Reflections on Serving on the Tennessee State Board of Education

Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | 01:26pm

There is no question in my mind that serving on the Tennessee State Board of Education (SBE) is an honor and a privilege. Descriptions we often hear when someone remarks on their experience regardless of what form it may have taken. These words aptly describe how I feel about my own experience over the past ten years. I was reluctant in June 2014, to serve and represent the sixth congressional because it was something meant for others to do or so I thought. I had misconceptions like many others who would tell me SBE members need to be educators or be an expert on education policy. State Board members, with one exception, are not required to be educators. Members are selected to represent a cross-section of the state’s population and therefore come from various walks of life. While all members are expected to represent the voices of Tennessee citizens and specifically the constituents in their respective districts, our board also hosts the unique opportunity to have a student member who is appointed by the Governor and represents the voice of students.

The impact of serving as a board member is far-reaching and well beyond anything I have done before. Accepting the opportunity to serve on any government board or commission requires a full understanding of the responsibilities, and what it takes to be an effective member.

Members are expected to be well prepared by reading and comprehending the data supporting each item up for the board’s vote. Rules or policies are not approved unless they are in the best interest of students’ education, and unless they meet the intent of legislation passed by the General Assembly. Anyone can observe a board meeting once or twice to witness the depth and breadth of questions and discussions that members have prior to a vote. While a great deal of work goes into making the proposals the best they can be, votes are not always unanimous and sometimes items are modified, postponed, or in some cases rejected.

I am proud of the board’s commitment to transparency and accountability, major pillars of the board’s strategic plan. The board does not operate in a vacuum: it works closely with the Governor, the General Assembly, the Department of Education, and other education organizations all while placing a high value on input from constituents in advance of voting. Our focus, through SBE rules and policies, is providing the highest quality education to all students and improving student outcomes. As I reflect on my two terms of service, totaling ten years with five as board chair, the standout moments were not about what I or the board accomplished. They were witnessing what was happening in schools, observing excellence in action with teachers inspiring their students with a love of learning, administrators providing and supporting a professional learning environment and culture for students and teachers alike, witnessing how teachers of different content areas were collaborating to address the whole child’s education, seeing student excitement for career technical education courses offered, and earning industry credentials, graduating with college credit, or an associate degree. Other moments were watching superintendents supporting one another by discussing and sharing how they would address a new requirement, challenging issues, or budget concerns; the celebratory moments for exemplary and reward school recognition; and celebrating teachers, supervisors, principals, and superintendents of the year.

There were times filled with concern and hope for our future, the safety of our children, overcoming what seemed like insurmountable challenges, and determining the best way forward during one of the most challenging times of our lives when the COVID-19 Pandemic began. We found a path forward through unchartered waters by passing emergency rules that provided a road map for districts to open schools while ensuring the safety of students and educators; holding harmless districts and schools for accountability due to school closures and issues beyond their control; approving rules for virtual learning, and other changes to increase the likelihood of minimizing learning loss.

The Board’s work during the pandemic brought positive changes to SBE rules and policies designed to improve student outcomes by lowering unnecessary barriers to educator licensure issuance, addressing early childhood literacy, revising academic standards that include alignment of timing for new textbook adoption, improving the licensure discipline process clarifying what actions should be taken against an educator’s license for violations of the code of ethics/conduct, revisions to teacher training standards to ensure alignment with academic standards, and more.

Serving is not a singular act accomplished by one board member or the board acting alone. It is a collaboration among many. The board cannot function without the dedicated experts in education, who are often behind the scenes conducting research and writing policies and rules while ensuring members have access to the most current data to inform our decisions. Many of these professionals are unsung heroes and deserve our deepest appreciation. Thanking them for their hard work and dedication is essential. The leadership and staff of the State Board of Education are among the first for their commitment to the work of the board and for their relentless pursuit of excellence in the education of our children; school districts and their educators for their dedication, and focus on providing a high-quality education that prepares students for life after high school; the Department of Education’s outstanding team for their partnership; and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the Tennessee School Boards Association, and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents to name a few.

I am proud to have served our state, alongside my fellow board members, in the most important endeavor entrusted to the Board of Education; that is the education of our children, through our Tennessee academic standards, policies, and rules. It has been an honor and a privilege!

Written By Lillian Hartgrove, Chair Emeritus State Board of Education, serving Tennessee’s Sixth Congressional District