Gov. Bill Haslam’s choice to take over for departing state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is a resident Tennessean and a Nashville university professor who says she’s passionate about bringing out the best in both students and teachers.
Candice McQueen, dean of the Lipscomb University College of Education, was named the next head of the Tennessee Department of Education Wednesday. She’ll assume Huffman’s duties on Jan. 20.
Huffman, who moved to Tennessee in 2011, often clashed with teachers and local district administrators as he served as point man for the Haslam administration’s education overhaul. He announced last month that he wouldn’t be sticking around for the governor’s second term.
Haslam is hopeful that McQueen, who is quite literally a teacher’s teacher, can ease some of the resentment felt by those who believe Huffman neither put enough energy into understanding day-to-day classroom challenges nor adequately consult with teachers and local district officials about their concerns over new policies.
“Lipscomb’s college of education has consistently produced some of the very best teachers in our state,” said the governor as he introduced McQueen during a state Capitol press conference on Dec. 17. Haslam indicated he’s optimistic McQueen’s background and experience will ensure she earns’ teachers’ respect while demanding they commit to maximum professional effort.
“There is nothing really that is more critical to us than making certain that our teachers have the right preparation and we have someone leading our department that can play a leadership role there,” said Haslam.
McQueen herself taught kids in elementary and middle school, he said — so she therefore “brings the experience of being a teacher, as well as preparing teachers to teach.”
McQueen listed “listening” as her first priority. She said she “looks forward to actually driving across the state, and meeting with the great people that are working as educators.”
“I want to meet with superintendents, certainly legislators, and I want to listen to parents and school leaders to hear from them what is working, and what do we still need to do,” she said during her prepared remarks. “We are going to stay focused on what we know already works, and we are going to continue to make the progress we have already made in Tennessee.”
In general, McQueen said she believes “Tennessee is headed in the right direction, and we need to remember that.”
She noted the state’s top national status in 2013 as most-improved in the area of student achievement. Both McQueen and Haslam lauded Commissioner Huffman for his focus on lifting learning expectations in Tennessee classrooms.
But McQueen also shares the governor’s worry that too many young adults in Tennessee often lack adequate academic preparation to successfully make the jump from high school to higher ed. “I know firsthand what college readiness looks like from my experience,” McQueen said. “I also know the struggles, the financial implications and the sense of failure that occurs when students come to college not prepared.”
“Every Tennessee student needs to be college- and career-ready when they leave high school,” she said.
And therein lies one of the areas that’ll likely provide McQueen an early political challenge. “I want to make sure that we have standards that are at the level they need to be to ensure that more students are ready for college, and what is after college,” she said.
Over the past year, Common Core has become what’s likely the hottest topic of controversy in American public education. McQueen will be dealing with many Tennessee lawmakers, parents, teachers and local school board members who oppose the nationally focused K-12 math and reading benchmarks.
Like the governor, McQueen has been a vocal backer of Common Core. How she handles diverse viewpoints on the thorny issue may set the tone for her tenure as the state’s highest education official. When the matter came up during her first Q&A with the press Wednesday, McQueen said she’s steadfastly “in favor of high standards,” but added that “the forms that they take is somewhat irrelevant.”
Common Core in Tennessee is currently undergoing a review that the Haslam administration initiated this fall in response to growing public and political dissatisfaction with it. And McQueen was among several outspoken Common Core promoters the governor picked to serve on the review committees assigned to “gather input and make recommendations” about Common Core and academic standards in general for Tennessee’s government-run K-12 system.
The goodwill, deference and confidence she can expect from lawmakers in her first year on the job — particularly among Republicans who made opposition to Common Core an issue during the last legislative session and the subsequent election season — may depend a lot on how McQueen navigates that minefield.
Asked by a reporter if she thinks Common Core has been “misunderstood,” McQueen hesitated for a moment, then responded, “Potentially misunderstood.”
“That’s a very difficult question, because that would be individually dependent on whether that’s been misunderstood, or folks feel like they haven’t understood it well,” she said.
McQueen added, “I think that at this point we need to be talking about the standards review process and making sure that’s done remarkably well, and that at the end of it we are very proud of the work that’s been done, and we have Tennessee academic standards that are in place that we can all share in responsibility for assessing and doing and working and making sure our classroom teachers are doing those things well.”