Candice McQueen to leave Tennessee education post for national nonprofit


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Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen spoke before lawmakers to discuss TNReady issues
Lacy Atkins/Tennessean

The education commissioner will leave in January at the end of Gov. Bill Haslam’s term and will not stay on board in the Bill Lee administration.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will leave her post in January for the top position at a national nonprofit focused on teaching.

McQueen’s departure to become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, focused on aiding in training, attracting and supporting teachers, means she will not stay on as commissioner in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration

She faced an uncertain future after the transition from Gov. Bill Haslam to Lee.

McQueen started the job in January 2015 after leading Lipscomb University’s College of Education. She replaced Kevin Huffman, who served for four years under Haslam.

She leaves with plenty of praise and some criticism, but those familiar with McQueen’s work say she had a lasting, positive impact on Tennessee’s education system despite the testing issues she wrangled.

Haslam praises McQueen’s tenure

In a statement, Gov. Bill Haslam credited McQueen with helping Tennessee continue its progress as one of the nation’s fastest improving states in K-12 education.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said.

“Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential,” Haslam said. “I am grateful for her service and know that she will continue to make an impact on education in Tennessee and across the country.” 

During her time as commissioner, she has led the state in creating the new state standards for what students should learn but also increased graduation rates and ACT scores.

She also developed the state’s plan to address a new federal education law. Her plan to address the federal Every Student Succeed Act education law is one of her hallmarks while commissioner. The plan has received national praise.

“It is something that will outlive me, but I am proud of the thousands who helped in creating the plan,” McQueen said. 

Her tenure has also focused heavily on early literacy for education. And she has pushed to increase the number of students taking college and career opportunities.

“Commissioner McQueen has worked tirelessly to support the Tennessee way — insisting on high academic standards, measuring progress with assessment, and requiring accountability for student success,” said Jamie Woodson, State Collaborative for Reforming Education chairman and CEO, whose nonprofit focuses on improved student outcomes.

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TNReady problems marred time in office

But McQueen’s struggles to get the state’s TNReady statewide assessment operating smoothly headlined much of her time as education chief. Fixing the test became one of the most-discussed education issues during this year’s gubernatorial campaign.

In her first year, the state canceled TNReady online testing altogether, leading to the firing of the state’s then-vendor and hiring of a new company.

Problems have persisted, including in the spring when officials initially said TNReady testing issues were the result of a “deliberate attack.” Only later did the state reveal the problems were because an unauthorized change Questar, the testing vendor, made to its systems during testing.

“I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, wish we would have been able to deliver,” McQueen said. “I wanted to deliver a seamless online test for students.”

Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents executive director, said he worked with McQueen as a district leader before joining the organization and she worked nonstop to try and fix the test issues.

“There is no question that no one hated it worse than she did,” Lynch said. “It shouldn’t be the mark against her as she leaves the commissioner’s office …  she leaves a great legacy in Tennessee.”

As House Minority Leader, former Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, clashed with McQueen over the test issues but said her legacy will outlive the tumult that surrounded the problems.

McQueen, he said, always listened and considered the issues at hand, even when he couldn’t see eye-to-eye with her stance. 

“She was a refreshing change from her predecessor. She did some really good things while she was here,” said Fitzhugh, who did not seek re-election and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “I most especially liked her views on early childhood education.”

His caucus called for McQueen’s resignation multiple times during the testing problems. But he said that while TNReady was “frustrating when things got out of control,” it is a “smudge on her record that will be cleared away by the positive things she has done over the long run.”

McQueen will remain in Tennessee

McQueen said her work in the state isn’t finished, and her new position will afford her the ability to continue to live and work in the state.

“I am really going to miss her,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. “Under Gov. Haslam, she has done a great job as the commissioner of education moving the state forward. Tennessee is known as the state that has the fastest improving kids in the nation.
I give her a lot of credit for that.”

In her role as CEO of the national nonprofit, she is expected to work with more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students, according to a news release about the announcement. The institute works with schools, districts, states and universities to support teachers and school leaders. 

JC Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee teacher’s association, said McQueen made the best of a difficult situation during her time. She will thrive in her new role, he said, because she has a history of supporting teachers.  

“She will leave a lasting legacy, and it can’t just be measured by a test,” Bowman said. “She has been committed to compensation and salary increases for teachers. She always made them a high priority.”

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McQueen said her time as education commissioner has been the honor of a lifetime.

“I have been blessed by this position and the people that I have met,” McQueen said.  “Every person that has been a partner in this work believes in doing the right work for students.”

Reach Jason Gonzales at jagonzales@tennessean.com and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales

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