They now look like a tag team, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Haslam conducted another “education roundtable” on Tuesday, with Huffman by his side, at Krisle Elementary School in Robertson County.
The governor, who took office in January, didn’t announce Huffman’s appointment until March, then didn’t swear Huffman in until April. It has been a gradual introduction of Huffman to the state, and vice versa.
But with the new commissioner sitting at his right, Haslam conducted the most recent roundtable with educators in a way that shows the governor is quite proud of his selection to head the administration’s education reform efforts.
Haslam wants Huffman there, very visible, by his side, as the state tackles monumental challenges in student achievement.
The education roundtables appear to be quite a contrast to discussions between lawmakers and educators on Capitol Hill.
When Haslam goes out to meet with teachers — except for an occasional soft reference to current political events, like a teacher saying, “It’s hard to be a teacher right now,” — the tone of conversation is noticeably diplomatic.
Educators looking Haslam and other policy makers in the eye tend to stick to the issues — difficulty getting through to students, lack of parental involvement, the day-to-day frustrations that even the best of teachers face, all in a tone of polite conversation rather than the vitriolic politics at the Capitol.
It can be hard to believe that educators at a roundtable are talking about many of the same issues the warriors are describing at Legislative Plaza. But they are.
“Everybody in the room may not agree politically. We may not agree on everything about schools,” said Suzan Brown, principal at Krisle Elementary, to open Tuesday’s discussion in Springfield. “But we do have the same philosophy that all children can learn and that all children deserve the very best.”
That was about as far as it went in terms of politics. Not a hint of animosity in the room. And so the conversation went from there.
Haslam tends to ask questions at the events. Huffman tends to take notes. Both give answers to any question thrown their way.
“We’re doing these all over the state, and it’s really for a very simple reason,” Haslam said, as a way to get the discussion moving. “While it might not be that far in geography from here to the state Capitol, it can be a long way from the classroom to some of the discussions we have in state government about our ideas for how to fix education.
“While we’re all concerned with doing everything we can to keep Tennessee moving and pushing forward in an improved direction from where we have been, we want to make certain we’re doing that in light of real-world discussions about ‘Here’s what it looks like from where I stand, in front of the chalkboard every day.’
“That’s truly the purpose of being here, to let you all say, ‘If I ever had the chance to tell the governor something, or the commissioner of education, or a state senator, or state representative, here’s what I’d tell them about what I do every day.’ That’s why we’re here.”
And that’s how it goes.
Nancy Parrott, a teacher at Krisle, told Haslam that while legislation on education reform was being discussed, the school was working as hard as it could, preparing students for tests, giving extra help, serving students from low-income families, and she wanted Haslam to see their school at work while people were criticizing public education.
“We have got to do something about the kids that don’t have the parental involvement, the kids that don’t have the computers at home. They don’t have the resources,” Parrott said. “They don’t know if they’re going to have supper tonight.”
She talked to a student the day before who lives in a trailer with 14 people, she said.
Huffman picked up on her point immediately. Huffman comes from Teach for America, the innovative program that attempts to address how a low-income background can seriously handicap a student.
“I assume that this goes without saying, but this is not an administration that thinks that teachers are sitting at their desks and not doing anything,” Huffman said. “Part of the reason why I took the job was I know the governor’s personal commitment to educators.
“I know there is some segment out there that bad-talks teachers, and those comments get aired more than they should, because I don’t think they’re reflective of the majority of people out there. They’re certainly not reflective of the way we think.”
Huffman said he didn’t have an easy answer for Parrott but that he has a commitment to making sure the state is less a compliance-driven bureaucracy and more of an agency providing “real technical assistance and support to districts and schools.”
He said the notion that people in education are not trying hard enough is not the case.
Haslam said he wanted to raise the level of expectations in education.
“The wrong message to take away is that we think teachers are doing a bad job,” Haslam said. “I really don’t think that.”
One educator said it’s not always a matter of getting parents to come to the school but having a teacher go to a student’s home that helps. When you walk into that home, the visual experience explains more than could ever be gained from a telephone call, she said.
Another noted that the older a student gets, the less parents get involved. Athletic events and home visits are important for connecting with parents, he said.
But just as Haslam made the point that the classroom is different from the political discussion in Nashville, the reality is that decisions in Nashville will affect that classroom. Political agendas, good or bad, include tenure reform, the status of collective bargaining for teachers, the number of charter schools in Tennessee.
There is an inescapable gulf between day-to-day realities in a school and in setting broad-based educational policy in Nashville. Huffman continues to express his belief in teacher evaluations. Teachers are uneasy about the system for some of those evaluations.
Huffman emphasizes the need to communicate in “real English.”
Real English is spoken at Haslam’s roundtables. Translating the state’s current status in education into the improved system Haslam envisions is the test. It’s the same in every state. But at this point, it looks like the governor of Tennessee is determined not to be the lone face of education reform. He has succeeded on one count. The players are readily identifiable. It’s a tag team. Results, in real English, are still to be determined.