. Engaging students in extracurriculars gets them more excited about academics.”
Academics — specifically the testing that shows how well their children are performing overall — are very much top of mind for many parents and educators.
The majority of the TN Ready standardized testing had to be cancelled across the state last year due to computer problems related to administering it.
“Last year we had a challenge with the testing, but we have fixed those problems,” says McQueen. “We have a very strong partner to deliver the tests, and we have reduced testing time by 30 percent.”
Amy Dickson, a parent attending the feedback session at Douglass, says “I’m not happy with the entire testing process; there’s too much emphasis on testing.”
“We want to address the whole child from before the school day to afterwards.”
McQueen maintains that more rigorous testing is essential in creating an educated job force.
“Tennessee’s students are growing into problem solvers and critical thinkers, and they are rising to meet the higher standards that are based on what our colleges and employers expect,” she says. “We expected scores to be lower in this first year of a more rigorous assessment, but we also expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past.”
Tennessee students are seeing some progress. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, Tennessee students are the fastest improving in the nation. For example, 4th graders in Tennessee rose to the top half of states in fourth-grade math, ranking 25th — the first time Tennessee has ever ranked in the top half of states in any subject or grade.
That’s a key takeaway that Dr. McQueen emphasizes: “We spend a lot of time focusing on our weaknesses; we need to also focus on our success, to see what we can build upon on the strengths to spur innovation in education.”
The Tennessee Department of Education is still looking to get feedback from parents across the state on the success plan that will be implemented in the 2017-2018 school year. Visit tn.gov/education for an online feedback form.