For the first time in four years, Tennessee will have a new education commissioner in January, a position held by Candice McQueen since Jan. 1, 2015.
As McQueen exits from the top education post in the state to lead a national nonprofit, she offered advice for the person Gov.-elect Bill Lee selects as her successor.
McQueen will become the CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a group focused on aiding in training, attracting and supporting teachers, on Jan. 15.
She’ll spend a brief time traveling with family before taking over the nonprofit that has sought to help craft strategies on how districts can support and retain teachers.
“The most important school factor for student growth is the teacher,” McQueen said in an interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee. “This is an organization that from its inception has been about how to do we support teachers and have systems of support instead of one-off strategies.”
What are the biggest hurdles for your successor?
McQueen, who will leave as a new governor and host of new lawmakers take office, said her replacement will need to take the state’s education plans to new heights but also maintain high standards, expectations and accountability. She said increasing funding and resources for districts and teachers will be crucial.
She said building relationships will be a large part of the job and important to her successor’s overall success.
“When you are moving into any new administration where you have a new governor and you have a large number of new legislators when you are coming in as commissioner of the more high profile work, whether that is health care or education, you are going to have to get to know the legislators and administrators.
“You are going to have to build those relationships and that takes time.
“My advice is to get to know those that are surrounding the governor and the governor himself, as well as the legislators,” McQueen said. “Make sure there is an understanding of what is motivating them, what concerns they have and create capacity on your own end through your team so you are highly visible to them and certainly attainable.”
What does the new commissioner need to tackle in 2019?
The state’s literacy work will require an increased focus in 2019 and beyond, McQueen said.
“The literacy work is starting to have an impact,” she said. “We need to go deeper.”
Statewide, only 33 percent of students are proficient in the state’s reading and language arts tests. Under McQueen, the state launched the Read to be Ready campaign, which has focused heavily on early grade reading instruction.
McQueen said the state needs to further ensure teachers have a strong reading curriculum, books and the support to help connect kids to the teachings.
“We need to ensure teachers are supported in their own knowledge about how to teach reading and they have support on the remediation side,” she said.
Any other advice for your successor?
The advice McQueen said she wants to drive home to whoever takes over the job next is the same advice she received when she took over the job. McQueen replaced Kevin Huffman in 2015.
“I got a piece of advice when I started as commissioner and it stuck with me,” she said.
McQueen said the job is difficult, but making significant changes is one of the hardest challenges.
“It is going to be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done,” she said.
As commissioner, McQueen has supervised plenty of changes, including in state accountability in order to conform to a new federal education law and new education standards. She said the next commissioner will need to “listen a lot to make changes and continuously improve.”
“Try to be impactful with the time you have and, sometimes, that takes courage and takes thinking outside the box,” McQueen said. “But you have to bring people with you and listen to people.”
Is there something specific you don’t want your successor to back away from?
McQueen said she is asking that her successor stay the course on the state’s education standards and in its assessment and accountability model.
“We have some of the best standards in the country,” she said. “They have gone through multiple revisions, and we have moved from an ‘F’ 10 years ago and I am proud as commissioner (to have) moved those to an ‘A.’ “
She added that the state must “stay true” to an assessment that shows what students are learning in the classroom.
But that may not be easy. The administration of the TNReady statewide standardized test ran into numerous issues during McQueen’s tenure, with some voices calling for the state to reverse course on the test.
It was one of the most high-profile issues McQueen dealt with as commissioner.
She said not being able to provide a smooth TNReady test was one of her greatest regrets.
“We are so close to success on assessment,” she said. “I hope we can stay focused on what we can do to improve. I am confident we will have success.”
And she asked that the new commissioner stick to the state’s accountability model that looks at student, teacher and district results. The state uses that data to evaluate teacher and student performance on a yearly basis.
“One of the crucial pieces of success as a state is how we created accountability at all levels,” she said.
Related: Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to leave state post for national nonprofit
Reach Jason Gonzales at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.