Higher bar

Leadership Summit speaker touts raising academic standards

People in other countries appear to value education and academics more than Americans.

With that statement, the Tennessee State Board of Education executive director Gary Nixon through down the gauntlet to Blount Countians.

“When you look at the support other countries have for academics, it reminds you of the enthusiasm we have for athletics,” said Nixon during the Leadership Summit at Maryville College April 11.

Business leaders, educators and elected officials met for the summit to discuss the importance of education and state-wide educational standards. The Center for Strong Communities and Leadership Blount hosted the event.

Nixon was on hand to talk about new standards being implemented through the Tennessee Diploma Project and the nationwide American Diploma Project.

Nixon said individuals who don’t value education as they should now would come to appreciate it later. “We’re a generation away from having parents who value the education they need,” he said. “The struggles they’re going to find is that they’re going to have to come back and get skills and upgrade skills. They will start to become academic cheerleaders, not because they want to, but because they have to.”

Nixon said in the next 10 years standards must be raised, students must perform better in algebra and biology and more individuals must earn college degrees. “We need to double the number of post secondary degrees,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to get those who aren’t going to college.”

Students must be pushed to perform better in math. “The math curriculum we have today stinks,” he said.

School systems standards in the state need to be pushed higher. “We ought to be comparing how are we doing against national standards,” Nixon said. “My fear is we’ll have a problem matching the rigor in testing with the rigor in standards.”

Four years ago Nixon said he reached a “tipping” point where he realized something needed to be done. He saw a headline that stated companies weren’t coming to the state because there wasn’t enough of an educated workforce.

Nixon said the American Diploma Project adopted by the state would push students more. “It’s more rigorous, but it’s doable. Kids have to engage,” he said of the higher standards. “We need to push them to think, analyze and solve problems.”

Nixon said having an academic and technical diploma tracks will no longer be viable for students and math standards are the same for technical careers as for those attending college.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re the ones who can do it,” he said. “All of us have to step up and make this happen.”

Blount County School Board member Booty Miller agreed with raising standards. “I’ve always been in favor of having K-13 so we could prepare people to go to college,” he said.

Miller said reading is the most important skill learned in school, even before attaining higher-level math skills. “If you can’t read, you can’t do math,” he said.

State Rep. Doug Overbey said it is important step back and look at the “big picture” regarding education in Tennessee, “not look at the trees but look at the forest and the possibilities of what we can achieve working together.”

Dick Ray introduced Nixon and said all children must be prepared for life with a good education. “They have to have a chance. We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Maryville City Schools director Stephanie Thompson said when No Child Left Behind standards were put in place, students began being tested on another criterion. There wasn’t higher-order thinking or problem solving skills tested but rather skill and drill type capabilities.

Raising standards will mean more staff such as guidance counselors will be needed, she said. “At the state level, they’re going to have to put their money where their mouth is and provide funding for teachers, teacher training and additional personnel and staff development,” she said.

Bonny Millard, executive director of the Blount Education Initiative, said the school systems have to continue to improve. “It’s not a one-room school house anymore. You can’t sit still, you have to keep moving,” she said. “If we want jobs for our kids, we’ve got to keep changing.”

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