The American Dream with a Tennessee Twist

Wednesday, February 09, 2022 | 09:00am

By Jordan Mollenhour, State Board of Education member

Tennessee is a rising star among states. U-Haul recently published its annual Growth Index Report that ranks states according to in-demand one-way truck rentals. Tennessee has been ranked in the top 10 states since 2017 and is now contending with Texas and Florida for the top 3 slots (we were #1 in 2020 and #3 in 2021).

Tennessee’s rising popularity is not a fluke of circumstance. There are reasons why our state is attracting new residents, new businesses, and new opportunities. While we should be encouraged by these trends, we should not be satisfied. There are still many families and children who would choose a better life if given the opportunity. We can do better and we must do better, but change requires leadership and it’s not always easy or popular.

Gov. Bill Lee, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Education, recently announced an effort to invest more thoughtfully in Tennessee’s one million K-12 students. One important component of Gov. Lee’s Draft Framework for Student Success emphasizes career and technical education during a student’s high school years. This is a good example of the type of policy and leadership that is helping Tennessee propel beyond peer states, but the reason may not be obvious.

By helping young minds connect with and develop an interest in career opportunities, we can introduce more than just “better jobs” in Tennessee. Early exposure to personal and professional development can inspire hope. It can break the chains of poverty. It can give young students a reason to look beyond their circumstances and to see themselves as others see them – capable of rising to the occasion.

As we work together to create opportunities for our students, we must remember that the health, safety, heart, and mind of each child is unique. No government program or policy will itself be the answer or fit every child’s needs perfectly. While budgets, student-teacher ratios, test scores, reading proficiency, and other metrics are all very important lenses through which we can understand and improve K-12 education in Tennessee, we cannot lose sight of the human element. We must always remember that each child needs a reason to see hope in their own future. If we fail them in this way, the other metrics, measures, and dollars spent will not matter.

We must shape policies that inform, equip, and encourage students to choose a brighter future for themselves and to assume the personal responsibility that comes with that freedom. In my new role as a member of the State Board of Education, I am committed to this cause and I remain grateful for the opportunity to serve in this way.

Investments in career and technical education are certainly not the only way to improve K-12 education in Tennessee, but for many students, it may be the first time they are shown a roadmap to the American dream.