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Who Wants to be an ‘Education Governor’?

Gov. Bill Haslam gives bipartisan high marks to Phil Bredesen and Lamar Alexander for their records as governors on education.

Haslam, a history buff, has been telling audiences recently that he has been reading about Tennessee’s past governors. He has made the point of how, going back to Austin Peay, who served from 1923-27, every governor has said he wanted to be the education governor.

But that puzzles Haslam because after all those education governors, the state still ranks in the 40s nationally in education.

Haslam hasn’t let on exactly what he has been reading, nor has he told audiences which governors he thought did a better job on education than others.

So Haslam was asked what he’s been reading and who stands out.

He didn’t say what he has read, but he offered up the names of Bredesen, a Democrat, and Alexander, a Republican, as achievers. Bredesen immediately preceded Haslam as governor, serving from 2003-2011. Alexander served as governor from 1979-87.

Haslam said this week he is impressed with governors who push standards the most, and that gives points to Bredesen.

“I think that’s one of the great things about Race to the Top. It was about raising standards,” Haslam said.

Bredesen used the special session on education in 2010 to nail down the state’s bid for federal Race to the Top funding for education reform. The state won $501 million, which is being put to work now in the state’s ongoing education reform plans.

Then there is Alexander.

“I think Lamar did a really good job of trying to tie teachers’ performance to student achievement,” Haslam said.

Alexander initiated a five-step career-ladder program for teachers that included merit pay.

Putting the choices in perspective, the reasoning lines up with Haslam’s own ideas in education reform.

“Those are kind of the two basics of what we’re doing now, raising the level of expectation and tying students’ performance to how we evaluate teachers,” Haslam said. “And those are ideas that have been out there awhile. Hopefully, they’re now fully incorporated in the mainstream.”

Haslam said he will continue to focus on education.

“I’ve looked and tried to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t. If you go back, you’ll see the governors who focus on how their legislation or initiatives impacted the classroom made the biggest difference,” Haslam said.

“The question is how do we get the very best people standing in front of the class, and how do we make it so more students raise their attainment level and their expectation level?”

Although elected on a platform that emphasized job growth, when Haslam spoke to a dinner breakfast last week, he said his time as governor would probably be evaluated most by whether he “moved the needle” on education in the state.

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Expect More to Get More from Education: Haslam

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.”