Haslam Encourages More Input from Higher Ed on K-12 Standards

Gov. Bill Haslam told an audience in Washington, D.C. gathered this week for a White House-sponsored discussion on innovations in higher learning that professionals in the post-secondary education world should give more input on K-12 performance standards.

Haslam said higher ed’s expertise in the area of student academic preparedness is sorely needed to help simmer down rancorous disputation over Common Core, the nationally focused education standards program that’s been the subject of a bipartisan backlash in Tennessee and across the country.

The governor described the Common Core battle as “a huge argument going back and forth.”

“Unfortunately, it has mainly turned into a political argument that is taking place on talk radio,” he said.

Voices of reason need to make themselves heard above the din of discord, suggested the governor. And higher ed is one of those that needs “a louder megaphone in the discussion,” he said.

Haslam was invited to the White House’s College Opportunity Summit specifically because of Tennessee’s new program to offer free community college to all the state’s graduating high school seniors, and more generally because the Republican governor has become something of the U.S. education czar’s pet.

Tennessee’s governor appeared on the stage Thursday with four other panelists: Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County; Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University; Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist and robotics inventor; and Candace Thille, an assistant professor specializing in online learning at Stanford University. The talk was moderated by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council

Haslam delivered the biggest laugh line of the session when he self-deprecatingly remarked that his role in the discussion was “to bring down the IQ of the panel.”

In describing the state’s free-community-college initiative, Haslam said encouraging more students to go to college is only the first step in promoting higher academic achievement. A key aspect of the “Tennessee Promise” is that it provides incoming freshmen with academic mentors to help them acclimate to and hopefully blossom in the campus environment — often an entirely foreign place to students who may be the first in their families to attend college.

Haslam said giving students guidance on even “really simple, practical things” can make a huge difference. “The free tuition is a big deal, I think an even bigger deal is that we have set up a mentor program that is fairly low-demand for the mentors, but incredibly helpful to the mentees,” said the governor. “We have been piloting this for six years in (Knox County), and those students – and almost all of them are first-generation college students — are getting their 2-year degrees at a higher rate than the the average of the students not involved in the process.”

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said Haslam’s point about getting college professors and university curriculum designers more involved in discussions about K-12 academic standards makes obvious sense. The better prepared students are before they get to college, the better their chances of post-secondary success, he said.

“When we think about how to move the needle in terms of college attainment or education attainment in Tennessee, there is probably no other one thing that we could do that would make a bigger difference than to have students ready to go to college when they come to college,” said Morgan. “Right now, 70 percent or so of students who come to our community colleges aren’t ready for college level work.”