Don’t Let Officials Shirk Responsibilities by Shrinking from Education Realities: Huffman

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.”

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Bipartisan Interest in Proposal to ‘Grade’ Parents

The newest member of the Tennessee House of Representatives has taken a look at the Legislature’s landscape of changes for education this year and has drawn a basic conclusion.

“We’re in a period of education reform in Tennessee, and everybody is being held accountable — except the parents,” said Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, who was elected to replace Ulysses Jones following the longtime House District 98 Democrat’s death in November.

Parkinson, a Shelby County firefighter and retired U.S. Marine, introduced legislation this year that proposes a fairly novel approach to encouraging parental involvement in the education of their children. Parkinson’s bill, HB1887, would have teachers give parents grades on their involvement with their students’ education. The grade-range would include “excellent,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory.”

The parent’s grade would appear on the same report card that grades the student. Parkinson’s focus is on Pre-K through 3rd grades, which he says are the “foundation years” in the life of a student.

Parkinson’s bill won’t pass in the 2011 session of the General Assembly. The House Education Committee has already ordered it to a summer study committee. But while Parkinson might have proposed a practice some would call off-the-wall, he has received a noticeably receptive bipartisan audience to his proposal.

Republicans have said Parkinson is addressing a perplexing issue that has been talked about by all sides in education debates for years without solution. Interviewed by prior to the start of the legislative session, Shelbyville Republican Jim Tracy, who sits on the Senate Education Committee and chairs the chamber’s transportation committee, said he thinks education-reform discussions “miss the boat sometimes” because often strategies don’t include how to better engage parents.

“We do have to put more accountability on parents,” Tracy said. “Teachers have students for about seven hours a day. Parents are responsible for them 17.”

“When I was in school, if I got in trouble in school, I got in trouble at home,” Tracy added. “I’m not sure that is happening today.”

And rather than summarily dismiss the freshman Democrat’s idea, several House Republicans have concluded Parkinson is proposing a concept that warrants further consideration, even if they’re not ready to enact it yet.

Republicans have even offered suggestions for him, such as using a pilot program to test the concept’s potential, and they seem eager to talk about it more.

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell has said the proposal to hold parents accountable may be an example of legislation that is “a little bit extreme.” But Parkinson said he got a different impression from her.

“Honestly, everybody that I’ve talked to thought it was a good idea, including Speaker Harwell,” Parkinson said. “I talked to her individually, and from my conversation with her I thought she thought it was a good idea.”

The legislation has an official stamp of approval from one of the most powerful lawmakers in Tennessee, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. He’s a co-sponsor of the bill.

Other majority-party legislators are intrigued as well.

“I think you’re on to something,” Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, told Parkinson in a recent subcommittee hearing. Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, suggested using a pilot program before trying to launch it statewide.

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said in the meeting that lawmakers should be prepared to thoroughly discuss the issue because there may be unforeseen problems with it.

“I think it does warrant studying, because we know the key to moving education to that next level is parental involvement,” Montgomery said.

When one Democratic lawmaker expressed concern that grading parents could create a wedge between the teacher and the parent, Parkinson replied, “Any parent that is not supporting their child educationally is already in an adversarial role with the teacher.”

Parkinson took a revised version to the full Education Committee that included a pilot program, but several problems were discussed, and the issue appears primed for a lot of debate.

The legislation may be new to Tennessee, but there is some precedent for the unorthodox move, and at least one other state, Florida, has considered similar legislation this year, although it has been put on the shelf there, too.

One version of Parkinson’s bill said the ultimate penalty for failure would be to have it classified as a Class C misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine. But that would be the last resort to a long series of opportunities for parents, including meetings over the grade or appeals available to a parent who wants to contest the decision. Parents could also seek a waiver.

Star Academy, a charter school in Memphis, where Parkinson has a daughter, is using a grading system for parents now, a practice in place since the school opened in 2004.

“The purpose was to increase parental involvement with the school,” said Dr. Kia L. Tate, the principal at the school. “I had previously been in a district school and was very disappointed in the involvement of parents and wanted to come up with an innovative way to get parents actively involved in their children’s education.

“Statistics show when the parents are actively involved that kids tend to do better.”

Parents are graded at Star Academy on their active involvement, with physical presence in the school assessed. The grades the school uses are “excellent,” “satisfactory,” “needs improvement” and “unsatisfactory.” Tate said the first year it was done parents would call about the practice when they would receive an “N” or “U.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, we didn’t see you at all this semester,'” Tate said. “From that point forward, they said, ‘OK, they’re pretty serious about this.'”

The feedback in general has been positive, she said. But Tate dismissed the notion that parents with children in charter schools are always more involved in their children’s education than elsewhere.

“That is a myth,” she said. “I have as many problems as any other school.”

Tate said she did not know enough about the proposed legislation for grading teachers to form an opinion about it.

“I just know it has worked well for my school,” she said.

The thrust of Parkinson’s bill would have teachers grade parents on their response to requests for meetings or other communication, the student’s completion of homework, the student’s physical preparation for school and the frequency of the student’s absence or tardiness. Parents would be able to appeal a grade through a process adopted by the local education authority. The measure calls for mandatory family counseling sessions if a grade of “unsatisfactory” is given.

An emerging term in legislation is “educational neglect.” A bill sponsored by Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, and Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, would establish that a parent who has control of a truant student commits educational neglect. It passed in the House and Senate. An amendment to Parkinson’s bill said a parent could be found in educational neglect.

A Republican lawmaker in Florida, Rep. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, focused a parental assessment bill this year on student attendance and communication between the teacher and parent. The bill was sent to a workshop and failed to advance, but it is already expected to be on the legislative agenda next year. Stargel’s bill, like Parkinson’s, focuses on grades Pre-K-3.

The Florida legislation was featured in a report by CNN.

The idea of grading parents is not new. It has been used in Chicago and Baltimore, with some practices going back more than 10 years.

Parkinson said a study has shown that children in certain backgrounds can be projected as early as the 3rd grade as likely to be incarcerated and that prison space can be built on that finding.

“Think about that. Third grade. We know the likelihood of you going to prison based on how you come out of the third grade,” he said. “This is where if you get it, you got it. If you don’t get it, you’re going to struggle all the way through school.”

He said the state is holding teachers, administrations and students accountable.

“Nobody’s holding parents accountable,” he said. “To me, that should have been first.

“This is a bill that gets to the root of the problem.”

Parkinson said there can be all kinds of reasons parents are not involved in their child’s education.

“There might be a reason we didn’t know about,” he said. “Maybe there’s a resource that would help get the child to school on time. There could be a drug problem at home. We don’t know.”

He ponders the positive aspects that could come from grading parents.

“I see this bill as a pride builder for communities,” he said. “There could be a parental honor roll. There could be a bumper sticker: ‘I’m an honor roll parent at this elementary school.’ It says a lot.”