Jamie Woodson: Education Success Isn’t the Responsibility of Any One Sector. We Are All Accountable — The ‘A’ Word

Courtesy of Jamie Woodson

This interview is part of The ‘A’ Word series, produced in partnership with the Bush Institute to examine how “accountability” became a “dirty word,” and what can and should be done going forward to ensure accountability withstands the test of a bad reputation. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed, and edited for clarity and length. The same questions, or types of questions, were put to each participant to see what they thought independently and collectively about accountability. Their answers will take the reader into the inner workings of schools, the intricacies of the politics of education, and the ways in which campuses can better serve students. Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations from this part of the series. You can read through interviews from the first part of this series by jumping to the second grid here.

Jamie Woodson served from 2011 through the start of 2019 as the executive chairman and chief executive officer of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Tennessee-based nonprofit and nonpartisan education research and advocacy organization. Before that, the Republican served six years as a Tennessee state senator, including as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. She likewise served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1999 to 2005.

The University of Tennessee graduate elaborates in this ‘A’ Word conversation why accountability is needed to make sure students receive a full year of learning for a year in the classroom. At the same time, accountability needs to create a sense of urgency about getting the right supports to help students receive that full year of learning. She explains in this exchange with us how Tennessee is attempting to make its accountability system and the data it produces work better for the state’s students.

How do you define accountability in education? And tell us if that definition has changed over time.

Accountability has to be centered on what’s best for our students. For us in Tennessee, the purpose of accountability has been to measure whether students are receiving a year of learning for a year in the classroom. Accountability is also about creating support and urgency, so that we can encourage schools and districts to move with a sense of urgency when students aren’t learning.

The definition has changed over time. States now have more flexibility in their accountability measures. The Tennessee Succeeds Plan, which is essentially our [Every Student Succeeds Act] plan, does a better job shining the light on academic growth and achievement of underserved students. And our accountability ratings now more clearly show the stark disparities in achievement in schools and districts. Our plan also had consistent and considerable public input that included six town halls attended by over 1,000 Tennesseans and over 5,000 comments from the public.

The evolution of accountability includes how we identify where we can support educators in the classroom as well at the school and district level. That way, they can meet their students’ needs in a changing environment.


“Our republic’s success depends on our citizens being critical thinkers and problem solvers…. this is a keystone to our nation’s success or failure.”


Whether as a state legislator or in leading SCORE, you had to make decisions and recommendations that impacted students and adults. How did you use accountability practices or policies in guiding those decisions and recommendations?

We think of accountability as a framework in Tennessee. We know it’s essential to raising student achievement, so first we set high expectations for all students, grades, and subjects. And we scaffold those standards so students graduate from high school ready to succeed in postsecondary education and their chosen career.

Second, we use assessment to measure how well our kids are meeting those expectations. And third, accountability is acknowledging when students aren’t meeting the bar and taking steps as communities, districts, and schools to serve them better.

In some ways, this requires us to not blame the background or circumstance of a child but rather focus on what adults should be doing differently with policies and practices. Our teacher evaluation process is an example. We began that process in 2011. It has been refined over time, but we have preserved its focus on ensuring students are learning and growing every year.

Probably 36 percent of our educators in 2011 felt like the evaluation system was improving instruction. That is now up to 72 percent. And 69 percent of our teachers believe that the process improves learning in classrooms, which is what this is all about.

It is not too far back in the rearview mirror to a time when we were very publicly called out for Fs in truth-in-advertising. We were saying that our students were prepared and our standards were up to snuff. And they simply weren’t, compared to our peers across the country. As a result, we facilitated an outside review to determine whether our new standards were as rigorous and challenging as previous standards. We’ve had a pretty sharp lens on making sure that the accountability system has support, both within the public sector and the private sector.

You had a great line about “a year of learning for a year in the classroom.” So how does Tennessee get data to teachers fast enough so they can make sure students get that year of learning for a year in the classroom?

We put student achievement data at the heart of all the policy and advocacy decisions. As an example, our teacher preparation report card showed that only a few of our 40 teacher prep providers were producing candidates who were positively impacting student achievement. So SCORE presented a proposal to improve teacher preparation.

We know that principals are the No. 1 factor in retaining great teachers. We also started thinking about what the data says about our principals and how they spend their time. Tennessee principals self-reported that most of their time is spent on issues that aren’t even related to leading instruction or leading people and the talent in their building. We used data to think about how we could help principals change their focus.

We also know that 34 percent of our kids enter the workforce right after high school. The average salary for those citizens is a little less than $11,000 a year. A citizen clearly cannot be economically independent and participate fully in their community if their annual salary is that low. That data shows why all the component parts of education need to be working well so students can move into postsecondary education and a career.

(Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations)

The 'A' Word Introduction Interview with Bill Haslam Interview with Jamie Woodson Interview with John White Interview with Steve Canavero Interview with Pedro Rivera

Tennessee’s data is the envy of many states, but is there any data point you wish you had?

I love that question. The data point that we are seeking, and I’m not sure that it’s going to be a singular data point, has to do with completing high school successfully. How do we know whether a citizen has a successful chance at gainful employment and economic independence? We know that completing high school is critical. So is access to higher education. But does a citizen have the skills to pursue an independent life full of choice?

Is there a data point or multiple data points that show what true independence for a citizen looks like? We are seeking answers to that question in Tennessee.

So much of this makes sense, but there’s been a lot of pushback against accountability. Where do you think we’ve gone wrong in building support for its concepts? What would help now?

Anybody who’s been in this work has learned many lessons. A big lesson has been that the critical and tough work comes in the classrooms and the schools after a policy is put in place. It is important to ensure that educators’ use of the policy is working for students.

We have tried to honor the important school-level and classroom-level view in thinking about leadership programs. As an example, we have a Tennessee educator fellowship through SCORE, and the Hope Street Group has an educator fellowship. Both have been essential in elevating the voice of student-focused teachers. These programs and others have allowed teachers to be integrated into decision-making more than ever before.

That includes the Teachers’ Cabinet within the governor’s office. The State Board of Education has engaged classroom teachers and school leaders in a variety of policies. And we have a liaison between the schools and the state on our assessment program.

Many of us tend to approach accountability from the head perspective, but accountability touches the heart so much. Many data points can show if a school is persistently failing, but individual students will be hurt the most. So will families who receive report cards that say their child is getting As and Bs, but they realize after high school that she or he may not have the skills needed to succeed.

Our work in Tennessee is not perfect, but we are committed to a cross-sector philosophy of leadership. Education success isn’t the responsibility of any one sector, whether education, government, or philanthropy. There is a genuine belief that we are all accountable.


“Many of us tend to approach accountability from the head perspective, but accountability touches the heart so much. Many data points can show if a school is persistently failing, but individual students will be hurt the most.”


As you consider the state plans ESSA requires, including the continuous improvement process, what are you hopeful about? And what does the continuous improvement process look like in Tennessee?

We’ve seen historic gains, yet so much work remains. We’ve taken ownership through the Tennessee Succeeds Plan to drive improvements and student outcomes.

For us, continuous improvement plans aren’t simply a reflection of a mandate or accountability requirement. Continuous improvement is critical for how we get from where we are to where we want to be for students.

We are excited about how our plan embeds success measures for every school and how they give parents, teachers, and community members greater clarity on whether students are being served well. Schools will have new and clearer data about the academic success of students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students who are English learners. That will help inform their decision-making.

We’re excited about the Ready Graduate initiative we spoke of before. We still think there’s room for clarity and being sure we get what we need out of it. But the initiative increases opportunities for a high school student to earn college credit and industry certification and gain skills that will help them beyond high school.

We’re also excited about the clearer, more comprehensive approach towards turning around chronically low-performing schools. It will be interesting to see how the new collaborations evolve between districts and state-level partners. We are watching that closely.

This work is hard, but we are optimistic because of what we accomplished in the last decade in Tennessee. We have stayed focused on students and tried to let that lead the conversation, even when that means a hard conversation among adults.

If we hold ourselves accountable as partners, that will keep us moving students forward.

Why do you think that ecosystem exists the way it does in Tennessee? It doesn’t necessarily exist in all states.

I can’t speak to the context in other states, but I can about ours. This is about leadership. It has been critical in our research, accountability structures, and school factors that drive student outcomes.

And the leadership has come from different areas. Former governor [Bill] Haslam and Governor [Phil)] Bredesen before him provided strong leadership from the governor’s office. And the talented commissioners and teams at state’s education department have been very important.

Philanthropic and business leaders, as well as policymakers at every level, also have focused on identifying common horizon points, taking the best research and data and using it frequently to inform our decisions, having an appetite for continuous improvement, and holding each other accountable.

That is a unique recipe, but it is possible in any state. It takes leadership at the highest levels to not only serve their own organizations or populations but to also think about the whole and drive forward with partners.

Policies matter, too. Preserving high expectations for students and adults through standards, aligned assessments, and a meaningful educator evaluation system are important. Leadership and policies with a focus on continuous implementation have been at the core of our work and success.

(Click through the grid below to read the ‘A’ Word conversations from the first part of this series)

All of those things are good advice for new governors and policymakers around the country. Is there anything else that you would say to them as they contemplate their education priorities?

After saying “congratulations,” I would say there is no more important job for a governor than the opportunities that exist in education and how they can improve a state and life for its citizens.

In making education a signature issue, I would start with putting students’ interests at the center of all decision-making. That will keep the conversation focused even though important adults also are impacted.

My other advice includes investing well in the policies that will most dramatically advance student achievement growth. Communicating well with the education experts — at the state department of education and in the schools — also matters. Talk to them about how you value them and, most important, listen to their feedback and ideas.

Finally, reach beyond education to build solutions-oriented coalitions. Government has its role, but there are leaders from business and philanthropy who are interested in supporting a strong education vision.

What is at stake for us as a country to get these education issues right? What’s at stake for Tennessee?

What’s at stake is whether we have one decade of success or success for multiple generations for students. It is more important than ever for education to give all young adults and citizens the capacity and freedom to pursue a life of financial and personal fulfillment.

The future of the education profession is at stake as well. We need to recruit the best talent to teach and then support them. After all, they have the most important role in a community. Our republic’s success depends on our citizens being critical thinkers and problem solvers. Not to be overly dramatic, but this is a keystone to our nation’s success or failure.

Is the achievement gap solvable? If so, what it will take?

There is no silver bullet, but there are two areas that stand out in Tennessee. First, we need outstanding preparation programs for teachers and principals and compensation strategies that incentivize the best teachers and leaders to serve in schools where they’re needed most. That particularly includes in economically distressed areas. And we need deeper, more targeted support for teachers and leaders early in their careers.

Second, we need to believe that students can do challenging work. The TNTP report on “The Opportunity Myth” shows how we have failed as adults to believe in them. The report details how students spent more than 500 hours in the school year on assignments that were below grade level. That was because the instruction didn’t ask enough of them. Eighty percent of the teachers surveyed supported standards for college and career readiness, but only half of them thought their students could reach that bar.

That is an expectations gap, and that’s fixable. But it will take a cultural change. We’ve clearly learned in Tennessee that, if you set the bar high, students will meet that bar or exceed it.

Anne Wicks is director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute.

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