Policies and programs aimed at improving high school graduation rates, developing quality teachers and aligning curriculum with college and work force needs have earned Tennessee and Georgia top grades in a national evaluation.
In Georgia, a new standards-based curriculum has been rolled out over several years, and in Tennessee curriculum changes are getting under way. Each state’s curriculum has been designed with postsecondary training in mind, educators said.
“I want my students to have a foundation that will serve them if they go to college or a two-year school or straight to work,” said Danny Coggins, principal of Walker Valley High School in Bradley County, Tenn.
“Businesses tell us that it is not about regurgitated knowledge. It is about critical thinking skills. They want them to know how to apply that knowledge.”
The report card was released by Education Week, a national publication that covers educational policy and research.
Educators said states are eliminating the old split between college and vocational preparation. A student who wants to be an automobile mechanic must be able to read complicated material and be knowledgeable about computers, the same skills that are needed in college.
Across the state lines, high schools are offering credit recovery classes, before- and after-school tutoring, career academies that blend academics and technology. Those programs earned Georgia a B and Tennessee an A in work force transitions and alignment, according to the report.
Catoosa County, Ga., educators are looking for ways to serve nontraditional students who are at risk of not graduating because high schools can’t meet their needs. The district’s partnership with Northwestern Technical College, for example, allows students to take college courses at the same time they work on a high school diploma, educators said.
The focus on standards for assessments and accountability earned both states an A-minus.
Tennessee and Georgia had standardized testing in place long before the federal No Child Left Behind act was passed in 2001, educators said.
Tennessee is ahead of other states with its testing program, which also links student achievement to teachers. Developed from Tennessee’s Value Added Assessment, the program shows how teachers can move student achievement, Department of Education spokeswoman Rachel Woods said.
Georgia’s testing program was revised to reflect its new standards, Georgia educators said. The tests are given in every grade and students must pass them to move to the next grade.
Georgia outperformed Tennessee in teacher improvement, making a B compared to Tennessee’s C, but both states have made substantial commitments to teacher training, the report stated.
Marion County, Tenn., school Superintendent Mark Griffith said that Tennessee has upped its support for teacher training.
“We have to provide teachers with resources and training,” Mr. Griffith said. “And (Gov. Phil Bredesen) has said we can use some of the new dollars we received (from the state) this year for professional development.”
Gov. Bredesen provided additional money for districts based on the numbers of students who are at risk, come from low-income families, who have learning disabilities and for whom English is a second language.
Polk County, Tenn., Schools Director James Jones said under Gov. Bredesen’s “BEP 2.0” reforms, “we received a good chunk of money that we had to be accountable with and tell the state how we are going to use it to improve student achievement.”
He said there’s lots more teacher training, and it’s offered during in-service days or during the day, with substitutes watching classes.
“We are not asking teachers to stay after work until 7:30 p.m. That’s not right,” he said.
Neither state scored well on the K-12 achievement area but educators said many programs focus on making the connection from preschool to graduation day.
“As educators we know certain children tend to be identified as dropouts by the time they reach middle school,” said Wanda Janeway, principal of Rossville, Ga., Middle School.
“If a child is a couple of years behind academically, or has poor attendance or is a huge disciplinary problem ... he or she is going to have trouble getting out of school,” Ms. Janeway said.
Georgia has approved funding for graduation coaches to ensure middle and high school students stay on track to graduate.
“We have college students come in to speak to our students,” she said. “We are planning a career fair and the principal of the ninth-grade academy will come speak to our eighth-graders.”
The coaches look for creative ways to engage the students, Ms. Janeway said. Coach Patti Francis got the Jostens Co. to donate three caps and gowns.
“We designated one for each grade level and the sixth-graders signed one with the year they will graduate, and so on,” she said. “The parents signed a note pledging to support their child. We have the gowns on display in the lobby.”