Tennessee schools have posted gains in the past decade, but state Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen says she wants to see more.
"We've had improvements, but I want to share the reality," McQueen told members of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga on Thursday. "We have a lot of room for improvement."
As Rotary members munched on salads and sipped iced tea, McQueen told them how Tennessee schools continue to rank in the bottom half of states on the nation's report card, and that in the fall of 2014, 43 percent of recent high school graduates were not enrolled in any post-secondary program.
A post-secondary program is any technical or degree program, and McQueen said it is important that K-12 education helps prepare students to enter and complete those degrees or certificates that give them pathways to careers.
In 2008, the state tracked 71,403 freshmen, and out of that group of students, 13 percent didn't receive a high school diploma, 56 percent went on to enroll in a post-secondary program and 31 percent went straight to work, McQueen said.
Out of those who went straight into jobs, McQueen said many work in the fast-food industry, earning an average annual income of $9,161 — not a livable wage.
"We know post-secondary matters," McQueen said.
She said the Tennessee Department of Education is working to ensure every student receives a strong K-12 education, setting them up for success after crossing the stage at high school graduation. She wants schools to offer students more opportunities to do college-level work before graduating high school and increase the number of early industry credentials offered to high school students.
McQueen mentioned that many of the goals the state is working toward are shared here in Hamilton County with the Chattanooga 2.0 movement, which is working to improve public education and develop a more prepared workforce.
Hamilton County school board member Donna Horn said she was disappointed with McQueen's speech.
"I was hoping she would have come with more information specific to Hamilton County," Horn said.
TNReady, the state's new standardized assessment, was mentioned only briefly, and Horn said after all the problems with the test's roll-out this year she expected an apology from McQueen.
"There wasn't even a mention about how things are going to be improved for next year," Horn said.
Near the end of McQueen's speech, she talked about the importance of school districts working in partnership with the state.
"Whatever the state's vision is is meaningless, unless you take this on and create your own vision in the district," McQueen said. "Obviously, make sure there is alignment, but your vision for your area is actually more important than our vision as the whole state."
McQueen said she wants the state's role to be to support school districts' visions and ensure that each student across the state is receiving an equitable education.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.