STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Tennessee once lagged Michigan in education. Now it's a national leader, while Michigan falls behind

flickr/Brad Montgomery

Going to college may soon get a lot easier – if you live in Tennessee. 

The Tennessee Legislature is moving forward on a proposal that would offer two free years of community college enrollment to any high school graduate in the state. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam first introduced the idea during his state of the state speech in February. Haslam calls the plan the "Tennessee Promise" (sound familiar?). According to a fact sheet released by Haslam's office, about 25,000 students are expected to apply, at an annual cost to the state of about $34 million. Haslam proposes paying for the Tennessee Promise through an endowment created with state lottery funds. 

"Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors," Haslam said in his state of the state address. "Net cost to the state, zero. Next impact on our future, priceless." 

Other states, including Mississippi and Oregon, are considering their own plans to make community college free to students. But Tennessee's plan is farthest along, and it's on track to be approved this year. 

If you're surprised that Tennessee would be the state leading the way on this kind of plan, you shouldn't be. The Tennessee Promise is just the latest proposal that puts the state ahead of the pack on education investments. 

Some education leaders in Michigan say Tennessee is now a model for how our policy should move forward. 

Last week, The Education Trust-Midwest, a non-partisan advocacy group in Royal Oak, put out a report on how Michigan is failing to keep up with other states in K-12 student achievement. The report described the past decade in Michigan as an "education recession." But at the same time Michigan was falling behind, Tennessee was bounding ahead. 

In 2013, Tennessee students led the nation in improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test which is commonly referred to as "The Nation's Report Card." 

And this growth wasn't a one-time event. Tennessee has been on a long march toward improvement relative to other states. As researchers from The Education Trust-Midwest wrote in their report: 

"Once lower-achieving than Michigan, Tennessee is now out-performing our state on the national assessment. In 2003, Tennessee's average score in fourth-grade math was eight points lower than Michigan's, and the state ranked 43rd in the country – well below Michigan's rank of 27th. Ten years later, Tennessee had gained 12 points compared to Michigan's one-point gain, and the state ranked 37th compared to Michigan's 42nd on the 2013 national assessment."

Tennessee is also outpacing Michigan when it comes to certain subgroups of students, including African-Americans. This chart, once again from The Education Trust-Midwest report, shows how African-American students in Tennessee leapfrogged Michigan in the NAEP 8th grade math assessment: 

Credit The Education Trust-Midwest

So how has Tennessee made these improvements? By investing in good data, and teacher improvement. 

A statement from Tennessee's State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) after the release of last year's NAEP results summarizes the changes: 

Tennessee created a new teacher evaluation system to identify and support great teaching, raised academic standards – most recently through Tennessee's Common Core State Standards, and intentionally used data to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.

Tennessee and Michigan actually both passed teacher evaluation reforms in the same year: 2011. But the differences in how each state implemented the laws have been immense. Michigan has used its teacher reform law mainly to punish and then fire bad teachers. Tennessee used its law to identify good teaching practices, and train all teachers to get better.

According to The Education Trust-Midwest, Tennessee invested $15 million to train teachers on new, tougher standards. What has Michigan done? Not much.

Gov. Snyder proposed spending $27.8 million in next year's budget to fund training and evaluation for both teachers and administrators. But the state House and Senate cut that funding from their budget proposals. 

There's no proposal for anything like the "Tennessee Promise" to pay for Michigan students to go to college. Michigan did once have a scholarship program called the "Michigan Promise." It ended in 2009. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.