Just a few years ago, Tennessee embarked on an ambitious plan to better prepare students for the future.  Tennesseans took a hard look at student proficiency and concluded that continuing to accept mediocre academic performance was a disservice to our students. When SCORE was launched in 2009, we identified a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for unprecedented growth in student achievement  in Tennessee.

Now Tennessee has reached an important milestone. The November 7 release of the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math confirmed that student achievement in Tennessee has grown faster than any other state. Tennessee’s 2011-13 growth is the largest by any state since NAEP began consistent assessments in 2003. We are very aware that we have much work to do to sustain and accelerate these gains.

As Tennessee celebrates this moment, the gains made by our students have important implications for the education reform “movement.”

First, we must drive for bold policy change squarely focused on the key levers to improving student achievement. But to ensure sustainability, we have to work collaboratively to thoughtfully execute new policies. Tennessee has taken a comprehensive approach to policy change: a teacher evaluation system that identifies and supports great teaching, higher academic expectations for all students, and smart strategies to turn around low-performing schools. Tennessee passed and implemented these policies by putting aside political expedience and gamesmanship to focus on better results for students.

Second, courageous and thoughtful leadership is a must-have to disrupt long-established systems. When he announced the NAEP news, Governor Bill Haslam (a Republican) invited his predecessor, Governor Phil Bredesen (a Democrat), to give remarks. Both leaders complimented the Tennessee General Assembly, which steadfastly supported the belief that successfully implementing key policy changes could lead to significant student gains.  Private sector leaders, from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the state’s CEOs, have made education reform their top priority.

Finally, bold reform must be balanced with carefully refining sweeping policies and classroom practice.  Tennessee educators, parents, and other stakeholders have reminded us to listen, gather feedback, and, if needed, correct course.   Advocates have a responsibility not just to push for new policies but to make sure those policies work for teachers and students.

Tennessee’s initial success for students is, I hope, a proof point for reform across our nation.  As noted in a recent USA Today column, “You will face pushback. You will get accused of pushing too hard… But education leaders who hold firm with the right reforms will see results.”