Republican Bill Haslam and DE Democrat Jack Markell, See a Bipartisan Path Forward on Schools, Standards & Prioritizing ‘Education Across the Aisle’
Can a Republican and a Democrat see eye-to-eye on education? Former Govs. Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Jack Markell found that yes, they can, during a wide-ranging one-on-one discussion titled “Education Across the Aisle.” The governors, who were brought together by the Collaborative for Student Success, covered five topics of critical importance in American education: college and career readiness, standards, testing, the current state of education and the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The Collaborative shared a transcript of the conversation with The 74, which we are presenting as a first-of-its-kind two-person 74 Interview. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
On college and career readiness:
Gov. Bill Haslam: When you look back, what do you see as the thing that made the most substantial difference of all the policies you put in place?
Gov. Jack Markell: I think one of the things that underlay all the policies was the fact that we were more honest with our students and parents about what it really takes these days to be successful after high school. That’s a huge deal, because for so long, people have set the bar so low when it comes to educational attainment, and we’ve got to keep raising that bar.
Haslam: We’ve had a historical issue with that in Tennessee, of not setting our expectations high enough. What did you do to change that in Delaware?
Markell: First, we went around the state, and we had conversations about stronger schools. We talked about what’s going on around the world and the fact that our students are not just competing with other students from Delaware or from the mid-Atlantic region — they’re competing with the best of the best anywhere. If they were going to compete successfully, it meant we had to have higher standards and the kind of assessments that would reflect how they’re doing.
Haslam: That was our challenge as well. The year before I came in, the United States Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an F for truth in advertising. We were saying that 70 percent of our kids were proficient at grade level, but when those same kids got to community college, 70 percent of them needed remedial work. There’s no way both of those things were true.
Markell: A lot of people told me it was a political mistake to have this conversation with the people of Delaware about what it really means to be proficient. But my view was, if you really explained how the world around us is changing and what those changes mean, and showed that we’ve got to act differently, that at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.
Haslam: How would you tell somebody to have the political courage to have those difficult conversations?
Markell: You have to know what it’s worth losing an election over. We all want to win our reelection, but sometimes if you have really tough conversations, it may not go your way at the ballot box. But my experience has been that if you’re honest with people, and if you tell them why you’re making changes, they’ll be with you. The other thing is, you have to have a sense of humility. None of us has all the answers. One of the most important things we did is we went out and listened. We asked a lot of questions of parents, teachers and people throughout the business community about what kind of future they envision for their kids and for the state.
Haslam: How did you tie in preparation for the job market in a rapidly changing world to your education vision?
Markell: This is something that everybody understands. Everybody wants their kids, when they finish high school, to be ready for college or for a career. So one of the most important things we did is we brought the business community together with the higher eds and K-12 systems. That doesn’t sound very complicated, but frankly, those conversations just had not really been taking place around the country. I think that they should. It’s really important for the businesses to take a very active role in defining the types of skills they’re going to value.
Haslam: How did you get higher ed to be nimble and reactive enough to what the businesses were telling them they needed?
Markell: We started with the community college. It’s very powerful to bring education leaders into a room with business leaders who are talking about the kinds of skills that they need, the kinds that they’re not getting today. If you ask, “How good a job are our higher institutions doing in terms of preparing young people for the future?” Education administrators, 90 percent of them say we’re doing a great job. Business leaders, 10 percent of them say we’re doing a great job.
Haslam: We built off this Tennessee promise of having said, “You can have access to higher education,” but for a lot of families, that was like, “OK, we’re going there, but where is that going to lead me?” Our community colleges are speed boats compared to the battleships of trying to turn around a four-year university. But our four-year universities are reacting as well.
I was elected in 2010. My first year, 2011, unemployment’s at 9.5, 10 percent. It was literally just about finding jobs that would come to our state. Now, it’s dramatically changed. The jobs are there, and they’re wanting to know, “Can you give me the workforce that I need?” That’s become one of my primary roles — the person standing between these businesses we’re recruiting and the community colleges, four-years and technical schools. I feel like my role is much more of a bridge now than it was when I was just out begging to get jobs.
Markell: Exactly. I’d like to be a marriage broker, because virtually every day as governor, I’d have two sets of conversations. One would be with an employer who’s saying, “I have these vacancies, but I can’t find people to fill them.” And the other set of conversations would be with individuals, maybe they were formerly incarcerated, maybe they were returning veterans, maybe they had disabilities, maybe they were youth who didn’t get the kind of education they should have gotten, saying, “All I want is a shot, and nobody’s giving me a shot.” And the fact is, with the job market being what it is today, we’ve got to do a better job of building a new pipeline of employees of talent.
Haslam: There’s talk about how divided the country is, and yet you did a nice job of working across the aisle. My sense is that the country’s not only divided, but we’re mad about how divided we are. We’re mad that the other half doesn’t think like we do. So how did you, particularly on the education issue, bridge that divide?
Markell: I thought it was very important to get out beyond the legislature to explain to the people of my state a very clear worldview: “Here’s how the world around us is changing, here’s what these changes mean for all of us and here’s what we need to do differently as a result.” For me, that worldview is very much about two massive forces at work on our economy. One is globalization, which means employers have more choices than they’ve ever had before about where to hire people. The other is technology, which means they need relatively fewer people. When it comes to education, it means we have no choice other than to invest massively in skill development. And so, even if the people disagree with the things you propose, they at least understand where you’re coming from.
Haslam: You were there around some of the pushback around Common Core, but, like us, you were able to fight past that, set some standards that you could agree to and have some things that were more strictly identified with Delaware. How did you get that accomplished?
Markell: One thing that was helpful was we invited community leaders into our schools, where they got to sit in on actual Common Core-[aligned] lessons taught by actual teachers. As the people were leaving, they said, “Boy, that certainly seems a whole lot like a math class or an English class. That didn’t seem like some people trying to take over our government through our education system.”
Haslam: But, within that [process], obviously you’re working with the teachers who are maybe the most important piece of that. There were times when, I’m guessing, they were your partners and times when they felt like they were on the other side of the fence. How did you manage that?
Markell: I always try to be respectful, and when I had teachers say that they really did not agree with something that I was proposing, I would invite them into the office. I think it’s really important to be accessible, and for them to know that you’re listening. We really tried to make sure the focus was always on the kids. Teachers have a lot of insight about what’s in the best interest of the kids. We consulted a lot with the State Teachers of the Year. We’d get them together once a month, and I would often try to just sit in on those sessions and listen, because they had so much to add.
One thing that we also really focused on was professional development. Teachers got sick and tired of the professional development where there are 100 teachers staring at the front of the room and somebody’s talking to them. So we redesigned professional development. Every teacher in the state would sit down for 45 minutes or 90 minutes a week with a group of five peers, and they would drill into what the data was telling them about student performance.
Our states were the first two states to win Race to the Top. Part of what you were doing was defending the gains that were made, but then trying to take it to a whole other level.
Haslam: My predecessor, Gov. [Phil] Bredesen, was a different party — Democrat — but [his administration] had worked really hard to do things that I always told my Republican friends, “Hey, that’s stuff we believe in.”
They did three things, and we stuck to those. They raised the standards, what we expected every child to know. They worked really hard to get an assessment that matched those standards. And the third piece, it was very controversial and still is, they made certain the teacher’s evaluation was tied to how much the students learned during the year. It was based on a lot of things, but a piece of it was that.
Those have been the three keys in Tennessee. They were all part of our Race to the Top application. Again, people say that’s a Democratic initiative, the Race to the Top. But, I say, “No, that’s stuff we should believe in.” My job was to say, “Wait, we have made historic progress here, let’s not go back to where we were before.” We still have a long way to go, but I said, “We’ve made this great progress, let’s not go back.”
Markell: When you think about the next governor coming in, what’s your advice about how they should prioritize?
Haslam: Make certain you don’t give on your standards. We have a lot of teachers who said, “You’re expecting too much out of our kids, our kids aren’t like that.” Don’t accept that. No. 2, make sure the assessment matches, and make sure an evaluation counts what the students have learned.
Haslam: One of the controversies around education today is, “You rely on testing so heavily, and we’re spending too much time testing our kids.” What was your response?
Markell: My response was, “Let’s be smart about the testing.” We need these high-quality assessments. But it’s possible that we’re testing too much in other places. So we provided some funding to each of our districts to do an inventory of assessments. What we really want is the assessments to be helpful to teachers, so they can identify where their students are falling behind. But that has to be paired with the right kind of professional development as well.
We had a bill that passed both houses, and that I ended up vetoing, to allow parents to opt out of these assessments. That was a tough fight. It’s easy to be against the tests — I get it. But at the same time, if we don’t have these high-quality assessments, it’s not possible for us to be honest with these students, with their parents, with the teachers, about where they’re going to go from here.
Haslam: I think that’s so well said. If we’re going to be serious about saying how much a student’s learned, then we have to have that. There are always going to be issues with it, but it’s a little like saying the scoreboard didn’t work, so we’re going to quit keeping score in high school football.
Markell: We also used a sports analogy. We used basketball, and when you set the standards low, it’s like having a basketball player practice by shooting at an 8-foot basket. They can get really great shooting at an 8-foot basket, but then they get into the game, and they’re competing against people who have been practicing on a regulation basket, and they don’t do too well. Look at where we rank compared to countries all around the world, and there’s no question that the states and the countries that do a better job of educating today are going to outcompete tomorrow.
On the current state of education:
Haslam: Now that you’re stepped back, and you look across the education scene nationally, how do you assess where we are today?
Markell: I’m worried about where we are nationally on education because I think the narrative is not going in the direction we want. I believe that the kinds of things that you did in Tennessee — setting high standards, having the courage to have the quality assessments that go with them — have to undergird everything else we do. I just think it is too easy to run away from them.
Haslam: We went through historic period in our country when we had a Republican president, George W. Bush, who set No Child Left Behind. I know people had some issues with it, but the premise was really fundamental and radical for a Republican president. They were saying, “No matter what zip code you’re in, I think you deserve the chance for a great education.” And so we started measuring achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students and looking at a lot of things we hadn’t before. All based on: Let’s measure, what does the data tell us about what that child’s actually learning? Eight years of that idea, which again, was a pretty radical transformation, I think for the better.
Then you had a Democrat president, Obama, come in and do something even more radical. As a Democrat president, he went against the teachers union, particularly on this whole idea of evaluations tied to how much students were learning. Teachers unions have traditionally been huge Democrat funders, and he went against that and said, “Outcomes matter if we’re going to have an opportunity where every child can learn.”
Those were 16 historic years in our country. I think the thing that distressed me about the 2016 election was we really didn’t have a discussion about public education. You had Bernie Sanders talking about free college for everybody, and Secretary Clinton picked up on that. But, in terms of what we need to do in public K-12 education, it was crickets out there. That concerned me.
Doing hard stuff is hard. When you put higher standards and great assessments out there, there are a lot of people that don’t want that to happen, and they can use time to erode gains.
Markell: For the last couple years, the Every Student Succeeds Act has been a big part of what’s going on nationally. What are the most important things to making sure that states take fullest advantage of that law?
Haslam: You and I, we were able to make some hard decisions and say, “Well, the federal government says that we have to.” That’s gone away. Now it’s up to state and local governments. And it’s made it more important than ever that states know what direction they want to go, and then local government is the same way. Those local school board races have never been more important.
Markell: As governor, how did you interact with the local boards with respect to the Every Student Succeeds Act?
Haslam: When we were putting our plan together, every state had to get their ESSA plan approved, and our Commission of Education reached down and talked to all the different school districts to say, “Here’s what we’re thinking, here’s what the plan will look like.” Because of that, we were able to have a plan that was approved very quickly. But I don’t think you could understate that it’s a very, very different world than it was in 2011, when Race to the Top was being implemented. The federal role is dramatically minimized compared to that.
Markell: And if states do what they should, that’s going to be a good thing.
Haslam: That’s right. There’s more accountability on us than ever before.
Markell: You’ve achieved some remarkable progress in Tennessee. For states to achieve that kind of progress, the schools that are having the most difficult time have to achieve real improvements. How have you made that happen?
Haslam: We’ve had some places where we’ve succeeded and some places where we haven’t. Turning around schools is really difficult. We have a saying in our Department of Education that we’ve kind of clung to, and that’s, “All means all.” When we’re talking about “all kids,” it means all kids, regardless of zip code or disability or anything else. So we can’t accept, “Well, that’s just a historically underperforming school.”
But I think it’s really about recruiting great leaders for those schools. Having a great school is like having a great restaurant, a great hospital, a great bank, a great church or synagogue. The quality of the leader determines what that is like. And so, it’s about, “How do we go find a great leader for that school?”
Markell: It’s true. If you show me a great school, you’re also showing me a great leader.
Haslam: It’s about great leaders, ratcheting up autonomy, and ratcheting up accountability. Do those three things, and we’ll figure out the rest.[Read more at The 74]