This Op-Ed co-authored by Candice McQueen and Jamie Woodson originally appeared in the 5/2/12 Tennessean.

What will the end of the story be?

We ask ourselves that question daily as we make progress toward Tennessee’s bold goals in public education. It is a question we must answer collectively as we visualize a day when all Tennessee children graduate from college and are prepared for the workforce. The story thus far is promising and the work has engaged communities across Tennessee like no other efforts to date.

Heroes and heroines have emerged in this real-life story of education reform, but two of the most dramatic champions for education are already well-known for dedicating their lives and resources to improving education for all.

Jim and Janet Ayers started their work in education with the vision of making higher education more accessible to students in rural West Tennessee. Since its inception, the Ayers Foundation has awarded more than 2,000 college scholarships to students in small communities, and exceeded its goal of at least 75 percent of high school graduates continuing their education after high school.

Last week, Lipscomb University’s College of Education and the Ayers Foundation started a new chapter of this story, announcing a partnership to create the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation, an endeavor supported by a $1 million gift from Jim and Janet Ayers through the Ayers Foundation. This partnership is focused on supporting Tennessee’s teachers, and is built on the research that shows that the most important school-based factor in improving student achievement is a great teacher. The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation will not only translate policy and theory into practice for Tennessee teachers through targeted and continuing professional learning, but it will also provide sustainability for many reform efforts currently under way while looking for new innovative possibilities.

We believe that effective education reform can only happen if teachers are provided with the support, training and learning to continually improve their instruction. Providing robust professional learning and support for teachers by better preparing them for new, higher academic standards, better connecting professional learning to teacher evaluations, and focusing on the challenges of providing meaningful professional learning in rural communities are each priorities for both of us.

As a result, one institute goal is to support teachers with individualized professional learning needs as determined by the new teacher evaluation system and by their own professional learning goals. The Ayers Institute will draw on knowledge and experience gained by Lipscomb’s College of Education in a nationally recognized individualized professional learning program developed for Cameron Middle School in Nashville and other proven strategies.

Other institute plans include high-quality teacher leadership programming centered on student outcomes, and collaboration for greater connectivity between teacher education and K-12 education, especially around the new Common Core standards, higher academic standards that are currently being implemented in classrooms across the state.

The likelihood of a successful ending to the story of Tennessee’s education reform efforts is greater when our work includes more collaboration, more private-public partnerships and better alignment between K-12 and higher education. The efforts of our organizations, state government, school districts and local schools, combined with private-sector support such as the gift from the Ayers Foundation, will foster success and help us see both the possibilities and the road to sustaining them.

The story is far from over, but it certainly keeps getting better every day.

Candice McQueen is the dean of the College of Education at Lipscomb University and Jamie Woodson is president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).