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Business and Economy Education

SCORE Conference Accents Connection Between Education, Economic Growth

They held an education summit in Nashville on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it turned into a jobs summit.

And that’s pretty much what organizers of the event had in mind all along.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, the organization founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, hosted the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University, pulling together various interests in education — from the classroom to the philanthropic realm. It was notable for its emphasis on rural areas, where issues ranging from education to unemployment can be difficult and complex

But it was clear the event was not simply about educating kids in rural communities. It was about preparing them for the workforce and, in turn, boosting the economy in those rural areas.

“It’s making real this close connection between education and jobs,” said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator and president of SCORE.

“They’re so interrelated. It’s not just something we talk about theoretically. It really is a matter of economic viability for these communities around our state and the families that support those communities.”

To drive home that point, the event had a high-powered panel discussion Tuesday morning that included Kevin Huffman, the state’s commissioner of education, and Bill Hagerty, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development, along with Frist and Woodson. Huffman said the jobs of the future will be different from jobs in the past. Hagerty said the connection between jobs and education is very tight.

But the same angle was evident in a morning panel discussion Wednesday. Joe Barker, executive director of the Southwest Tennessee Development District, drove home the point of workforce development and in the process referred to a megasite in West Tennessee aimed at economic development.

Barker also referred to the REDI College Access Program. REDI stands for Regional Economic Development Initiative.

“The key part of this is to recognize we’re an economic development organization. We’re not an educational entity,” Barker said.

“We got involved in the College Access Program purely from an economic development sense.”

He spelled out some details of the large tract of land set aside as the Haywood County Megasite.

“It is a large, potentially very attractive industrial site for heavy manufacturing. It is the only certified megasite left in the state of Tennessee,” Barker said.

“Leaders came together to talk about what we could do as a region to enhance attracting jobs to that megasite, and at the end of the day it all went back to the quality of our workforce and our educational attainment levels.”

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the largest higher education organization in the state, zeroed in on the high number of students who require some type of remedial education when they enter the state’s colleges. He focused on the community colleges in the Board of Regents system since they will be the institutions dealing most with remedial education.

“Roughly four out of five freshmen who come to our community colleges require some kind of remedial or developmental education,” Morgan said. “Of those, about three out of four will have math deficiencies.

“That’s kind of the big problem. But even when you look at reading, about one-third end up in developmental or remedial reading courses, and about half end up in writing courses. That’s troubling.”

Morgan pointed to the state’s Complete College Act, which is geared toward moving students more seamlessly toward college degrees.

“In an environment where completion is now the agenda, where our schools are incented in a very strong way through our outcome-based formula to focus on completion, obviously that represents a substantial challenge,” Morgan said.

Morgan said no matter how well Tennessee handles remedial education, real success will come only when students arrive at college prepared to learn.

“We can cry about that. We can whine about the lack of preparation if we choose to,” Morgan said. “But that’s not going to help us hit our numbers. It’s not going to help us achieve our outcomes.

“So what we have to do is figure out how we at our institutions can work with our high schools, with our middle schools, with our communities to lead to better success for students as they come to us.”

Morgan said there will always be a need for remedial and developmental courses for adult learners, pointing out that if he were to go back to college he would probably “test in” to needing some kind of help.

But the summit was still somewhat out of the ordinary for its focus on rural communities.

“There is a great deal of focus and data related to urban turnaround strategies,” Woodson said. “But we wanted to look at rural communities — and a third of Tennessee students are in schools in rural communities — which is particularly important. So we thought it would be smart and productive to focus on that.”

David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, echoed that desire.

“A lot of the education reform going on nationally is focused on urban areas,” he said. “In talking to folks and learning from people across the state, there was a real need, not only convening about rural education but to talk about best practices, then bring folks together to replicate those practices.”

Woodson said the idea for the rural summit came from listening tours SCORE has conducted across the state, adding that those efforts will continue.

“This really resulted from those conversations,” she said.

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Press Releases

TN Dept. of Ed: Early Reading Key to Student Success

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, July 13, 2011:

NASHVILLE— The Tennessee Department of Education announced today the launch of ReadTennessee.org, a website that will help teachers, parents, and community members understand new curriculum standards and increased expectations for learning. The online toolkits provide information on promoting early grades reading and accelerating student achievement for young students across the state.

“Research has shown that if children do not read on grade level by third grade, they may never catch up with their peers,” Tenn. First Lady Crissy Haslam said. “ReadTennessee.org’s tool kits offer resources to parents, teachers and community members to help us improve early childhood literacy making our children competitive for college and prepared for a high quality workforce.”

Read Tennessee provides an easy to navigate resource for teachers, families and community members to utilize in the classroom and at home. Each section compiles information, activities, and tools to help inspire young children to engage and develop early grades reading and learning skills. These tools will help teachers create more challenging lessons, guide parents and guardians in better understanding what their child might be learning and doing at different stages of his/her development, and encourage community members to get informed and get involved in motivating our children towards successful futures.

“We must support collaboration and innovation as drivers of our effort to expand opportunities for students,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “Our reading goals are very ambitious, and we have to continue to maintain focus on producing great student results.”

“We encourage you to explore our website and to take advantage of the information provided to help accelerate the learning of Tennessee’s children,” said Bobbi Lussier, Assistant Commissioner for School Readiness and Early Learning.

ReadTennessee.org is in partnership with the TDOE Division of School Readiness and Early Learning, Center for Literacy Studies at The University of Tennessee, Tennessee First to the Top, Tennessee Head Start, United Ways of Tennessee and the Office of the First Lady. Visit www.ReadTennessee.org to learn more.

 

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Education

TCAP Scores Hint at Statewide Education Improvements

Gov. Bill Haslam and his Education Department chief, Kevin Huffman, on Thursday lauded the latest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results showing students improving in key areas of educational achievement.

According to early results from TCAP, Tennessee students in grades 3-8 improved in math and reading by 7 percent and 3.7 percent respectively over last year.

“The growth trends were pretty consistent across the state,” Huffman told reporters after a brief ceremony at Murfreesboro’s Northfield Elementary School honoring teachers who’d seen significant improvements in their classrooms.

Murfreesboro City Schools’ was one of 18 Tennessee districts that posted a 20 percent or better test-score improvement in math and reading.

Detailed district-by-district results are expected to be released today, Huffman said.

“We’re all at the state level incredibly proud of Tennessee teachers, for the hard work that they have put in,” said Huffman. “When standards were raised two years ago, I think it was a hard pill for teachers to swallow — because across the state many kids who had been deemed proficient suddenly were told (they) weren’t proficient anymore under these new higher standards. It would have been easy to complain about it or not embrace it, and instead what people did was they doubled-down and worked harder and did incredible work in the classroom to drive results higher.”

“We owe our teachers a serious debt of gratitude for their hard work over the past year getting these results,” he said.

Huffman said state officials will analyze the results carefully to look for trends and indications of what has and has not been working in classrooms across Tennessee.

The governor applauded teachers’ efforts as well — however, he noted that Tennessee needs to continue improving significantly both to meet federal “No Child Left Behind” standards and ultimately to make Tennessee the “number one state in the Southeast for high-quality jobs.”

“We’re not at all satisfied with where we are at. But when you make a significant gain like 7 percent in math, you want to recognize it,” Haslam said.

Haslam earlier this week indicated he’d like Tennessee to receive a “waiver” from Washington’s “No Child Left Behind” mandates. The governor suggested he isn’t advocating lowering academic standards, but rather wants the states to “grade themselves” on whether their students are meeting educational objectives.

“With 80 percent of the schools projected to not be in compliance (with NCLB), we need to have some way to react to that, rather than to just say every school is not meeting the criteria,” Haslam said Thursday. “We are having ongoing discussion…not to lower standards, but to say within the world of ‘No Child Left Behind’ — if it stays in effect — how are we going to operate without just saying no school is meeting it. If nobody is meeting the criteria at all, the criteria is not going to mean anything.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested 82 percent of schools across the country are in danger of “failing” under “No Child Left Behind.”

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Education Featured News

‘First to the Top’ Teacher Eval System Approved

The next chapter in Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system will be as much about evaluating the system as evaluating the teachers.

The Tennessee Board of Education has approved the much-discussed teacher evaluation process, a step that provides a yardstick for measuring teacher performance in changing times where tenure has become more difficult to achieve and where the major teachers union’s clout has been significantly diminished.

The teacher evaluations have been the source of considerable angst among those who say there isn’t enough groundwork laid to give accurate readings on teacher performance. Conversely, Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman has repeatedly expressed confidence in the system and the potential benefits it can bring.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who said Friday he planned to read the details of the plan over the weekend, continues to insist that the time for the system is now, even though he readily acknowledges it is not perfect.

“That is in place now. I don’t think any of us would say we’ve reached the magic formula that we like,” Haslam said. “As I’ve said all along, we can’t wait to be perfect, but the evaluation committee has met, their recommendation is in place.”

The teacher evaluation requirement itself is not the current Legislature’s or the governor’s idea. It is the law, part of the the state’s First to the Top Act, a product of the overhaul in education that landed the state $501 million in the Race to the Top competition in 2010. Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, every certified educator will be formally evaluated on an annual basis.

Fifty percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation will be based on broad observation data. Thirty-five percent will be based on student growth as determined by the state’s value-added data system that has been available for years, although that data doesn’t exist in some categories. The other 15 percent will come from other student achievement information.

The overall plan calls for the state to gradually develop additional guidelines. But the basic plan is approved.

Teachers will be observed by principals, assistant principals and others trained under the program. The observers will use a rubric from a system known as TAP (Teacher Advancement Program), which its creators say is based on the premise that teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement.

The TAP system is based on measurements in four key areas: planning, environment, professionalism and instruction. State officials cite TAP’s record on research and resources and its ability to provide expert training for developing observers and evaluators.

However, not every school system has lined up to use TAP. Hamilton County has chosen a system called Project Coach; Memphis City Schools, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have chosen the Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM); and the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools has selected a system known as TIGER, for Teacher Instructional Growth for Effectiveness and Results.

Huffman formally recommended in a memo to the board in May that those three alternatives be approved.

Teachers will be observed four times each year, two times in each semester. At least half of the observations will be unannounced. Apprentice teachers will receive observations six times each year, with three in each semester and at least half of those unannounced.

Observers will be trained in four-day training sessions this summer across the state. The observers will have to pass a certification test, with refresher training throughout the year. The state is expected to explain to districts this summer how to combine the 50-percent observation, 35-percent student growth and the other 15-percent student achievement into a final all-encompassing rating for teachers.

Teachers will be given final scores that put them into one of five grades: significantly below expectations; below expectations; at expectations; above expectations; or significantly above expectations. These categories are where tenure attainment comes into play.

Under new state law on tenure, teachers can attain tenure when they have taught for five years under the same local education agency and have rated in the top two categories — above expectations or significantly above expectations — for two straight years. Teachers who don’t reach those levels may still teach on their current status. A teacher who has tenure now will not lose their tenure as the new system goes into effect.

Under the rubric for TAP, teachers will be scored as “exemplary,” “proficient” or “unsatisfactory” on various qualities, such as motivating students, how well the teacher presents instructional content or the environment in the classroom.

For example, in part of the evaluation on lesson structure and pacing, the score of “exemplary” applies if all lessons start promptly, “proficient” if most lessons start promptly, or “unsatisfactory” if lessons are not started promptly. There can be several items listed in each of the categories that are measured.

The grading works on a points system, with an “exemplary” performance warranting five points, “proficient” warranting three points and “unsatisfactory” one point. But the TAP system allows raters to grant two points or four points in some cases if they choose.

The Department of Education will provide standardized forms for documenting the observation visits. The plan also calls for a detailed system for filing grievances on the evaluations of teachers and principals.

Haslam expressed his desire to fine tune the process, especially for the areas that are not covered by data such as the value-added scores.

“I think the basis being 50 percent observation, 35 percent student achievement as was agreed, I think everybody feels good with that,” Haslam said. “The harder part is on the non-tested subjects. We’re going to have to live with that and keep working to get that better.”

But Haslam did express a level of confidence about the overall direction of the system.

“Again, I don’t know the final answer, and there’s a lot of people who know a lot more about education than I do who have been working on that. But I do think we’re on the right path,” Haslam said.

“I do think we need to have a way we evaluate so we can recognize those teachers who are great and need to be compensated more and those teachers who maybe shouldn’t be in our classroom.”

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Press Releases

Haslam Hires Charter School Leader to Manage TN’s Failing Schools

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Education May 10, 2011:

Tennessee Hires First Superintendent for Achievement School District

NASHVILLE, TN— The Tennessee Department of Education announced Chris Barbic, founder and chief executive officer of YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, Texas, as Superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD). Barbic will lead the state’s groundbreaking efforts to turn around the State’s lowest performing schools in order to ensure that all Tennessee students have the chance to receive a high quality public education that will prepare them to be college and career-ready.

“Tennessee is at the forefront of education reform in the country, and I’m thrilled Chris will join us as we continue to build on the momentum we have,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said. “Chris brings a track record of success to this position, and I look forward to working with him as we work to improve the classroom experience for every child in every classroom.”

“I’ve been deeply inspired by Chris Barbic’s work with YES Prep Public Schools in Houston. Chris knows how to create a culture of success for at-risk students and provide them with the tools and resources they need to graduate from high school prepared for college and career,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “He’ll be a valuable asset to Tennessee as they continue the courageous work of turning around their lowest performing schools.”

Barbic created YES Prep Public Schools in 1998, a network of high-performing 6th-12th grade public charter schools that exist to increase the number of low-income students who graduate from college prepared to compete in the global marketplace and committed to improving disadvantaged communities. The system serves 4,200 students in across eight schools in the Houston, Texas area. To date, YES Prep has graduated 11 classes of seniors, 100% of whom have earned acceptance to a four-year college or university. As a result, YES Prep is currently on track to tripling the number of low-income college graduates in Houston. YES Prep’s multiple campuses have consistently been recognized among the best in the nation and ranked among the top 100 public high schools in the nation by Newsweek and US News and World Report. More information about YES Prep Public Schools is available online.

Barbic has spent the past 19 years as a teacher, school leader and leader of YES Prep Public Schools in Houston. Barbic graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in English and Human Development. Upon graduation, he joined Teach For America and taught middle school for six years in the Houston Independent School District. In 1995, Barbic was named the Houston ISD’s Outstanding Young Educator, an award given to the district’s most promising educator under the age of 29. Barbic has also been recognized as the youngest-ever recipient of Vanderbilt University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. Last year, during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he was awarded $1 million towards expanding YES Prep’s efforts in Houston by Oprah’s Angel Network.

“What Chris has achieved at YES Prep is remarkable. He and his team have built a network of schools that assumes all kids should go to college and delivers results that surpass expectations,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “With Chris, the standard is excellence and I am excited to welcome his mindset and experiences to the Achievement School District.”

“I have spent my 19-year career in public education proving a simple hypothesis that all students, regardless of race or socio-economics, can achieve at high academic levels when given access to the same opportunities and resources that students receive in great private and suburban public schools,” said Chris Barbic. “I could not be more excited to return to Tennessee to invest the lessons I have learned in the well-being of the children in this great state as part of Governor Haslam and Commissioner Huffman’s team.”

In his role as ASD superintendent, Barbic will implement turnaround efforts at the state’s lowest performing schools, oversee efforts that create the conditions under which teachers and students can succeed, and work toward sustainable progress.

The Department of Education proposes to begin by taking in and co-managing five schools under the Achievement School District in 2011-2012 with expansion in the following years. The schools have been identified based on a definition including the U.S. Department of Education’s Persistently Lowest Achieving status, the state accountability status and a statewide lowest five percent designation. Going forward, the Department will work with each district, schools and communities to identify the best option to support continuous improvement in at-risk schools.

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Education

New Education Chief Sworn In; Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Tennessee’s new commissioner of education says everyone is looking at the controversial teacher evaluation issue all wrong.

It’s about finding the good teachers, Kevin Huffman says, not identifying the bad ones so you can kick them out of schools.

But trying to get Huffman to wade into the still-contentious collective bargaining issue being debated in the Legislature is fruitless. He won’t go there unless his boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, tells him to, Huffman says.

Huffman, who was introduced publicly by Haslam last month, was formally sworn in by the governor Tuesday at the Andrew Johnson Tower in Nashville. He now serves officially, replacing Patrick Smith, who had been the interim commissioner.

Huffman is aware of the battles going on in the Legislature regarding education reform. One of the squabbles regards whether the state’s ability to evaluate teachers based on performance data is advanced enough to merit implementation.

Democrats have asked for more time in order to get the evaluations right, but Republicans, who hold substantial majorities in both houses, have decided it’s time to move forward with tenure reform.

The Legislature has approved Haslam’s plan to extend the probationary period for tenure from three years to five. The system for assessing teacher performance calls for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance, with 35 percent of that coming from a measure of year-over-year student improvement through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

“One of the things I’m excited about with this new teacher evaluation system is we’re going to be able to identify teachers across the state who are at the very top of performance,” said Huffman.

“We’re going to be able to go to them, learn from them and also talk to some of them about the possibility of becoming principals, starting charter schools and about spreading their impact.”

Huffman comes from the innovative Teach for America program, where young “corps members” commit to teach two years in troubled schools with the aim of high student achievement. Huffman was executive vice president of public affairs for the program when chosen by Haslam. Tennessee has more than 250 Teach for America teachers in its public schools. He is originally from Ohio.

Huffman steps into both a wave of positive momentum and boisterous legislative turmoil in education reform in the state. The state is primed to make strides based on its success in the federal Race to the Top competition. Haslam’s plans include the tenure reform and lifting the cap on charter schools, measures that have seen relatively smooth sailing in the Legislature thus far, although Democrats have been successful at snarling some movement on charters.

But a separate reform measure, an attempt to end or substantially restrict mandatory collective bargaining between local districts and unions that represent teachers, has sprung from the Legislature, not the governor, and resulted in protests and political wrangling.

The House has moved away from an outright ban on collective bargaining to a more permissive proposal, HB130, limiting what the union could negotiate.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Republicans have maintained that union collective bargaining in public school systems is “unproductive” for students, taxpayers and ultimately the teaching profession in Tennessee. They’ve most recently proposed replacing traditional collective bargaining negotiations with open hearings where teachers’ perspectives, concerns and priorities are aired publicly before elected school board officials.

Huffman would not offer an opinion on the collective bargaining issue when introduced last month, and he wouldn’t budge on it Tuesday either.

“The House and Senate are going to get together and try to figure things out with the help of the governor’s office,” Huffman said. “I’m going to try to stay out of it, unless the governor pulls me in to offer my thoughts and opinions on it.

“Obviously, we’ve got two pieces of legislation moving through, and I think the House and Senate leadership and the governor will get together and decide what the right answer ultimately is.”

Haslam wants to lift the cap of 90 charter schools currently in place. A public-private partnership was announced last month that provides $40 million that could create 40 new charter schools over the next five years.

Asked how many charter schools might be implemented with new opportunities put into law for them, Huffman said he isn’t sure. “Part of that will depend on the charter operators that are out there and the ideas they generate, but I think there is more we can do to get talented people to come and think about opening charters who haven’t thought about it before,” he said.

Huffman frequently mentioned getting “pipelines” of good teachers and principals in place. He said one of the objectives is to make things easier, not harder, on teachers.

“The governor, from my own personal conversations with him, is incredibly committed to making sure teachers’ lives and jobs are easier in driving toward the kinds of outcomes we want,” Huffman said.

Haslam recently held meetings with teachers across the state to get their input. The administration repeatedly insists it supports teachers rather than opposing them. Many legislators, teachers and their supporters have claimed the legislative efforts have been an attack on teachers, especially from the Legislature.

Haslam on Tuesday said since he named Huffman as his education choice last month he has heard from many people with unsolicited congratulations on his pick.

“After I named Kevin in this position, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people at the leading edge of education reform from around the country, basically saying, ‘You hit a home run, and you don’t know how well you did in hiring Kevin,'” Haslam said. “So it was a thrill to me.”

Just before having Huffman repeat the oath of office in the swearing-in, Haslam said he promised to do a little better than he did on his inauguration day when he flubbed part of the oath for other Cabinet members. The Huffman event went off without a hitch.

After the swearing-in, Haslam walked rather than ride back up Capitol Hill, and he encountered a group of 4th-grade school students from Eagleville at the monument to President James K. Polk. Haslam stopped and interacted with the students, who were on a tour of the Capitol.

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Press Releases

House GOP Applauds New Education Commissioner Taking Helm

Press Release from the Republican Caucus of the Tennessee House of Representatives, April, 5, 2011:

Visionary Leader Takes Reins at Department of Education, Will Help Enact Reforms That Lead to Job Growth

(April 5, 2011, NASHVILLE) – On Tuesday, Governor Bill Haslam swore in his pick to guide Tennessee’s Department of Education, Kevin Huffman. As the new Commissioner of Education, Huffman is tasked with guiding and implementing the much-needed reforms that are at the heart of the education initiatives moving through the General Assembly.

Following the swearing in ceremony, leaders of the House of Representatives released statements applauding Commissioner Huffman taking the reins at the Department of Education.

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R–Nashville) stated, “I am looking forward to working with Commissioner Huffman to ensure Tennessee students have every opportunity at their fingertips and every classroom has a great teacher at the helm. Kevin Huffman’s background of strong reform will build on the momentum we currently have here to make our schools even better. Strong schools lead to job growth and prepare the next generation for our global economy.”

House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery (R–Sevierville) said, “I look forward to working with Commissioner Huffman over the coming years to enact an agenda that is both visionary and attainable. Raising the standards for student achievement and teacher excellence are laudable goals and I am confident we will reach them.”

House Education Subcommittee Chairman Dr. Joey Hensley (Hohenwald–R) remarked, “Governor Haslam took his time to find a strong, qualified candidate to lead education reforms in Tennessee. He found that person in Kevin Huffman. He has a strong track record of reform and will be a key leader for revolutionizing Tennessee’s education system.”

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Education Featured News

No More Waiting: Huffman Named Haslam’s Top Education Official

Gov. Bill Haslam has often positioned himself as a supporter of bold innovation in the realm of education reform.

The Republican governor has also said that in order to “capitalize on the momentum that exists right now in education,” his administration will energetically institute the “First to the Top” K-12 reforms initiated in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee General Assembly. That bipartisan legislative effort positioned Tennessee to later win $501 million from the U.S. Department of Education as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program designed to entice states to adopt higher education standards.

On Thursday, after a nationwide search, the governor named a prominent national advocate of bold and dynamic education reform efforts to oversee the state’s public schools and serve as the governor’s point man on “First to the Top.”

Kevin Huffman, an executive with the Teach for America program, is the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. He replaces Patrick Smith, who had been serving as interim commissioner.

“There is a national conversation going on right now about how to improve our schools and how to ensure that American kids can compete with kids anywhere in the world,” Huffman told reporters gathered for his introductory press conference Thursday. “Tennessee is at the epicenter of that conversation. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m excited to take this job.”

Huffman’s experiences and accomplishments with the innovation-focused Teach for America, where he worked for the past 11 years, uniquely qualify him to lead the department, said Haslam.

The governor said that in the process of searching the country for suitable candidates for the post, he discovered that education experts everywhere are paying close attention to what’s happening in Tennessee.

“At the end of the day I chose Kevin for three reasons,” said Haslam. “Number one, he is committed to the idea that every child can learn. Number two, he understands that having great teachers in the classroom, and great principals in the school, are the key. And he is going to do everything he can to encourage those great teachers to be in the classrooms in Tennessee. Third, is this: He understands a lot of the great things that are happening in Tennessee and wants to be a part of continuing that momentum.”

Teach for America places ambitious young teachers in troubled American classrooms where they commit themselves to “going above and beyond traditional expectations” in order to inspire students to learn. Tennessee currently has more than 250 Teach for America members reaching 18,000 students in high-need public schools, according to the state education department.

Launched in 1990, Teach for America has “become one of the nation’s largest providers of teachers for low-income communities” and is dedicated to “building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence,” the organization’s website says. Teach for America founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp, wrote in a September 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “We are the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”

Huffman, who was Teach for America’s vice president for public affairs and a member of the 28,000-strong organization’s “leadership team” before accepting his new assignment, is taking the job of education commissioner in the middle of a rancorous debate between the state’s powerful teachers’ union and politically energized GOP lawmakers, the most contentious aspect of which is a battle over a Republican proposal to prohibit local Tennessee school districts from engaging in collective bargaining with union negotiators.

The governor is also leading an effort to expand opportunities for children to enroll in charter schools, as well as lengthen the time a teacher has to work in a public school before becoming eligible for tenure — an idea that, while worrisome to some teachers, is popular among Tennesseans, according to a recent MTSU poll.

Huffman, who accepted the position on Wednesday, said Thursday he had not had a chance yet to meet with the Tennessee Education Association.

Asked if he believes the state needs to end collective bargaining with teachers, Huffman wouldn’t say. He said his priorities are aligned with those already articulated by Haslam, who himself has thus far refused to publicly jump in the middle of the collective bargaining brouhaha.

“I’m excited about the focus on tenure reform,” said Huffman. “I’m excited about the opportunity to bring in high-performing charter schools. I’m excited about the chance to improve the level of performance of administrators, teachers and students across the state.”

Huffman was also asked about the state’s pre-K program. Haslam has staked out a position that the state would try to maintain the pre-K program it currently has, but he does not wish to expand it to a universal program.

“My thought isn’t that different than it is on K-12,” Huffman said. “It’s got to be academically focused and focused on measurable results.

“Simply having access to a program that doesn’t actually advance learning isn’t good enough. But every kid should have access to something that readies them to go into kindergarten on an equal playing field. It’s important to look at the outcomes, not just what the access is.”

Huffman has been quite clear in the past that he supports much of what marches under the “school-choice” reform banner.

“In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school,” Huffman wrote recently in the Washington Post — where, incidentally, in 2009 Huffman won the paper’s America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.

“But if you are poor,” Huffman continued, “you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment ‘choice’ school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.”

He further declared in the Post piece, which appeared Jan. 31:

The intellectual argument against school choice is thin and generally propagated by people with myriad options. If we let the most astute families opt out of neighborhood schools, the thinking goes, those schools lose the best parents and the best students. The children stuck behind in failing schools really get hurt.

But kids are getting hurt right now, every day, in ways that take years to play out but limit their life prospects as surgically as many segregation-era laws. We can debate whether lying on school paperwork is the same as refusing to move to the back of the bus, but the harsh reality is this: We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who has himself taken a keen interest in Tennessee education reform, issued a statement Thursday applauding Haslam’s selection of Huffman.

“Kevin Huffman is exactly the type of reform-minded individual that Tennessee needs to lead its public school system,” Frist said.

“Kevin’s experience in the classroom, in education law, and in leadership at one of our nation’s most innovative education organizations give him the unique knowledge and background to make a significant positive impact on behalf of our state’s children.”

Huffman is originally from Ohio. He’s worked as a lawyer specializing in education matters and was a bilingual first- and second-grade teacher for Teach for America in Houston. He was previously married to Michelle Rhee, a prominent school reformer who was featured in the film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which a number of Tennessee General Assembly members watched during a special screening at Legislative Plaza last month.

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Press Releases

Frist: Haslam’s Pick to Head Ed Dept. ‘Exactly the Type of Reform-Minded Individual TN Needs’

Statement from Bill Frist on Appointment of Kevin Huffman as Tennessee Commissioner of Education, March 3, 2011:

(Nashville) – Dr. Bill Frist, chairman of the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, released the following statement today on the appointment of Kevin Huffman as Tennessee Commissioner of Education:

“Kevin Huffman is exactly the type of reform-minded individual that Tennessee needs to lead its public school system. Kevin’s experience in the classroom, in education law, and in leadership at one of our nation’s most innovative education organizations gives him the unique knowledge and background to make a significant positive impact on behalf of our state’s children. Tennessee has transformed into a national leader in education reform in the last few years, and with Kevin’s leadership we are poised for even greater success.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with state and local governments to encourage sound policy decisions in public education and advance innovative reform on a statewide basis.

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Press Releases

TN Education Commissioner Named: Kevin Huffman

Press Release from the Office of Gov. Bill Haslam, March 3, 2011:

Huffman Spent 11 Years with Teach For America

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today announced Kevin Huffman, Teach For America’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education.

Gov. Haslam conducted a nationwide search and consulted many in the education field to find the right candidate to take advantage of state opportunities to transform Tennessee’s education system.

“I put a special effort into finding the right fit for Education Commissioner, and I’m very excited to announce today that Kevin Huffman will become Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education,” Haslam said. “Kevin combines the experience of having been a bilingual first and second-grade teacher to helping oversee a national organization with 1,400 full-time employees and a budget of $212 million.

“With the First to the Top legislation and the Race to the Top awards, we as a state have an opportunity to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and Kevin is the person to make that a reality,” Haslam added.

Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits top recent college graduates and young professionals to work in high-need classrooms across America and become advocates for education reform. In 2010-11, Teach For America placed more than 8,200 teachers in over 250 districts in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, there are over 20,000 Teach For America alumni working as leaders in education and other fields.

“Kevin’s leadership has been critical to Teach For America’s growth and impact,” said Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America. “From his time in the corps to today, his contributions have been invaluable, and we look forward to all that he will be able to accomplish for the children of Tennessee.”

In Tennessee, there are over 250 Teach For America corps members reaching 18,000 students in high-need public schools.

Before becoming Executive VP for Public Affairs at Teach for America, Huffman was a Senior VP for Growth Strategy and Development for the organization, growing its operating revenue base from $11 million in 2000 to $114 million in 2008. He is also the first Teach For America alumnus to be named a chief state school officer.

“I’m incredibly inspired about the opportunity in Tennessee right now. We have the best data system in the country and an alignment around a plan with Race to the Top – an alignment that is bipartisan spanning a Democratic and Republican administration,” Huffman said. “My professional focus has always been on expanding opportunities for kids, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than in this role.

He also has experience in educational law having practiced at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC. In 2009 he won the Washington Post’s “America’s Next Great Pundit” competition for op-ed writing.

Huffman, 40, has two daughters, and his wife, Amy, and he are currently expecting.