The State of the States in Education: A Conversation with Former Governor Jack Markell

The State of the States in Education: A Conversation with Former Governor Jack Markell

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, gives the state of the state address on the first day of legislative session Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)ASSOCIATED PRESS

Educational improvements happen largely at the local level, so a governor’s “State of the State” speech can be an important annual lens on where the issue of education sits in a state. For a new governor—there are 20 this year—it is particularly significant because it sets the tone for his or her administration.
We’ve now heard nearly all these speeches for 2019. While every governor discussed education in some context, it was encouraging that two of them—Governor Polis of Colorado and Governor Little of Idaho—named education as their top priority. Unfortunately, Florida’s Governor DeSantis used that speech to propose scaling back the high academic standards set in place for Florida’s students.
Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell (2009-2017) knows a thing or two about the State of the State speech. I spoke with him about how he approached them, how seriously we should take them and what he thinks about this year’s addresses.

Jim Cowen: As a former governor, why does a State of the State address matter? What impact can they have?
Governor Jack Markell: For a governor, the State of the State speech is typically the single best opportunity during the year to explain to your constituents, as well as legislators, your perspective on the challenges facing the state and your ideas for how best to address those challenges and position the state for future prosperity. As a new governor, your first State of the State is also a major opportunity to follow up on campaign promises. There were some ideas I came back to year after year in my speeches—especially around how the interconnectedness of our global economy means we must have a sense of urgency when it comes to improving educational opportunities for youth, including the need for high-quality academic standards and assessments. I also repeatedly mentioned the need for improving college access for high-performing, low-income kids, as well as for improved opportunities around career and technical education.

Cowen: How would you prepare to give a State of the State speech as Governor of Delaware?
Markell: We would typically start preparing for the January address around September of the prior year by having state agencies collaborate with staff in the governor’s office on priorities and potential proposals. At the same time, I would begin to lay out for my team the kind of narrative I wanted to develop. Even though we started earlier, I was often still making changes an hour or two before delivering the actual speech! I liked to surprise people with some of my ideas incorporated in State of the State speeches. For example, I think I’m probably the only governor ever to have mentioned “IUDs” and “implants” when I talked about my planned approach to reducing Delaware’s high rate of unintended pregnancy. I could tell many of the legislators were uncomfortable, but it has been a very important initiative for the state!

Cowen: In this year’s addresses, several education themes emerged. Firstly, several governors—like Texas Governor Abbott, Rhode Island Governor Raimondo, and Maryland Governor Hogan—mentioned educational equity, though most did not offer within their addresses concrete plans for advancing equity. Secondly, governors like Governor Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, indicated they would revamp their state’s annual assessment system. But, lastly, and certainly the most worrisome to me was Governor DeSantis’ address in Florida which outlined how he’s planning to “replace” their high academic standards. I fear lowering the bar or, for example, making math homework easier in grade school will not help students in the long run. As you think about these issues within the context of your experience in government, does anything stand out as important for us to consider?
Markell: It’s certainly encouraging that so many governors discussed education as a top priority and are thinking about important issues like advancing equity. It was also positive to hear several governors underscore the important roles that educators play in our students’ lives, and that the best improvements in education policy tend to come from listening to the teachers and administrators. The real action will depend on what comes next. I share your concern about lowering standards for students. I remember those pivotal moments when it could have been easy to back away from high standards or high-quality assessments in Delaware. Make no mistake, students have the most to lose when decisions impacting their education are made based on politics. I’ll always remember the parents who told me that it was important that their children be challenged in order to be prepared to succeed in an increasingly competitive job market. High standards are designed to do just that – challenge students and prepare them for success in the future.
Cowen: What lessons did you learn as governor that you would encourage others to consider as they think about education in the coming year?
Markell: One of the best lessons I learned as governor is how having the support of the broader community is critical to getting things done, especially in education. For example, when our state was implementing the Common Core State Standards, we hosted “Community Nights” in many of our school districts where civic leaders, parents, and others could sit in on a real lesson that adhered to those academic standards, taught by real teachers. I often stood in the hallways after these sessions and was impressed by how attendees had engaged with the content and reflected on what was actually laid out in the standards. They also provided constructive feedback for our administration as we continued to roll out them in our state. So I think it’s important for there to be real transparency about what’s going on in our classrooms, and that’s something that both voters and elected officials can push for.
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