Tennessee’s Education Turnaround is No Coincidence


In 2006, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to look closely at our nation’s educational effectiveness on a state-by-state basis. To do this, we used a variety of factors to grade each state and the District of Columbia on their respective K–12 school systems in order to identify both the leaders and the laggards in school performance. The inaugural Leaders & Laggards report card was released in 2007, providing many states with a sobering look at their education systems.

One such state was Tennessee, which ranked near the bottom of all the states and received failing grades from the U.S. Chamber in the following categories:

  • Academic Achievement of Low-Income and Minority Students
  • Truth in Advertising About Student Proficiency
  • Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness

“When I took office, we weren’t doing very well in education,” said former Governor, Phil Bredesen. “There certainly were some bright spots, but across the state and against measures nationally, Tennessee was a laggard.”

The Tennessee business community also knew that drastic changes were needed if the state was going to compete economically.

“The first thing we did was recognize there was a problem,” said Mike Edwards, president of the Knoxville Chamber. “It sounds trite, but it is amazing how long we were in denial.”

“In many ways, the Leaders & Laggards report was a catalyst for tremendous change in how we view expectations for students,” said Jamie Woodson, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

Led by former Governor Bredesen, and with the strong support of the business community and education community, the state began implementing policy changes in education.

Tennessee adopted the American Diploma Project which outlined the end-of-high school expectations in mathematics and English language arts and was the precursor to the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010. 

“Education reform has got to be about picking a course of action and sticking with it over a long period of time; not just letting it flow back and forth when you get a new governor,” said Bredesen.

So, when the baton was passed to current Governor Bill Haslam, he continued the education reforms in place and even expanded to new areas. Governor Haslam enacted teacher tenure reform and charter school expansion and has remained steadfast in his commitment to the Common Core.

“We’ve raised our expectations for our students, we’ve raised our expectations for our teachers, and we’ve raised them for families,” said Governor Haslam.

The reforms in Tennessee are paying off, and in a big way. Recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that students in Tennessee made tremendous strides since 2011—the most in the nation.

“Our students made more progress over the last two years than students in any other state,” said Haslam.

“There’s no way in the world to have the largest gains in the country and the largest gains in the history of NAEP and it be a quirk, an anomaly,” said Edwards. “This happened very deliberately.”

The reforms enacted by both Governors Bredesen and Haslam have given Tennessee’s students what all states should strive to provide their students—the promise of opportunity and success beyond high school. Since Tennessee was one of the early adopters of Common Core, students and their families are seeing the results of setting higher standards that are aligned to college and career.

“We are now in the third year of implementation of Common Core,” said Governor Haslam. “The training of our teachers and the standardization of what the expectations would be of our students, I think has made a dramatic difference.”

We do, too. 


To learn more, please visit ProfilesOfChange.org.