How often does Tennessee get cited nationally for producing great academic gains for its children? Almost never, about the same number of times Washington, D.C., gets touted for its superior academic results.
And yet both Tennessee and D.C. stood out last week for making the fastest education gains on the "nation's report card," the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
It's hard to say which location has the most checkered education history. Only a few years ago Tennessee got "outed" for setting embarrassingly low education standards. Tennessee students were acing their state tests but failing the far-tougher NAEP. Washington D.C. has long been known as the worst urban school district in the country.
The education leaders in both places are regularly pilloried for the reforms they undertook. In Tennessee, a third of the district school superintendents along with the teachers unions in Memphis and Nashville just signed no-confidence letters condemning State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Their message to the governor: Rein him in!
The Washington reforms are famously controversial, designed by former chancellor Michelle Rhee (Huffman's ex-wife), who was forced from office in part because of the political turmoil created by those school changes. Current Chancellor Kaya Henderson was able to preserve and improve those reforms partly because she is considerably less inflammatory than Rhee.
How can this progress in Tennessee and D.C. be explained? In truth, it's not a mystery. I've seen similar progress while visiting other successful schools. There are three reasons behind the improvements.
It all starts with setting higher education standards. Tennessee did that in 2009. D.C. did that even earlier when it adopted the highly admired Massachusetts education standards. And both Tennessee and D.C. moved quickly to adopt the more rigorous common core standards.
Then, you mix in a strong dose of real-world employee evaluation, something common in the private sector but until recently mostly unknown in schools. In Tennessee, for example, a teacher could go ten years between evaluations. That changed dramatically in 2011 when Tennessee became one of the nation's earliest adopters of professional teacher evaluations. It's not just that the evaluations are tied to how much students learn; it's that they involve actual feedback to teachers based on what great instruction looks like.
In Washington, D.C., teachers routinely won rave reviews despite abysmal outcomes by their students -- a contradiction routinely explained away by poverty (despite higher-poverty school districts with better outcomes). That changed dramatically with its groundbreaking 2009 IMPACT teacher evaluation. At the time, national union leaders dubbed it outrageous. Last month, a national study dubbed it effective. Overall, the better teachers stayed and tried harder, encouraged by the prospect of being rewarded. The "minimally effective" teachers tended to look for other lines of work.
These test score results include charter school students, a compelling part of the story. In Washington, charter students make up nearly half of all the students and are turning in academic improvements at rates that outstrip the traditional district. I'm not surprised.
My recent reporting trips to cities using high performing charter groups signals the most promising school improvement strategies I've ever come across. In Washington, for example, traditional schools are adopting many charter-proven successful strategies. That's not stealing; that's what is supposed to happen. And you can see far more of it in Memphis, Houston, Denver, San Jose and other cities.
Good things can happen in the nation's schools, but those success stories are fragile as pushback forces such as the skittish Tennessee school superintendents demand a return to the more comfortable ways of the past, ways that left many of their students unable to qualify for jobs or take community college courses for credit.
That's why the education lessons learned from the losers of yesterday, Tennessee and Washington, are so compelling. You will face pushback. You will get accused of pushing too hard. You may get accused of cheating. But education leaders who hold firm with the right reforms will see results.
Richard Whitmire, a former USA Today editorial writer, is finishing On the Rocketship, a book about high performing charter schools.
(A version of this first appeared in USA Today)