Haslam makes case as education governor

As Tennessee Promise reaches the end of its first full year, Gov. Bill Haslam is turning toward a new college challenge. (Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean.com)

As Tennessee Promise reaches the end of its first full year, Gov. Bill Haslam is turning toward a new college challenge.
(Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean.com)

In October 2011, when I first met Gov. Bill Haslam, at a Books from Birth fundraiser (long before I joined The Tennessean), he told me that his goal was to be known as an “education governor.”

Reading Adam Tamburin’s story in Monday’s The Tennessean brought home how effectively the governor has been in pursuing that goal.

On reforming K-12 education, Haslam inherited a plan and momentum from his predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen, who launched a new direction for Tennessee schools when the state received a $500 million “Race to the Top” grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant was aimed at helping Tennessee adopt higher standards and tougher assessments, to build systems that measure and track student performance and growth, to recruit, train and retain good teachers and to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools.

In his 2011 inaugural address, Haslam acknowledged the foundation that Bredesen set and his commitment to seeing the reform effort implemented. He also outlined his broader education vision for Tennessee.

“This is the time to continue significant education reform — and shame on us if we let this moment escape without meaningful action,” Haslam said. “The path for better jobs now and into the future requires more than the current 1 out of 5 Tennesseans over the age of 25 who have a college degree.”

Haslam embraced Bredesen’s plans on K-12 reform, and Tennessee has made a lot of progress. Along the way, the state has been heaped with national recognition for the innovative programs it implemented to accomplish these aims.

Yet, significant work remains on improving the performance of Tennessee’s K-12 students and the schools they attend, and critics of the reform efforts are forcing the state to make changes.

The state has undertaken a rewrite of the Common Core standards and assessments that were part of the grant. There is also increasing pushback on the Achievement School District, the state’s high-profile approach to turning around low-performing schools, with the Tennessee Black Caucus calling for a moratorium on ASD expansion Monday.

What happens after high school

While the governor has been a defender of K-12 education reform in his first five years, it has been in what happens next that he has staked his “education governor” legacy.

Driven by the needs of Tennessee’s businesses for a more tech-savvy and educated workforce, Haslam created his “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to have 55 percent of Tennesseans earning a post-high school degree or advanced certificate by the year 2025. If we don’t push Tennesseans to get higher education, the governor points out, as many as 500,000 residents will not have the education to get an interview, much less a job, in 10 years.

The latest Drive to 55 initiative is the Reconnect and Complete program, which will reach out to 110,000 Tennesseans between the ages of 25 and 64 who have dropped out of college since 2007, when they were more than halfway toward a degree.

The program to get adults to re-engage in higher education shows how Haslam thinks through a problem. He now has a dozen initiatives targeted to achieve his goal. They include:

  • Tennessee Promise program to send high school graduates to community and technical colleges tuition-free.
  • Tennessee Reconnect supports to help adults enroll in college.
  • Reconnect and Complete effort to encourage adults to complete their degrees.
  • Community college scholarship pilot for adults.
  • SAILS efforts to get students remedial help in high schools.
  • College success course pilots to help some high school students plan for higher education.
  • Tennessee Promise Summer Bridge program to help first-generation students prepare for college.
  • TN College Advisor website linking parents and students with an array of information on colleges.
  • Degree Compass program that uses data to match students with courses of study that they are most likely to succeed in.
  • Massive Open Online Courses that allow some college students and other Tennesseans to take classes on the Internet.
  • Efforts to encourage veterans to enroll in college in Tennessee.
  • Labor Education Alignment Program grants to bankroll new programs aiming to help colleges train workers.

“To me this is all part of this one vision to have Tennessee change its expectations about who we are,” the governor told Tamburin recently. “We haven’t always seen ourselves as a state that excelled academically. I think we can change that.”

Reach Frank Daniels III: fdanielsiii@tennessean.com, 615-881-7039, or on Twitter @fdanielsiii

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