Interview: Two Former Governors, TN Republican Bill Haslam and DE Democrat Jack Markell, See a Bipartisan Path Forward on Schools, Standards & Prioritizing ‘Education Across the Aisle’

Peruse previous 74 Interviews: Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries discussing the politics of education policy, former Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy talking about his efforts to reform juvenile prisons, and former Education Secretary John King explaining school discipline. The entire archive can be found here.

Can individuals from different political parties find common ground when it comes to education? Former Governors Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Jack Markell discovered that they could during a comprehensive one-on-one discussion titled "Education Across the Aisle." The Collaborative for Student Success brought these governors together to cover five crucial topics in American education: college and career readiness, standards, testing, the current state of education, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Collaborative has graciously shared the transcript of this conversation with , and we present it here as a unique and groundbreaking two-person 74 Interview. The transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

On the topic of college and career readiness:

Governor Bill Haslam: Looking back, which policy do you believe had the most significant impact on improving student outcomes?

Governor Jack Markell: I believe that one of the underlying factors that influenced all of our policies was that we became more forthright with our students and parents about the true requirements for success after high school. This is a crucial aspect because, for a long time, expectations concerning educational attainment were set too low. We need to continually raise the bar.

Haslam: Tennessee has faced similar challenges. How did you address this issue in Delaware?

Markell: First and foremost, we engaged in conversations across the state about the importance of having stronger schools. We discussed global trends and emphasized that our students are not just competing locally or regionally, but on a global scale. To be competitive, we needed higher standards and assessments that accurately reflect their performance.

Haslam: Tennessee faced a comparable situation. The United States Chamber of Commerce gave us a failing grade for truth in advertising, as we claimed that 70 percent of our students were proficient at grade level. However, when these same students reached community college, 70 percent of them required remedial work. It was clear that both claims couldn’t be accurate.

Markell: Many advised against having this conversation about proficiency with the people of Delaware, deeming it a political mistake. However, I firmly believed that by explaining the changing world around us and the implications of those changes, and by highlighting the need for a different approach, it was ultimately the right thing to do.

Haslam: How would you encourage others to muster the political courage necessary for such challenging discussions?

Markell: One must acknowledge what they are willing to sacrifice for these conversations. While we all want to win reelection, there are instances where tough conversations may not be politically advantageous. However, my experience has shown that if you are honest with people and provide clear explanations for your proposed changes, they will support you. Additionally, humility is crucial. None of us possesses all the answers. One of the most valuable steps we took was engaging in conversations with parents, teachers, and members of the business community to understand their aspirations for their children and the state.

Haslam: How did you connect the education vision to the ever-changing job market?

Markell: Ensuring that high school graduates are prepared for college or careers is a universal goal. Therefore, one of our main priorities was fostering collaboration between the business community and the K-12 and higher education systems. While this might seem straightforward, it hadn’t been a common practice nationwide. I believe it is essential for businesses to play an active role in identifying and valuing the necessary skills.

Haslam: How did you ensure that higher education responded effectively to the demands highlighted by businesses?

Markell: This is something everyone can understand. Every parent wishes for their children to be prepared for the next stage of their lives after high school. Therefore, one of the critical steps we took was bringing together the business community, higher education institutions, and K-12 systems. Although it may sound simple, these conversations were not regularly happening across the country. I believe they should. It is vital for businesses to contribute actively to shaping the skills they require.

Haslam: How did you facilitate the agility and responsiveness of higher education to align with the needs expressed by businesses?

Haslam: Our initiative in Tennessee was based on the promise of providing access to higher education. However, many families were concerned about the future implications of pursuing a college education. Our community colleges are more agile compared to our four-year universities, which take longer to adapt. Nevertheless, our four-year universities are also responding to the needs of the workforce.

I was elected in 2010, during a time when unemployment rates were high, reaching 9.5% to 10%. Our main focus was on attracting job opportunities to our state. Now, the situation has changed dramatically. The jobs are available, and employers are interested in finding a skilled workforce. Hence, my role as governor has shifted to being a mediator between businesses and educational institutions, such as community colleges, four-year universities, and technical schools. I now see myself as a bridge that connects these entities, rather than just seeking job opportunities.

Markell: Precisely. In my role as governor, my daily conversations revolved around two aspects. One set of discussions involved employers who were struggling to find suitable candidates to fill their job vacancies. The other set of conversations were with individuals who faced various barriers, such as previous incarceration, military service, disabilities, or lack of proper education. They all sought equal opportunities and were frustrated by the lack of prospects. Given the current job market, it is crucial that we establish a new pipeline of skilled employees.

Haslam: The country is often described as divided, but the reality is that we are not only divided but also angry about this division. We are frustrated that the other half of the population does not share our views. So, how did you manage to bridge that divide, especially in relation to education?

Markell: I believed it was essential to go beyond the legislative sphere and directly communicate with the people of my state. I aimed to provide them with a clear perspective on the changing world, the implications of these changes, and the necessary steps we needed to take. From my point of view, two significant forces were shaping our economy: globalization, which expanded employers’ choices for hiring, and technology, which reduced the need for a large workforce. In the context of education, this meant that investing heavily in skill development was our only option. Even if people disagreed with my proposals, I wanted them to understand my perspective.

On standards:

Haslam: Both of us faced opposition to Common Core standards. However, we managed to overcome that and establish standards that worked for our respective states. How did you achieve that?

Markell: A significant factor was inviting community leaders to witness Common Core-aligned lessons taught by actual teachers within our schools. As they observed these lessons, they realized that it was simply a regular math or English class. It became evident that Common Core was not an attempt to manipulate the education system for political gain.

Haslam: Within this process, you had to work closely with teachers, who are a crucial element. There were times when they supported your efforts, and times when they might have felt at odds with your proposals. How did you manage that dynamic?

Markell: I always made it a point to be respectful towards the teachers’ opinions. When they expressed disagreement with my proposals, I would invite them to discuss the matter further in my office. It was important to let them know that I was accessible and genuinely listening to their concerns. Our focus was always on the best interests of the students. Teachers possess valuable insights into what benefits the students. We regularly consulted with State Teachers of the Year, holding monthly meetings where I would often participate as an observer, as they had a wealth of knowledge to contribute.

Our states were the first two states to successfully win the Race to the Top competition. Part of our mission was to defend the progress that had been made and then take it to the next level.

Haslam: My predecessor, Governor Phil Bredesen, belonged to a different political party – Democrat. However, his administration had put in tremendous effort to implement policies that aligned with our Republican beliefs.

They focused on three key areas, and we have remained committed to them. Firstly, they raised the standards for what every child should know. Secondly, they worked tirelessly to develop an assessment that aligns with those standards. And finally, they implemented a controversial policy which ties the evaluation of teachers to the progress their students make throughout the year. These three components were crucial in Tennessee’s Race to the Top application. Some may view it as a Democratic initiative, but I firmly believe that these are principles we should all support. My role was to emphasize the historic progress we had made and prevent us from regressing to the past. While we still have a long way to go, I was determined to maintain the progress we had achieved.

Markell: When considering the priorities for the next governor, what advice would you offer?

Haslam: It is essential to prioritize the maintenance of high standards. Many teachers argued that we were expecting too much from our students. However, we cannot accept that argument. Secondly, it is crucial to ensure that the assessment aligns with these standards. Lastly, evaluations of teachers should consider the actual learning outcomes of their students.

On the topic of testing:

Haslam: A common criticism of education today is that we rely too heavily on testing, claiming that it consumes too much time for the students. What was your response to this?

Markell: My response was to advocate for smart testing practices. We need high-quality assessments, but it is possible that we may be testing too much in other areas. Therefore, we provided funding to districts to assess their current evaluations. Our ultimate goal is to have assessments that are beneficial to teachers, allowing them to identify areas where students are struggling. However, this must be complemented by appropriate professional development opportunities.

We had a bill that passed through both houses but I ended up vetoing, which would have allowed parents to opt out of assessments. It was a tough battle. It is easy to oppose tests, but without high-quality assessments, we cannot provide honest feedback to students, their parents, and teachers regarding their progress and future prospects.

Haslam: I completely agree. If we truly want to evaluate a student’s learning, we must have these assessments. There will always be challenges, but it’s like saying we should stop keeping score in high school football because the scoreboard doesn’t always work.

Markell: We actually used a sports analogy as well. We compared it to basketball, where setting low standards is equivalent to having players practice on an 8-foot basket. They may excel at shooting on that basket until they enter a game and compete against opponents who have been practicing on a regulation basket. Their performance suffers greatly. Looking at education rankings around the world, it is undeniable that states and countries that prioritize education will be more competitive in the future.

On the current state of education:

Haslam: Now that you have stepped back and observed the national education landscape, how would you evaluate our progress today?

Markell: I am concerned about the current state of education nationally as I believe the narrative is not moving in the right direction. I strongly believe that the strategies implemented in Tennessee, such as setting high standards and implementing quality assessments, should serve as the foundation for all educational efforts. It is too easy to shy away from these principles, but we must stay committed to them.

Then, a Democratic president named Obama took office and implemented an even more radical approach. Despite being supported by the teachers union, he challenged their stance on evaluating teachers based on their students’ learning outcomes. He believed that outcomes were crucial for ensuring that every child had the opportunity to learn.

These 16 years were significant in our nation’s history. However, during the 2016 election, there was a lack of discussion regarding public education. Bernie Sanders advocated for free college education, which Secretary Clinton also endorsed, but there was silence on issues related to public K-12 education. This silence was concerning to me.

Implementing challenging reforms is never easy. When we set higher standards and introduce rigorous assessments, there are always individuals who resist these changes. They use time as a tool to undermine the progress we have made.

Regarding the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):

Markell: Over the past few years, ESSA has played a significant role across the nation. What are the key factors in ensuring that states make the most out of this law?

Haslam: We were able to make tough decisions because we were obligated by the federal government to do so. However, that obligation is no longer present. Now, it is up to the state and local governments to determine the direction they want to take. This emphasizes the importance of states knowing their goals and local governments doing the same. The outcome of local school board races has never been more crucial.

Markell: As a governor, what was your approach to working with local boards concerning ESSA?

Haslam: When we were developing our plan, each state had to obtain approval for their ESSA plan. Our Commission of Education engaged with various school districts to discuss our ideas and what the plan would entail. Thanks to this collaboration, our plan was approved expeditiously. However, it’s essential to recognize that the educational landscape has drastically transformed since the implementation of Race to the Top in 2011. The federal government’s role has significantly diminished compared to that time.

Markell: If states fulfill their responsibilities, it will have positive implications.

Haslam: Exactly. We now bear more accountability than ever before.

Markell: Tennessee has made remarkable progress under your leadership. For other states to achieve similar results, schools that struggle the most need to show real improvements. How have you managed to accomplish this?

Haslam: There have been instances of both success and failure in our endeavors. Turning around struggling schools is an incredibly challenging task. Our Department of Education stands firmly by the motto, "All means all." We believe that every child, regardless of their location or disability, should receive an equal education. We cannot accept excuses based on a school’s history of underperformance.

However, the key lies in recruiting exceptional leaders for these schools. Having a great school is akin to having a great restaurant, hospital, bank, church, or synagogue. The quality of leadership directly impacts the quality of the institution. So, the question becomes, "How do we find exceptional leaders for these schools?"

Markell: It’s true. Exceptional schools are always led by exceptional leaders.

Haslam: It’s about having great leaders, providing increased autonomy, and holding them accountable for results. If we achieve these three things, we can figure out the rest of the puzzle.


  • owenbarrett

    I'm Owen Barrett, a 31-year-old educational blogger and traveler. I enjoy writing about the places I've visited and sharing educational content about travel and culture. When I'm not writing or traveling, I like spending time with my family and friends.