In seven years, I have learned a tremendous amount about education in Tennessee. I have had the honor to work in education at the classroom level as a Nashville teacher, at the state level for the State Board of Education, and at SCORE as an education advocate. It has reinforced my belief that all three sectors must work together to achieve better educational opportunities and outcomes for all Tennessee students.

Below are seven key lessons I have learned about Tennessee’s bold and innovative progress to move the needle for students.

  1. Teachers are the most important in-school factor for student achievement. I experienced a fundamental shift in my understanding of education during my three years teaching fifth grade. I was raised by a multitude of strong educators in my family, but it wasn’t until I had my own students and my own classroom that I fully understood the deep impact a teacher has on a student. Teaching, in my opinion, is one of the most critical jobs. I witnessed a direct correlation between my growth as an educator and my students’ growth in my classroom. I have also seen the same in my husband’s classroom. Because of this impact, it is crucial that Tennessee continues to focus on the recruitment and retention of effective, diverse educators.
  2. High-quality instructional materials are a game-changer for student success. I could tell a distinct difference in academic achievement for my students when I used high-quality materials in my classroom. Finding and utilizing strong curriculum and materials changed the game for my students. My experience was reinforced by the work happening in the Tennessee LIFT Network. These districts are improving literacy with high-quality instructional materials and teacher support in using the materials. The student progress is remarkable.
  3. Strong school leaders matter significantly for both students and teachers. I was so fortunate to have a strong school leader during my time in the classroom. I grew so much as an educator under her leadership and guidance. SCORE recently highlighted the critical finding that principals are second only to teachers in their impact on students. There has been an important shift in the last few years to focus on ensuring every Tennessee school is led by an effective school leader.
  4. Tennessee has a strong foundation of student-focused policies and practices. My time working at the Tennessee State Board of Education coincided with Tennessee’s change to more rigorous academic standards. This shift of raising expectations with more college and career ready standards was a critical component of Tennessee’s strong foundation for student success. The standards coupled with a high-quality, aligned assessment and a multiple-measure accountability system that provides feedback to educators has led Tennessee students to greater academic success.
  5. Educator voice is essential. I worked alongside talented and dedicated educators during my first three years in Tennessee. My journey came full circle when I got to work with the Tennessee Educator Fellows, who were focused on growing as strong advocates for their students. It has never been more apparent to me that educators are relentlessly driven to improve outcomes for their students. Watching two cohorts of passionate educators grow as advocates was an incredible honor and cemented in me the value of educator voice.
  6. Improving student achievement is not a siloed endeavor. To help Tennessee students become the best in the nation, all sectors must work together. My time at SCORE culminates in a new, third lens with which I view education policy and advocacy. I have realized that it will take not just schools and teachers but the state working in conjunction with partners to lift all students to greater academic achievement. Community partners play a really big role in success for students – especially as Tennessee begins to focus more on preparing students for college, career, and life.
  7. All students deserve a high-quality education that prepares them for a successful life. My belief in this has not changed. In fact, it has only been strengthened throughout my time in Tennessee. Tennessee students deserve our very best every single day. I have no doubt that one day Tennessee students will be the best in the nation. There are many organizations working alongside schools, districts, the Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to ensure that every student will lead a successful life.

I have been fortunate to work with passionate and student-focused people at every stage of my career. I know that Tennessee students have an incredibly bright future and I look forward to watching the trailblazing progress Tennessee will continue to make.

McKenzie Manning was SCORE Deputy Director of Communications from 2017 to 2019 and is a SCORE consultant.