In a new map of the U.S. that details student academic growth, Tennessee is a bright green beacon in a sea of purple.

“If you are looking for Tennessee on a student growth map, just look for the bright green rectangle in the mid South,” Kevin Huffman, former state education chief of Tennessee, said on Twitter. “That’s us.”

The map was included in a research paper, published earlier this month by Sean Reardon at Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, which used standardized test scores from roughly 45 million students in more than 11,000 school districts – almost every district in the U.S. – to show where students were making the greatest academic gains.

And in Tennessee, that progress is very visible.

As Mother Jones put it, “Tennessee is a green oasis in the middle of a desert of purple. Someone should figure out what they’re doing right.”

Tennessee’s transformation has been taking place since 2009, when it was among the first states to nab a $500 million grant from the Obama administration’s hallmark competitive education program, Race to the Top. The state, under the leadership of Huffman and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, adopted a host of major education reforms, including tougher academic standards, new state tests aligned to those standards, new teacher evaluation and compensation models and an aggressive plan to turn around its worst schools.

To be sure, part of the reason Tennessee is the fastest growing in the country is because it rested at the bottom of the totem pole for so long, and therefore stood to gain the most. But unlike many states that adopt ambitious education overhauls and then move on to tackling the next issue, Tennessee has remained focused on education as a way to drive improvements in other parts of the state, including health care and employment.

 Since its K-12 face-lift, it’s also passed legislation to improve its state-run prekindergarten program and increased access to college. Tennessee Promise, for example, provides provide two years of tuition-free attendance for recent high school graduates at a community or technical college in the state. Tennessee Reconnect, meanwhile, aims to help adults and veterans finish a degree they started or earn a new degree aligned to workforce goals.

The goal of Reardon’s analysis was to explore the correlation of growth and opportunity. The growth rate of average test scores from 2009 to 2015 for students in grades 3 to 8, Reardon argues, can be used as a proxy for the educational opportunity.



The overall analysis, he says, suggests that the role of schools in shaping education opportunity largely varies across school districts, and therefore, the strategies to improve educational opportunity may need to target different age groups in different places.

“The answer to the question of whether schools exacerbate or ameliorate socioeconomic inequality may be ‘it depends on where you are,'” Reardon writes.

Other factors that play into growth rates that are not considered in the analysis, he notes, include the availability of high-quality child care and preschools programs.

Other state standouts include New Jersey, the eastern part of Texas, the southernmost swath of Arizona and the southwestern quadrant of Wyoming.