Critics like to point out some of the shortcomings of our education system, and we should welcome that debate. A one-size-fits-all system does not work for everyone; it never has and never will. The system will continue to evolve, albeit slowly, and adjustments will always be needed. We should always welcome discussion about public education, which is the highest priority in most communities throughout the state in our country.

My friend, Johnny McDaniel, the director of schools in Lawrence County, utilizes a slogan in his system that is inspiring and worth emulating: “Find the Good and Praise It.” There is so much good to recognize in our state if we only look for it. Educators across Tennessee make a difference in lives every single day one child at a time. We should take a moment to pause to reflect and appreciate our accomplishments.

Since 2010, Tennessee has improved more than any other state according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the nation’s report card. While our scores were indeed flat and even lost some ground in fourth-grade math during the last reported scores, it does not diminish the claim that Tennessee was the fastest improving state in the nation. Tennessee’s fourth-graders ranked 19th in science, while eighth-grade performance ranked 21st. Yes, we have more work to do. However, that was accomplished by the committed effort of educators and policymakers across Tennessee. We have had both hits and misses, but the herculean effort should be recognized. Our progress and momentum in Tennessee continue to move forward, and we are considered a national leader in student-focused education policy.

Tennessee’s high school graduation rate hit a record-high for the 2018-19 school year. That should have been in headlines across the state. The hard work of our students and teachers across the state is truly making a difference. The current rate is 89.7% and that is a remarkable development. Can we continue to improve? Yes. However, it is time we acknowledge the progress in preparing students for postsecondary education and the workforce. Graduation is the first step, and more Tennessee children are graduating from high school. That makes Tennessee an attractive place for the industry looking to locate in our state. A quality education system ultimately provides economic mobility for all of our citizens.

In August 2018, 59 percent of voters surveyed in a poll conducted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) said students are not prepared for the workforce, and nearly half of voters said students are not ready for college. A majority of voters favored four specific readiness strategies: expanding access to post-high school education, more opportunities for students to earn industry certification, having a work-based learning experience, and better college and career counseling for every high school student. Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly are moving to address those issues in our state.

The recently passed Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education, also known as the GIVE Act, is designed to support regional partnerships among schools, industry, and technical colleges. This initiative is destined to develop more work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities. It takes effect on July 2020. If implemented correctly, this should help prepare students for a good job right out of high school. This is a step in the right direction for numerous students across the state.

The reality is that college is not for everyone. It works for many students, but for others, this path is not the best choice. For many, the cost of a college education is too high, and too many young people are attending college and acquiring unnecessary debt – without graduating. We have been guilty too many times in public education of pushing college education exclusively, consequently shortchanging other career paths. Millions of young Americans are still paying the price. We now provide two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee to our students through a program called the Tennessee Promise. In Tennessee, we are addressing college and career by leading the way nationally with Tennessee Promise and the GIVE Act. These innovative programs should be celebrated across the state.

Praise is a powerful tool; it is not used enough in our society. Criticism of things we do not like is an easier vehicle for too many. People in our world are looking for something to be mad about. Me? I am just looking for things to be happy about. Johnny McDaniel is on to something that we should all do more: “Find the Good and Praise It.”

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