As Candice McQueen marked her first anniversary as Tennessee’s education commissioner in January, teachers and policymakers alike praised her ability to gracefully navigate the state’s fractious education community.
And then, the computers crashed.
Just as the state’s long-awaited TNReady test was being rolled out, a major network outage halted the state’s transition to online testing on its first day on Feb. 8. The debacle smelled of incompetence at top levels and has threatened McQueen’s sterling reputation as the right leader to fortify Tennessee’s public education system following five years of unprecedented change.
Teachers, parents and students are furious that, after considerable local investment of money and time preparing for the online assessment, the state did not hold up its part of the deal — to develop a functional test. The fury is compounded by a general perception that the State Department of Education focuses too much on tests anyway.
Even so, frustrated educators are quick to laud McQueen’s quick response after realizing that TNReady’s technical problems went beyond isolated glitches.
“There was a decisive letter written about here’s what we were going to do,” said Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville. “It wasn’t, ‘We’ll get back to you in two weeks.’ It was ‘No, I see how this didn’t work, and we’re not going to just do something that’s not working because that’s what we wanted to do.’”
While students and teachers have been significantly impacted by the TNReady failure, Kessler gives McQueen high marks for managing the crisis.
“Too often when there’s a problem, everyone wants to spend time putting spin on it and, with her, I feel like it isn’t about spin; it’s about communicating,” Kessler said.
Communication has been a hallmark of McQueen’s first year as commissioner — not just top-down communication but creating an environment where educators’ concerns are heard and considered.
That is antithesis of the perception of McQueen’s predecessor, Kevin Huffman, who resigned at the end of 2014 after implementing sweeping changes during his four-year tenure highlighted by Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, particularly those related to teacher evaluations that now are tied to student performance. To implement such changes, Huffman, a lawyer and former Teach For America executive originally from Ohio, faced the steady ire of teachers who complained that he was antagonistic in his dealings with educators and out of touch with Tennessee schools.
Enter McQueen, then 40, a former classroom teacher from Clarksville, Tenn., who spent most of her career training teachers at Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. While attempting to hold the line on changes ushered in by Huffman, McQueen began her tenure in January of 2015 by announcing her plan to visit every school district in Tennessee. She has steadily done just that, while also convening teacher-dominated task forces and advisory groups, and initiating personal conversations with stakeholders from students to superintendents.
Despite TNReady travails, hiccups over student test scores, the state’s generally stagnant reading levels and her commitment to controversial policies, McQueen has emerged as a shining star for stabilization to Huffman’s lightning rod for change.
“I don’t always agree with her, but I absolutely love her,” says J.C. Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.
Brandi Stroeker, a teacher in Memphis for 10 years, agrees. She says the work of state education leaders typically feels remote to the work she does in her classroom, but not McQueen. “Since she’s been in office, our voice is heard more,” said Stroeker, a teacher at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, where McQueen visited last year. “Now (the department) is reaching out to us, asking us, ‘What do you need?’”
Speaking in January to education students at Lipscomb University, McQueen said building relationships has been the primary focus of her first year. She acknowledged that fast-moving changes to state education policy in the last decade have sometimes bred confusion and even contempt from educators, politicians and parents. And she enumerated some of those shifts: new standards (twice), changes in tenure, changes in teacher evaluations, the expansion of charter schools, and creation of a state-run district aimed at turning around chronically underperforming schools.
“The intensity of change in Tennessee was being felt when I entered office,” McQueen recalls. “I wanted to see how implementation was happening, and what was happening on the ground.”
During her Classroom Chronicles tour, McQueen has heard repeated concerns about new state policies, especially related to testing. Such visits have been welcomed by educators, even when they wish McQueen would loosen her stance on including student test scores in teacher evaluations.
“She’s going across the state; she sees what’s actually happening,” Kessler said. “I think if I were to call her today, … she’s probably outside in some schools talking to some kids. That speaks volumes to me.”
Concerned about complaints of over-testing, McQueen created a task force last March to study the issue. Comprised of teachers, principals, researchers, elected officials and a high school student, the group recommended working with districts to limit standardized tests throughout the year and publicly releasing past standardized test questions in order to increase testing transparency. Nearly all of the panel’s recommendations are in the process of being implemented, either through the governor’s proposed budget or bills winding through the state legislature.
Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative for Reforming Education, said the task force set the tone for McQueen’s leadership style. “She brought together not just a departmental team but, from students to teachers to partners in the work, those who she knew would have valuable perspective,” Woodson said.
McQueen also learned from communication missteps, like when the State Department of Education failed last summer to communicate a change in how students’ scores on end-of-year tests were calculated. She has tried to increase communication to districts and principals and in January launched “McQueen Minutes,” brief video updates on the department’s work.
Her greatest communication tool, she said, has been the development of a five-year strategic plan outlining the department’s priorities for Tennessee’s schools, including district empowerment, postsecondary achievement, limiting achievement gaps and literacy. The plan was influenced by feedback during her “listening tour” and from superintendents across Tennessee.
“I knew immediately, when you think about the length of Tennessee and the number of districts we have, you have to create something that brings them together and aligns them around the same work,” McQueen said.
Kingsport City School Superintendent Lyle Ailshie says the strategic plan has set McQueen apart from any other commissioner he’s worked with.
“I remember clearly when she spoke to (the state’s superintendents) the first time as an entire group, and she laid out her five priority areas and how ‘all means all,’ and what we need to reach into our classrooms,” he said. “She really asked for feedback and took the time to say, ‘Hey, send me suggestions, not only today, but any time.’”
READ OUR CHALK TALK Q&A WITH MCQUEEN AS SHE BEGAN HER JOB IN JANUARY 2015.
If McQueen’s focus on listening is what defined her first year, her focus on literacy is likely to define her second. This week, Gov. Bill Haslam, who appointed McQueen, will launch the state’s expansive $9 million literacy initiative that addresses a broad swath of Tennessee students, from infants to adults. McQueen has called Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores “a true ethical and moral dilemma.”
Improving the reading skills of Tennessee students is one of McQueen’s top priorities for 2016. Others include the transition to the state’s TNReady test and supporting teachers during the rollout of revised math and English standards. She’ll also keep a close eye on what’s going on in schools by dispatching the department’s senior leadership team to shadow high school students.
“We will improve student outcomes. … We will get more students to college,” she said. “We will continue to improve in our national rankings on the National Report Card, based on the improvements I know we will make on closing achievement gaps, and increasing growth for those who are farthest behind, particularly in the area of reading.”
“Why do I know we will do this? Because I’ve been around the state,” she told the Lipscomb students. “I’ve been in your classrooms, and I’ve been in your schools, and I’ve been in your communities.”