The Knox County Schools has enjoyed a strong history and proud tradition of academic success, educational innovation, and instructional leadership. As we look to the future, and consider the challenges that face our children, our community and our nation, we know that we must accelerate our progress, but this rich tradition of achievement will be the foundation upon which we build our path to excellence for all children.
Over the last 100 working days, I have reviewed our performance data and spoke with hundreds of teachers, parents and students, as well as community leaders and educational experts. I have listened to and learned from the people of Knox County, and I have visited more than half of our schools. I have found:
• We are fortunate to have talented and committed people
• We care about our students and their learning
• Our parents and community are deeply committed to the education of our children
• Our current level of funding for public education is less than optimal
• We are innovative and open to good ideas
• Our teachers are competent and caring, but largely do not work collaboratively
• Our community is generally quite satisfied with the current level of student achievement
• We have the potential and capacity to achieve much more
• At all levels, we need and desire strong leadership, clear direction, and a bold vision for the future.
Much of what I have seen of our school system has been encouraging, but my observations have led me to an important conclusion: we can do better, and indeed, we must. After much careful consideration, I offer this vision for our future:
I envision a future for the Knox County Schools where all of our students achieve at high levels and every school is a school of distinction; a future where high expectations and teacher collaboration are universal, and where data and technology are leveraged to improve instruction and deliver services at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. I believe that innovation and creativity will be the hallmarks of our school district: in teaching, in management and particularly in student learning. Parents, community members, universities and businesses will all be active, engaged partners in the education of our young people. Financial resources will be tightly aligned to support our educational mission. Children will begin their education at an early age, and high quality instruction, rigorous curriculum, and high standards will permeate the educational landscape from early education to graduation. High school students will have multiple options and pathways of high-level coursework to achieve a meaningful and valuable diploma. All of our teachers will be outstanding instructional practitioners and will be selected, inducted, supported, promoted, evaluated and compensated as professionals. Achievement gaps based on income, race, geography, language or disability will be reduced and ultimately eliminated as all students demonstrate mastery of our challenging curricular standards. All of our students will graduate high school ready for college, career and life. In short, I envision a future where we will achieve academic excellence for all of our children.
We will only achieve this vision if our entire community works together to support outstanding public education. In order to make this vision a reality, we must focus on several critical areas involving our three primary stakeholder groups: Students, Parents & Community, and Educators. We must also be attentive to two other overarching considerations: Infrastructure and Accountability.
Student academic development and achievement is our core mission. We must ensure that every student achieves academically, and therefore has full access to post-secondary learning opportunities, a rewarding career, a meaningful role in our democracy, and an enlightened and fulfilling life.
Many of our students are not being challenged to their highest potential. All students must have access to rigorous coursework and academic opportunities, and our expectations and standards for our students must be universally high. Achievement gaps defined by income, race, geography, language or disability are unacceptable and must be eliminated. We will ensure that the instruction in every classroom every day reflects our belief that all students can master advanced content and concepts and become exceptional learners.
At the beginning of a student’s academic life, we will continue to provide strong early childhood support and instruction. We know the early years are critical, and we must partner with parents to make sure all of our children are ready to learn as they begin their formal education.
On the other end of the academic continuum, our high schools must be an area of intense focus. Our current graduation rate of 79% is simply not acceptable. Too many students get behind and off the path to graduation by earning too few credits in their early high school experience. We need to respond to this by creating additional pathways to successful graduation, focusing on the transition from middle school, and structuring our high schools to support excellence.
Knox County’s urban schools have been the focus of substantial resource and personnel investments. The variety and disparate focus of the programs, initiatives and organizations serving our inner-city schools has caused some programmatic, instructional and organizational dissonance. We must better align and direct the support to our urban schools. Magnet school programs should be updated and given our earnest commitment. With our rich regional expertise, the Knox County Schools should consider developing a stand-alone magnet technology high school.
To meet the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves, we must invest in our human capital, our people. We must have the highest quality and most effective teachers, administrators and support staff. We must recruit, select, induct, develop, support, promote, compensate and retain our people with a focus on quality and instructional improvement.
Effective leadership at all levels of our school system will be a key to our success. We will need to more purposefully grow our own outstanding principals, and better support those who are currently doing this critical job. Providing opportunities for teachers to demonstrate leadership in their schools will also help us to be more effective educationally.
A culture of collaboration and focus on student learning will help us to ensure high quality instruction in every classroom every day. Teachers will be expected to work together to improve their instructional skills through professional learning communities (PLCs), and the school system will also support teachers in improving their pedagogy. But we will aggressively evaluate and dismiss those few teachers who, even with support, are chronically ineffectual. High expectations, high standards, accountability, quality curriculum, excellent instruction and active student learning will be the hallmarks of our continued and improved success.
We simply do not pay our teachers enough for the challenging and important job they do so well. While the current fiscal environment makes any significant compensation adjustment unlikely in the short-term, I believe our future success will be dependent upon our investing in our educators, while simultaneously holding them to very high standards of excellence and accountability.
Parent and Community Engagement
Parent and community engagement is critical to high level student achievement. We must provide parents the tools to be meaningfully involved in the education of their children. For our parents and families to be engaged they must have the information, tools, and access to extend the classroom to the kitchen table.
Just as parents are critical collaborators, community partners, businesses, higher education, citizens and taxpayers are all important players in supporting our instructional efforts. We must create both structured and informal opportunities for interested community stakeholders to engage in the educational life of our schools and school system. The Great Schools Partnership (GSP) has been a useful structure for education reform in Knoxville. The GSP should model itself as more of a local education fund, while retaining its central mission of supporting educational improvement in the Knox County Schools.
In this context, infrastructure refers to all of the critical activities and support necessary to undergird the core academic work that we must undertake. Operational infrastructure issues such as technology, resources, equity, data and analytical capacity, governance, human capital, organizational structure, safety and facilities must be addressed if we expect to be successful in our instructional pursuits.
Limited resources are a fact of life in public education. However, some of our most needed reforms will not cost a cent. While we will face difficult fiscal challenges in the coming months and years, we will work to ensure that our budget process is equitable and transparent, and that all of our resources are properly aligned and focused squarely on our educational mission.
Our work must not be measured exclusively in terms of effort and intention, but primarily in terms of results and outcomes. Accountability means measuring all that we do in terms of impact on student learning, and using data and outcome information to hold ourselves and our students to specific standards of performance.
The Knox County Schools has already taken a huge step forward in defining accountability for our entire educational community. The goal of “100-90-90-90” has been the school system’s battle cry for the past few years. This bold, measurable goal statement sets our educational objectives as:
• 100% of our students will complete high school,
• at least 90% will graduate with a regular diploma,
• at least 90% of those will take the ACT, and
• at least 90% of our ACT takers will score a 21 or better.
I believe these outcome measures should remain at the forefront of our instructional discourse, as the simple yet powerful guiding parameters which focus our work and define our future success.
Accountability also dictates that the interests of our children must always come first. Their interests must supersede politics, adult convenience, competition for influence and control, and all personal differences. Ultimately, any distraction from our core educational mission will be problematic; one of our own making will be simply unacceptable.
The Knox County Schools is a fundamentally sound school district with almost limitless potential. In the coming months, we will develop a comprehensive strategic plan that will include specific objectives, metrics and timelines to achieve this vision. In Knox County, our collective future depends on moving from a relatively strong school system, to one which is truly outstanding. To do so, our entire community must be engaged in the reform and improvement effort. Achieving excellence for all students will be difficult, perhaps even painful at times, but it is what we must do to ensure a brighter future for our children, and our community.