Last Saturday, hundreds of attendees gathered on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville to participate in Teach For America’s Southern Educational Equity Summit, an all-day conversation about promoting reform across the South. The setting befit the occasion, as many of the most prominent leaders of the Nashville and national civil rights movements began their activism as Fisk students in the 1950s and 60s. Although the country continues to benefit from the nonviolent struggles led by Diane Nash, John Lewis, and many others, students across the South continue to lag behind many of their peers in other regions on measures of achievement and college readiness.

Following a welcome message in which Nashville Mayor Karl Dean articulated the strong connections between public education, public safety, and economic development, Shani Jackson-Dowell, executive director of the Greater Nashville Teach For America corps, led a panel discussion oriented around the question of what it will take to build momentum for expanding educational opportunity in the mid-South. I took two key takeaways from that conversation:

  • Keith Look, principal of The Academy @ Shawnee in Louisville, KY, encouraged the audience by stating, “Good news is not a reason not to act; it compels action.” Although there is lots of good news on education in Tennessee, we are compelled to act by implementing reforms in effective ways that lead to improved student outcomes.
  • Tennessee students suffer a tremendous educational aspiration gap. On an ACT survey, 85 percent of test-takers last year indicated they intended to pursue postsecondary education. Among those test-takers, however, only 15 percent demonstrated readiness for college-level work in all subject areas. We must do a better job preparing the state’s young people for college.

Later in the morning, a panel discussion adroitly moderated by my colleague, David Mansouri, addressed Policymaking and Advocating for Transformational Change in the Southeast. Much of the conversation surrounded issues of teacher quality and support: How do we ensure teachers are adequately prepared and receive high quality professional learning opportunities to meet the many needs of their students in the twenty-first century? Francie Hunt, founder of the Tennessee chapter of Stand for Children, encouraged the audience to remain active advocates for school improvement, either through teaching, public service, or elected office. Emily Shultz, education policy advisor to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, lauded recent reform efforts in Tennessee and discussed Alabama’s growing interest in a broader reform movement of its own.

Over boxed lunches, a group of current and former Teach For America corps members discussed strategies for engaging business and community partners in supporting public education. Former corps members now in the private sector encouraged teachers to address specific requests to potential business partners and to articulate clear connections between the interests of businesses (including improved workforce skills) and school quality.

Ultimately, the summit demonstrated the complexity of education reform, both in the South and nationally. Solutions to the longstanding southern ailments of poor educational attainment must be as varied as the problems are complex. Improving teacher quality and support, engaging business and community partners, learning from the best practices of charter schools and alternative certification programs, and maintaining commitment to reform-oriented policy goals must all be part of Tennessee’s leadership as we strive to be the fastest improving state for public education. This work presents another opportunity for Tennesseans to make an important contribution to the history of the South’s progress toward a more equitable society for all.