Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman told state lawmakers Tuesday that his department’s primary goal over the next two years is to make public schools here become “the fastest improving” in the United States.
“We’ve put a stake in the ground that Tennessee should be No. 1 in rate-of-growth by 2015, and we are going to measure that on national assessments,” said Huffman, who became the Gov. Bill Haslam’s top education official in 2011.
“We know that we aren’t going to go from 46th in absolute results to first in absolute results,” said Huffman. “But what we can do is be first in growth and first in rate-of-improvement. We think that if we can be first in improvement of results, then over the next decade we will see Tennessee’s academic outcomes change considerably relative to other states.”
Huffman delivered his remarks during a presentation before the Senate Education Committee, which met this week for the first time in 2013.
Tennessee is “not where we want to be” nationally or in comparison to other states in the Southeast, but Huffman said he’s optimistic reforms and policy shifts undertaken over the last three years — tenure changes, teacher evaluation alterations, securing waiver from No Child Left Behind, lifting the cap on charters and winning the Race to the Top grant — have set a foundation upon which to build success.
“While we don’t feel very good about where the results were historically, we do feel like we are starting to see some of the work pay off,” Huffman said. Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program scores have shown improvement in elementary school math and science scores, as well as reading, he said.
Nevertheless, Huffman said there’s still plenty of room for worry, particularly with respect to poor and black students.
“African-American students and low-income students in Tennessee significantly under-perform their peers, which is obviously a significant problem as we think about equality of opportunity,” said Huffman, who added that “it is not necessarily the case that low-income students perform at a lower level” as a matter of statistical certainty across the country.
Tennessee, for example, ranks worse in student performance for African-American and low-income students than North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, he said.
“On the one hand that is disconcerting. On the other hand it shows us that it is possible to get significantly better results with all students, including low-income students,” he said. “If low-income children in Kentucky can perform at a much higher level, then we know that low income children in Tennessee can as well if we build the system that gives them the chances that they deserve.”
Huffman noted that it isn’t just blacks in Tennessee who are lagging — white students are, too. For example, he said, the only state Tennessee’s white fourth graders beat out nationally in math was West Virginia, according to 2011 figures Huffman presented to the committee.
“We can’t view these results as acceptable,” he said.
In addition to Tennessee’s generally low performance as a whole compared to other states, there are also significant gaps between students within schools. Furthermore, the parents of “average” children should be concerned, because average in Tennessee is distinctly lower than that of the nation and “not where we need to be,” he said.
“We simply are going to have to raise the results for all children if they are going to have opportunities to compete with students in other states and other countries,” he said.