There’s a saying that education is inherently local. Last week, I realized that instituting a culture change to improve education is inherently local as well.
This past week, I attended a community partners meeting that Nashville Public Television was holding as part of a national initiative to improve high school graduation rates. We spent the first part of the meeting going over some statistics that have become all too familiar to me over the last few years. In particular, the fact that although the vast majority of students say they expect to earn a high school diploma (92 percent), one out of every four students nationally will fail to graduate on time. Put another way, that’s more than 1.3 million students each year who are failing to achieve the minimum requirement to compete in the global economy. We spent part of the meeting brainstorming reasons why students in Tennessee decide to drop out of high school. The reasons I heard – that teachers have low expectations for students or that what students are learning is irrelevant to their future careers – were familiar as well. Which is exactly what was so shocking about it.
This conversation would not have surprised me if I were in another state. But Tennessee, I believed, was different. When I lived in Washington, D.C., researchers and policymakers lauded Tennessee for its progress in dramatically improving its high school graduation rate. Between 2002 and 2008, Tennessee’s graduation rate improved more than 15 percentage points – more than any other state in the nation. (Currently, the state’s graduation rate stands at 85.5 percent). Since 2008, the growing link between a quality education and economic opportunity has been a motivator for significant educational reforms in our state. As employers require more advanced levels of education than ever before, state leaders have risen to the challenge by increasing expectations of what students should learn before they earn a high school diploma, providing educators with access to data to create targeted academic interventions, and taking an aggressive approach to turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, which produce the most dropouts. Not only will these actions accelerate improvements in our high school graduation rate, but they will also ensure that more of our students have the skills they need to successfully complete college or postsecondary training and compete in the global economy. In short, Tennessee has set big goals for our students and we’re starting to see some real improvements.
As I’ve moved through my professional career, I’ve been able to witness not only how long it takes policy to be implemented at the state and local level, but also how long it takes for these policies to have an impact on practice and, more importantly, attitudes. Our conversation reaffirmed that even though we are beginning to have big impacts on our students, when it comes to instituting a culture in which everyone believes that our students can achieve great things, we can’t let our outcomes speak for themselves. We will have to be creative in the ways we communicate about successes – and remaining challenges – as a state. In addition to newspapers and social media, we need to enlist the help of local non-profits, the faith-based community, television stations, and any other avenues where people spend their time. Although education is a local enterprise, those of us at the national and state levels need to do our part to ensure that culture change in support of our education system is taking root at the local level. The success of our students, and ultimately our state, depends on it.