State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman delivered blunt facts about delicate issues Thursday at the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development, like the achievement gap between African-American students and white students in Tennessee.
He also made detailed observations about the differences in student performance when ranked by household income.
Huffman challenged businesses to hold state officials’ feet to the fire as the state asks for better performance from schools.
He also said early data from a Vanderbilt University study on pre-kindergarten education is “pretty promising,” although he cautioned that the study is ongoing.
“You can’t talk about educational attainment in the state of Tennessee without talking about the gap that exists by race and by income,” Huffman said. “This gap exists everywhere, but it is particularly profound in Tennessee.
“Our poor kids are dramatically under-performing our non-poor kids across the state. We can’t get from here to there in terms of results unless we take on that gap. Unless we do more to help poor kids achieve at a higher level, we have no chance of improving the state’s competitiveness. So this has to be an area of focus for us.”
Huffman spoke at one of the breakout sessions at the conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville, but almost all of the other sessions dealt strictly with business development. Huffman’s role was to underscore how strong the tie is between improving education and preparing the workforce the state will need if it meets its other job-creation goals.
“If you rank all schools in Tennessee top to bottom on results, you see stark gaps by race and by income,” Huffman said.
He drew attention to the bottom 5 percent of schools in performance in Tennessee.
“Tennessee is 24 percent African-American in terms of its student population. But at the bottom 5 percent of schools, 92 percent of the kids are African-American,” Huffman said. “Eighty-nine percent of the kids are on free or reduced-price lunch.
“So if we don’t grapple with that reality, we’ll never be able to make a dent in the problem. We have to take very seriously the segregation of results that exist right now on the basis of race and income in the state of Tennessee. We’ve got to zero in on it and make sure that we are doing right by all kids.”
Huffman said he frequently hears from people who want to say the reason the state performs poorly in education is because it has a lot of poor families. But Huffman picked apart some of those assumptions.
He noted that data from 2009 show Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation in math. He said if you take national results and disaggregate them by income, then look at how Tennessee is doing with poor kids relative to other kids in the country, poor students in Tennessee are one grade level behind poor students in Kentucky in math.
“So to the extent people want to say that income is the driver of our results and the reason we’re not doing well is that the kids are poor, I would just ask the question: Do we think poor kids in Kentucky are more talented than poor kids in Tennessee? I haven’t yet had somebody tell me that they think they are,” he said.
Huffman said if you look at all the schools who have 75 percent or more students on free or reduced-price lunch, then look at the top quartile of those schools, they are outperforming the state average.
“I would ask: How come a quarter of the schools serving poor kids in the state of Tennessee are outperforming the state average?” he said.
“I think it’s important to understand that demographics are not destiny and that we have schools right here in Tennessee that are serving similarly situated kids and getting different results, and we need to use that as the motivation to try to get everybody to that level, because if we can do that we have a fighting chance of driving up results.”
He emphasized the importance of accountability on all fronts.
“If we’re going to ask teachers to be held accountable for student achievement results, as a state agency we all better feel like we’re accountable,” he said.
“One big thing is to bring a business sensibility to the table. Ask for data. Ask for results. Push people in the system for those things. A lot of times people in the business community defer to the education community. I think that’s a really nice instinct, but the reality is education isn’t really that different than anything else you all are engaged in.”
Huffman took questions from the audience, and two people — Shelvie Rose, an alderman for the City of Covington, and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis — raised the issue of family settings and parental involvement. Huffman readily acknowledged their point but said he felt the best attempt the state could make is to concentrate on what it can control.
“You’ve got to grow results from where you are,” he said. “As commissioner of Education, my central role is improving education and what we’re delivering through the schools.”
Another audience member asked about pre-K, and Huffman referred to the Vanderbilt study.
“There are conflicting studies out there,” he said. “But the best study out there is in process from Vanderbilt. It is a longitudinal study, so it’s going to go on for a few more years. But the early results are pretty promising.
“The early results look like it is making some difference. They’ll keep tracking the kids through school, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, who has frequently been asked about his level of support for pre-K, also points to the Vanderbilt study and is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Huffman told the audience that the state should not be shy about change in education.
“People often ask, ‘Are we doing too much? Are we trying to go too fast? Is this too much change because it’s making people uncomfortable?’
“You’ve got to ground yourselves in where we are in order to answer that question. For us to get where we need to be, we can’t be doing the same things. Doing the same things hasn’t worked.”