A Key Next Step: Strengthening The Connection Between K-12, Higher Education, And The Workforce

The 21st century workforce is rapidly changing, and Tennessee students deserve a bright future with the opportunity to obtain a high-quality job that leads to economic prosperity.

In the last decade, Tennessee K-12 education policy has been guided by one primary goal: Every student must graduate ready for postsecondary education, entry into the workforce, or military service. While Tennessee has become the fastest-improving state in K-12 student achievement and we have seen a significant increase in our college-going rate, there have been challenges in linking K-12 to postsecondary and workforce in a seamless way.

In 2010, the state established reforms in K-12 and higher education through the First to the Top Act and the Complete College Tennessee Act. Then, in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam challenged Tennessee with a new goal: Equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. In 2017, the Tennessee Succeeds plan raised the bar for high schools, incorporating early postsecondary opportunities and ACT achievement as measures of effectiveness.

The postsecondary attainment rate for Tennessee in 2013 was 33.8 percent. Currently, the state is at 40.7 percent attainment (workforce-relevant certificates were included beginning 2014). While our high school graduation rate is at 89.1 percent, we know that only about one in five Tennessee high school graduates is ready for college courses in reading, English, math, and science. Additionally, graduates who go straight to the workforce without any kind of postsecondary training earn, on average, around $10,000 in annual income.

The focus in our state has mightily moved beyond high school graduation as an end point for students, and our new horizon should continue to focus on preparing students both for success in higher education and for the adaptability of the 21st century workforce. Building on the foundation of K-12 and higher education reform to ensure strong connections and success with the state’s workforce needs and economic development goals should be a priority for Tennessee going forward. This means that Tennessee must focus high schools on postsecondary readiness, give students the coursework that prepares them to succeed in the next steps after high school, and develop strong partnerships between K-12, higher education, and industry partners.

The ultimate goal should be to create a clear continuum where higher standards for students in K-12 lead to clear opportunities in the future.


The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) will host the Future Ready Summit: Helping Students Discover Successful Routes To College, Career & Opportunity on Thursday, October 18. If you are interested in learning more about this one-day event, please email futurereadysummit@tnscore.org. 

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Samantha Gutter

Samantha Gutter currently serves as Director of Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness at SCORE, where she focuses on policies related to alignment of K-12 education to postsecondary education and the workforce. Before coming to SCORE, Sam served as education policy adviser for Governor Bill Haslam. In 2017, she led the legislative effort to enact the Tennessee Reconnect Act, which allows nearly all Tennessee adults to attend a community or technical college tuition-free. Originally from Alabama, Sam has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Auburn University and a master’s degree in education policy from Vanderbilt University. She began her career as a Teach For America corps member, teaching elementary school in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

The SCORE Sheet is the online conversation on public education reform in Tennessee and is hosted by SCORE. The blog mirrors SCORE’s collaborative nature and features contributors from Tennessee and across the country including students, parents, teachers, policymakers, community groups, and members of SCORE’s team. Regardless of perspective, contributors share a common goal: that every child graduates from high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Posts on The SCORE Sheet are the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily reflective of the opinions and positions of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).