By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Education Department on Friday released several strategies to help school districts reach goals set by the state, which U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has singled out as a leader in education reform.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the state will seek to expand students' access to effective teachers and leaders; improve access to good schools; expand educators' access to resources and best practices; and provide better access to information and data.
"Everything we do in this department should be focused on making sure Tennessee kids learn more every day, and Tennessee educators are supported in the important work that they do," Huffman said. "The goals we set out in Race to the Top are our department's goals, and we will work diligently to become the fastest-improving state in the nation."
Recent changes in state law - including toughening the curriculum and teacher evaluations - allowed Tennessee to win $500 million in the national Race to the Top education grant competition.
During a visit to Nashville last month, Duncan applauded Tennessee for what he called courage in making education changes.
In July, preliminary results from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program showed math scores in third through eighth grade improved by 7 percent this year over last year. Reading scores improved by 3.7 percent.
In 18 school systems, student scores improved by 20 percent or more.
Still, the state is only 41 percent proficient in math for those grades, and 48.5 percent in reading. Under guidelines of No Child Left Behind, the state is required to be 60 percent proficient in math next year, 66 percent in reading, and 100 percent in both subjects by 2014.
Duncan acknowledged Tennessee still has a long way to go but said he's confident the state's education changes will produce results.
"I'm absolutely optimistic that Tennessee can improve significantly going forward, and can frankly help lead the country where we need to go," he said.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced that he's allowing states to opt out of No Child Left Behind. Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if the law is not changed.
To get a waiver, states must agree to education reforms the White House favors - from tougher evaluation systems for teachers and principals to programs helping minority students.
Huffman said Friday that undergirding each of the state's strategies is a commitment to improve rural schools and reduce racial and socio-economic achievement gaps.
Tennessee has applied for a waiver but hasn't gotten a response.
Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said that according to the U.S. Education Department, waivers are to be submitted by November so that they can be approved or denied by the end of the year.