Dr. Candice McQueen began her career as a classroom teacher and has risen to the top, being recently appointed as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education.
“I want to take this opportunity to share with you a bit about the vision for education in Tennessee, but putting it in the context of where we’ve been,” said McQueen in addressing The Rotary Club of McMinnville last week.
Gov. Bill Haslam appointed McQueen as successor to Kevin Huffman in December and she began her new job in January. At the time of her appointment, McQueen was senior vice president and dean of the nationally ranked College of Education at Lipscomb University. She began her career as a classroom teacher and brings to the job deep experience in what works and what doesn’t in the teaching and learning process.
“To think about where you are going to go has to be built in the context of where you’ve been and the progress you have already made,” said McQueen. “First, Tennessee has made major strides over the last several years. In particular, we are the fastest improving state in the nation on the nation’s report card in fourth and eighth grades. That’s important because the nation’s report card is a measure of how well Tennessee is doing in terms of educational attainment and educational achievement against our partner states.”
Along with improving on the nation’s report card, the state has made gains on Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) testing every year since 2010. McQueen says the credit for that improvement goes back to 2007.
“Tennessee has improved dramatically on the nation’s report card,” she said. “I would couple that with the fact we have made consistent gains on TCAP. Every year, we have made gains, consistent gains, since 2010. I want to say to you in this room that was a testament to many educators that are currently in the field and were in the field then. It had nothing to do, necessarily, with what we’ve done in the last four years. This was about improvements in standards that started back in 2007 and 2008 when Tennessee made an “F” in truth in advertising from the Chamber of Commerce because our standards were too low.”
To rectify the problem, the state started the Tennessee Diploma Project which strives to align standards and assessments with the knowledge and skills required beyond high school, requires all high school students to take challenging courses that actually prepare them for life after high school, builds college and work-ready measures into statewide accountability systems, and holds schools accountable for graduating students who are college and/or workforce ready.
The efforts are paying off in the form of graduating seniors, says McQueen.
“We also are the fastest improving state in the nation in graduation rate,” she said. “We are graduating more students now than we ever have, and we have improved dramatically in students who are typically underprivileged. We are ranked as first – remember Tennessee has always been down there on the bottom so it’s really exciting for us to be able to say we are ranked first – in improvement with graduation rate and first in getting our students with underprivileged backgrounds to graduation.”
Tennessee has also made consistent gains on the Assessment College Test (ACT) over the last several years. ACT is the assessment to determine if students are college and career ready. The statewide average on the test is 19.3.
By 2025 in Tennessee, McQueen says 55 percent of all new jobs are going to require some type of postsecondary education.
McQueen says her focus will be how to use her time in office effectively in order to advance the state to meet the 2025 demand.
“You’ve heard about the verse in the Bible about redeeming the time? This is what I think about. How am I going to redeem the time I have in this roll. One, we still don’t have kids reading on grade level. Less than half of all third-grade students are proficient or above in reading. Less than half of all eighth-grade students are proficient or above in reading. As a state, we have less than 40 percent of all high schools students scoring proficient or above in their English III courses.”
In the fall of 2013, almost 64 percent of first-time freshmen in Tennessee’s community colleges had to take at least one remedial or developmental course. While the number doesn’t sound bad, says McQueen, those students are more likely to drop out of college.
“When a student has to take one remedial course, they are much less likely to finish the first year. They are certainly less likely to ever graduate, and they are gaining more and more debt with no credit attached to it. While Tennessee has made tremendous progress and we are the fastest improving state in the nation on the nation’s report card, we are still ranked in the bottom half of all states on the nation’s report card.”
The financial future of individuals without a postsecondary degree is bleak. Labor data shows students leaving high school with a diploma, but without any other type of credential, and going directly into the job market make an average of $9,000 annually.
To encourage students to obtain at least a two-year college degree, the state began offering Tennessee Promise scholarships. Seniors may apply for the scholarship, which will provide two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee.
McQueen has set three goals to make sure students are ready to succeed when entering college: 1) Get Tennessee to the top half of the nation’s report card by 2019 by continuing on the current path of steady progress; 2) Increase the average ACT in the state to 21, because a score of 21 gets a student a Hope Scholarship; 3) Meet the “Drive to 55” goal, which is having 55 percent of adults earn college degrees.
She has set five priorities to meet the three goals:
Early foundations – A student’s lack of success in high school doesn’t start in high school. It is a foundational skill they didn’t learn early on.
Supporting educators – Support teachers around the current teacher evaluation system, which works through frequent observation, constructive feedback, student data, and professional development, while consistently looking for ways to improves it.
All means all – Every student in Tennessee needs to be successful for the state to meet its goals.
Empowering districts – Every district in the state is different and state mandates need to be flexible because of it.
High school Bridging to postsecondary – Improve strategies in high school to get students engaged to go to postsecondary, as well as explore job opportunities and pathways to get there with them.
McQueen ended the presentation with inspirational words.
“The story of where we go in the next four years has to be our story,” she said. “It can’t be the Department of Education’s story. It can’t be the General Assembly’s story. It can’t be the governor’s story. It has to be the collective. It has to be our story with educators and our students in the center of that. We have to work hard, we have to work smart, and most importantly, we have to work together. If we work together, we can reach these goals.”