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Education Secretary Arne Duncan takes his coat off as he arrives to take part in an education forum on Wednesday in Nashville.

NASHVILLE -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged Tennessee educators and policymakers Wednesday to continue reforms and become the fastest-improving state in the union.

"It might not be the highest-performing state tomorrow, but you could be the fastest-improving state in the country," Duncan told a crowd at Nashville's West End Middle School. "You give me and you give the entire country reason to be very, very hopeful."

Duncan attended Wednesday events with Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to mark the state's one-year anniversary of receiving about $500 million in federal Race to the Top money for its educational reform efforts.

The nation's top education leader lauded recent reforms, including the implementation of a teacher evaluation system and the revamping of statewide assessments to be more accurate.

"I think the state has shown tremendous courage," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of the commitment to transforming education here in Tennessee."

But Duncan noted that the state's hardest work still awaits -- work that includes improving low test scores, improving graduation rates and closing achievement gaps.

"There's a lot of hard work. We're not there yet," he said.

Duncan said Tennessee's chances of receiving a waiver from punitive sanctions under the federal government's No Child Left Behind law are very favorable. The governor applied last month for a four-year exemption from the law, seeking to use the state's reformed standards instead of the strict guidelines and benchmarks contained in the law.

"I think Tennessee is going to be in a great, great position to apply for that," Duncan said.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Duncan said the waivers his department grants in coming months will offer flexibility from NCLB's penalties and strict benchmarks for student proficiency, and instead focus almost exclusively on growth and improvement.

"Frankly, we need to get out of the way wherever we can," he said. "We need to be tight on goals, but loose on the means for getting to those goals."

In that call, he criticized the legislation for its "one-size-fits-all" approach to education reform.

"We have a federal law that's an impediment, that's getting in the way of the great work states are doing," he said.

Last year, nearly half of Tennessee schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, as prescribed in NCLB. In Hamilton County, 13 schools missed AYP, putting them in the "target" status, while 19 schools were labeled high priority. Hamilton County and several other metro school districts -- including Memphis, Davidson County and Knox County -- now are identified as high priority, meaning they're at risk of state takeover if scores don't improve.

Huffman called the achievement gap between racial and socioeconomic groups "staggering." He said all educators would have to deeply focus on improving achievement for every single Tennessee student.

"We cannot get where we want to go as a state unless deep in our hearts we truly believe that every student can learn," he said.

In an afternoon discussion with rural school and business leaders at Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center, several officials -- including Director of Bradley County Schools Johnny McDaniel -- imparted the important role federal dollars play in smaller districts.

Duncan said he supports federal money, such as that used for vocational programs, and warned against cutting education spending at the national, state or local level. He said education spending should be seen as an investment, not an expense.

"I worry a lot about our country if we start scaling back on education," he said. "Other countries aren't doing that."

Contact Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or