Congratulations on your big win. Whether you breezed to re-election, stormed in on a mandate for change, or squeaked it out over a flawed opponent, the seat is yours. The question, now, is what are you going to do with it?
No doubt, you are aware of the significant decline in student outcomes over the past three years. In fact, whoever you are, we can say with certainty that students in your state moved backwards in reading and math; and that the lowest performing students regressed more than the top performing students. Before, it was hard to run a state education system; today, it is harder and the stakes are higher.
What should you do? First — make the clear moral commitment to catch kids up. Announce it, put numbers behind it, and commit to having it at the top of your agenda during your time in office. Pick the most important metrics for your state’s future, and fix them. For example, if 20% of students in your state are scoring at the bottom level of your state’s 3rd grade reading assessment — a measure of functional literacy — commit to cut the illiteracy rate in half. If 8th grade Algebra scores have fallen significantly since 2019, commit to ensuring that the scores return to the previous levels and grow from there.
Second, measure and share the results, rinse and repeat. Commit to the parents of your state that they will know how their children are performing — no spin, real facts in real time. Talk about what the numbers show wherever you go. Highlight the places that are making the most progress. Call out the places that are not catching kids up. You have the bully pulpit — use it to talk about student achievement, not to foment the culture wars.
Third, invest in strategies that are proven to work. Ensure that every school in your state has the resources and training to teach literacy via the science of reading. Use the levers of state funding to incentivize districts and schools to adopt core curriculum that meets a high bar of evidence using Ed Reports or other tools.
Fourth, intervene quickly and aggressively for students who are behind. Tutoring—the focus of my nonprofit—has a strong body of evidence, but is difficult to implement effectively at scale. Narrow the focus, pick a couple of key academic areas and flood the zone with tutoring support using proven strategies. Extending the school day or the school year can also work, with strong academic focus and planning. Those approaches are expensive, but you have resources to spend—spend them on more time and better tools for students in need.
Finally, manage this like your students’ futures depend on it, because they do. Demand to see the numbers— attendance, interim benchmark assessments, end of year tests, spending on effective interventions. Ask questions. I hate to say it, but everyone is incentivized to tell you things are going swimmingly. Trust but verify—the stakes are high.
There is a temptation when faced with a daunting challenge in education to either look for a silver bullet, or to simply put more money into the system as it exists today. Unfortunately, neither of these will solve the challenges in front of you.
However, with clear and measurable goals, a commitment to tracking and management, smart strategies and resource allocation, and a long-term determination to keep going until the job is done, you have a profound opportunity to make a difference in the lives of kids and families. And after all—isn’t that why you ran in the first place?
Kevin Huffman, a former education commissioner of Tennessee, is CEO of Accelerate, a new national nonprofit organization that works to advance educational and economic opportunity.