This Op-Ed appeared in Sunday’s Tennessean.

Earlier this month, the Tennessee Department of Education released our state’s 2011 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Tennessee students SCOREd about the same as two years ago.

But by standing still, we dropped in the national rankings — from 45th to 46th in the nation in fourth-grade math, and 34th to 41st in eighth-grade reading. These results remind us that our work has just begun to ensure every child graduates from high school prepared for post-secondary education and the workforce.

Still, it has been encouraging to see the growing sense of urgency among Tennesseans to make meaningful improvements in public education for our state’s highest-need students. We know that to create a truly effective system it will require hard work, collaboration, sound policies, and most certainly the energy of strong leaders in our classrooms.

In 2009, SCORE issued its “Roadmap to Success.” Based on the consensus of state education, political, business and community leaders, it detailed more than 60 policy recommendations aimed at embracing high academic standards, cultivating strong school and district leaders, ensuring excellent teachers are in every classroom, and using data to enhance student learning.

One of the key recommendations in SCORE’s report was a charge to ensure that teacher training programs in our state are producing high-quality teacher candidates who meet the needs of local school districts. We proposed revising the “teacher training report card” to measure the success and effectiveness of teachers in the classroom after they have completed teacher training programs.

The 2011 Tennessee Higher Education Commission Teacher Training Program Report Card, also released this month, provides vital information on teachers who graduate from a range of training programs. Of the state’s 43 programs, three stand out: Teach For America Memphis, Teach For America Nashville and Lipscomb University.

The report says these programs “tend to produce teachers with higher student achievement gains than veteran teachers.” For example, 52 percent of Teach For America Nashville teachers ranked above the 80th percentile in effectiveness, and 64 percent of Teach For America Nashville algebra teachers ranked in the 80th percentile or higher.

While the Report Card is only one source of information regarding teacher preparation programs, the information should not be ignored. Research shows that effective teaching is the top school-based factor in improving student achievement. Learning what works and what doesn’t to successfully prepare teachers for the classroom can improve the quality of instruction for more of our students.

Ultimately, Tennessee must continue seeking robust approaches to bring in new talent, and support teachers and administrators to meet the educational challenges our state faces. Innovative traditional preparation programs, as well as alternative pathways to teaching and leadership, are both important pieces of this complex puzzle.