When it comes to education, Tennessee has room for improvement. The Volunteer State is ranked 49th in the country for producing college and career ready students. Teach for America and UT Career Services hosted a discussion to address this issue last Thursday in the University Center's Hermitage Room.
The event started with a presentation on the issues facing education in Tennessee. Today, only 31 percent of adults in the state hold an associate's degree or higher. In 2011, only 66 of 1000 seniors at Nashville's five highest-poverty high schools earned an ACT score that indicated they were ready to enter college or a start a career. In Memphis, only four percent of students graduate high school ready for college, and only 26 percent of Memphis metropolitan area residents have earned a bachelor's degree.
Kyle Ali, the Tennessee recruitment manager for Teach for America, presented the stark statistics to the discussion group.
"You're looking at one of the worst districts in the second-to-worst state in the country," he said. Nashville and Memphis are the two biggest urban areas in the state that are falling behind in education, but Knoxville has its problems as well. In 2010, the average ACT score at Farragut High School in West Knox was 24; only a few miles away at Austin-East High School, that average was 16-18.
Since most of Tennessee is rural, it's important to note that the problems don't end in the cities. According to the Nation's Report Card, Tennessee's rural students are ranked far below the national average in every measured category, and growth in student enrollment in rural areas is greater in Tennessee than in any other state.
Shawna Hembree, a UT Career Services employee who oversaw the discussion, said that she doesn't think there's one clear answer to the state's education problems.
"I think it's systemic. I think it's education, and I don't think there's one answer," she said. "I think sessions such as this bring awareness."
Ali's presentation focused on the region closest to the students as the arena for improvement.
"Change must come from inside the classroom," he said. "One of the biggest challenges we would face is leadership inside the classroom. I'm not sure this is a money problem."
Ali noted that education is an issue that all students should address, regardless of whether or not they're interested in Teach for America.
"Having discussions like this on campus‚ that doesn't require you to be a senior; that doesn't require you to apply to Teach for America," he said.
After the presentation, attendees participated in small group discussions, voicing their thoughts on what some of the bigger issues with education are and how they might be combated, and the event was finished off with some info on Teach for America.
"Teach for America is an alternative certification program, so you don't need to have a background in education. We look for top leaders, people who excel academically," he said. "We manage to get people into the classroom who might have never otherwise considered it."