This week the legislature will convene to start the second session of the 107th Tennessee General Assembly. Last year, we made great strides toward raising the standards in education and we need to continue looking forward. I applaud the Governor for listening to the feedback from teachers, superintendents, and other school officials by selecting SCORE to administer an independent study of the new evaluation system.

As a member of the Senate Education Committee, I am dedicated to evaluating every issue and focusing on what is best for Tennessee’s students. We will have a lot of issues coming through the committee this year. One issue that I am interested in starting the discussion on is merit pay for teachers. The most important school-based factor in improving student achievement is an excellent classroom teacher and we need to reward those teachers who are effective at raising student achievement and growth.

Another area we need to focus on is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. The U.S. Labor Department employment projections show that by 2014, 75 percent of the fastest growing jobs will require applicants to have significant mathematics or science preparation. Being able to problem-solve, use technology, and understand key principles in science and mathematics will be critical skills in preparing students for the workforce of the future.

I am proud to be the Senior Chairman of the new bipartisan, bicameral Tennessee STEM Education Caucus. This is the nation’s first state-level caucus on education issues. The caucus will be co-chaired by Sen. Reginald Tate (D-33), along with Reps. David Hawk (R- 5) and Brenda Gilmore (D- 54).

The caucus will be committed to developing an innovative workforce and preparing the next generation of Tennessee’s scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians. When I ask business leaders what they need most to grow, the most common answer is “qualified, well-trained workers.” We need to make sure our educational system is producing the workforce our employers need in order to continue creating jobs. This kind of dialogue between business leaders and our policymakers is crucial to improving our workforce.

I have invited all of my fellow legislators to participate in a non-partisan forum on STEM Education on January 23rd.

As I look forward to our first Senate Education Committee Meeting on January 11th, I welcome any feedback or questions you may have.