Huffman Fields Education Queries During ‘Webinar’

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman said Wednesday achievement gaps involving minority students are “a huge priority” for the state as it prepares to submit its formal application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

He also said he thinks the odds of Congress passing effective legislation to address concerns about the law are slim, leaving states to act on their own.

The state’s application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind is due Monday, an exercise necessitated by federal demands for more specificity on waiver requests like the one the state first submitted in July.

Huffman fielded questions from several Tennesseans in a “webinar” Wednesday about the waiver request. More than 200 people participated by Internet and more than 180 others by telephone. The participants were largely educators.

“One of the things we are very cognizant of, and that we think is really important, is that if we move out of No Child Left Behind and into a different accountability system, we need to make sure that we are focusing on reducing achievement gaps,” Huffman said in response to one question.

“And that means we are focusing on increasing achievement levels of kids of color across the state.”

Huffman has spoken publicly about the need to address gaps between whites and non-whites if the state is going to improve in education.

“It’s the reason why we have an accountability framework that includes both overall achievement growth but also closure of achievement gaps,” Huffman said. “I think the implementation of that is going to be very hard, and I think we’re going to need a fair amount of support and community engagement in order to adequately take that on.”

Still, Huffman said such gaps present an “opportunity.”

“I think it’s an enormous opportunity for districts in the state to build partnerships with different groups to make sure we’re doing everything we can to increase achievement levels for all kids,” he said.

Huffman and his staff are putting finishing touches on the application, and the U.S. Department of Education is expected to immediately review applications it receives. Many states have complained that the demands of adequate yearly progress in the No Child Left Behind law are unattainable, and they are seeking relief and flexibility.

Huffman noted that he doesn’t expect the process to produce a simple yes or no from the federal government but that it will be an iterative process where the department looks at applications and comes back asking for alterations in order to qualify for a waiver. He reiterated his desire to get a final answer by the end of this calendar year.

Huffman has noted that achievement gaps exist in various subgroups, including those with or without disabilities and those who are from low-income families compared to those of higher incomes.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is among a group in Congress attempting to revamp No Child Left Behind. Alexander, a Republican, while complimentary of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Obama administration, has said allowing the secretary to grant waivers is like making him “the equivalent of a national school board.”

Congress first established the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, and in 2002 it reauthorized it in an amended form as the No Child Left Behind Act under President George W. Bush.

Huffman said Wednesday he does not expect congressional efforts to address the law to succeed. He touched on the gridlock and partisanship in the nation’s capital.

“There is some chance Congress will successfully reauthorize ESEA. Frankly, I think that’s unlikely, partially based on where these bills are in their process, partially based on what we’ve all seen out of Washington over the last year,” Huffman said.

“I don’t know that major legislation seems likely to move through both chambers and get everybody on board with the right thing.”

Huffman noted that if ESEA were reauthorized, there would be no need for the waiver, because all states would be subject to the new law. He surmised that if a bill is passed it would not have the adequate yearly progress element that has caused so much consternation over the federal law. He said the state’s recent efforts serve a foundational purpose in any regard.

Huffman’s online presentation Wednesday drew attention to the federal requirement for the state to identify 10 percent of its schools as “focus schools,” where achievement gaps are most pronounced. His presentation was similar to the one he gave the Tennessee State School Board last week. He said the state would turn to grants and some of the funds from the Race to the Top award of $500 million the state won last year to address that 10 percent of the state’s schools.

He said the state will continue its practice of issuing “report cards” on schools but that the report cards could change slightly next year based on whether the state receives a waiver. Huffman said schools with the biggest achievement gaps would be competing for grants.

“We think those schools that were successful using those resources could be exemplars we could use to help other schools across the state,” he said.

Huffman said his department would attempt to standardize the way schools with achievement gaps are tabulated across the state and that there would be transparency in those figures. In response to one question, he said the waiver process would not make a big difference in the state’s teacher evaluation process. When asked if pre-Kindergarten classes could be a “turnaround strategy” for the state, Huffman said no but that pre-K could be “part of a turnaround plan.”

The webinar was held by the Department of Education and was hosted by Stand for Children, the State Collaborative for Reforming Education (SCORE), the United Ways of Tennessee and the Memphis Urban League.