Gov. Bill Haslam offered some simple math for a group of educators in Memphis on Wednesday and called it a “recipe for a problem.”
He started with the statistic that only 21 percent of the state’s population has a college degree. The national figure is about 30 percent. Some 20 years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of the population with a degree.
“Today we’re ninth,” Haslam said. “If Tennessee were a country, we would rank about 79th in the world in percentage of adults with a degree.”
Haslam indicated he subscribes to estimates suggesting more than half the jobs created in the foreseeable future will require workers to have a degree. If that proves true, it’ll pose problems for Tennessee, said the governor.
It was another in Haslam’s long list of examples of how jobs and education are linked. Yet he hardly believes he is the first governor to emphasize the importance of education.
Haslam spoke to a conference of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence at the Presbyterian Day School, an event that allowed him to hook up with long-time friend and past business partner Brad Martin, head of a venture capital firm and philanthropist. They sat next to each other on the stage.
Haslam told the audience that the most important task is to “change the culture of expectation around education.”
He noted that the state ranks in the 40s among the 50 states in education.
“People ask, ‘How did you wind up in the 40s?’” Haslam said. “We expected far too little.”
Haslam said he had read recently about Austin Peay, governor of Tennessee in the 1920s, who said he was going to be the education governor. Peay had a long line of successors with the same message.
Haslam cited some efforts like his own education reform agenda, which includes revamping teacher tenure and adding charter school options, but he said those steps aren’t the whole solution, and he said since the state still ranks in the 40s in education it’s a sign that what the state has been doing hasn’t been working.
Haslam said someone asked him recently if he could have 500 more of something — whether it be “500 farmers, engineers, linebackers, bankers, or anything” — he knew what he would choose.
“My answer is simple. It would be 500 more great principals,” he said.
Haslam has spoken often about principals. He frequently tells groups that if they walked into any school, after a short amount of time, they could tell if the school had a good principal or not, and that the principal wouldn’t even need to be there for them to draw a conclusion.
“How can we more effectively select and train and give feedback to principals?” he asked rhetorically. “I think if we can do that, we can move the needle quicker than anything else.”
Haslam continues to be big on the amount of data available on student performance in the state in order to evaluate teachers. The value-added assessments of students have been a treasure trove of information to have as a resource, and Haslam repeated his belief that the state should move now to make those evaluations, instead of waiting for a perfect set of measurements.
He said if the Haslams had had that kind of data in terms of their business, Pilot Corp., which owns a chain of truck stops and convenience stores, the company “could have competed incredibly more effectively.”
The governor said he talked to his brother, Jimmy, who is the head of Pilot, recently and told him he couldn’t believe how many talented people are going into the field of education, much like another generation went into the Peace Corps to try to change the world.
And he used that observation to form a message to teachers.
“I’m very grateful for what you have decided to do with your life,” Haslam said.
“There is no profession I know of today that is as critical to making our state a better place to live and work and play than teaching.”