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Education commissioner stresses improvement
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Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman included Warren County in his tour across the state called Tennessee Believes: The 10,000 Teacher Tour.
Huffman addressed local educators during Wednesday’s professional development day.
Huffman’s tour is to provide encouragement for teachers “as the most crucial part of Tennessee’s goal of becoming the fastest-improving state in the nation.”
Huffman was appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam in April 2011. He visited 136 school districts during the 2011-12 school year and began to speak with industry leaders in regard to their needs from the state’s workforce.
“It’s interesting that all of what they tell me is a variation of the same thing,” Huffman said. “They say they love Tennessee and Tennessee is a great place to do business. They think the culture in Tennessee is great, but they cannot find enough people with the skills they need. Too often, they think about looking outside of Tennessee to find what they need.”
Huffman says he questioned what was needed. The response is better math and science skills and improved soft skills, such as work ethic and problem solving.
“The good news is a lot of the work being done across the state, and what you are doing in Warren County, is focused on addressing some of the deficits,” said Huffman. “The state has set a goal to become the fastest-improving state in the country by 2015. That doesn’t mean we will be No. 1 in overall results, but we could be first in growth.”
Last year, Tennessee had the fastest growth in state history on TCAP testing.
“We are starting to see some of the glimpses of success,” said Huffman. “We know, across the state, that we have many great schools and great teachers. In the Department of Education, we are trying to find all the great things that are happening, spread them to more places, and support teachers, schools and districts in implementing great things.”
Huffman says the changes being made now will make a difference in the lives of children in the long run.
“At this point, the changes seem very challenging, but setting the bar really high and having very vigorous standards will make a difference for our children. Five years from now our students will be better prepared for jobs than they are today. I’m excited about that.”
The session was opened to questions from teachers.
WCHS teacher George Smartt questioned why teachers and schools are being held responsible for how students perform on ACT testing when students who have no intentions of going to college do not take the test seriously.
“Some of them take the test in five minutes,” said Smartt.
Huffman defended the need for all students to take the ACT test, despite those who do not take it seriously.
“I think all students should take the ACT test,” he said. “It measures their progress and is a valuable tool to measure growth. Are we going to have some children who don’t try? I think so, but that’s one of the challenges. However, I think the majority of students, whether they are going to a four-year college, a two-year college, or straight into the workforce, do take it seriously and the ACT provides a measure of what their knowledge base is.”
WCMS teacher Alan Brownyard asked why students are not introduced to American history at an earlier grade.
“I have students, when they get to me, they do not know who Thomas Jefferson is or why we shoot off fireworks on the Fourth of July,” Brownyard said. “For me, as a parent and an American history teacher, I question why the wait?”
Huffman says the state has yet to take a look at the standards set for teaching American history to students.
Art teacher Sarah Nooks questioned why art class seems to be the last rung on the ladder in education.
“Art is just as important as math, science and reading. It has been proven time and time again how students that have art class excel in other areas as well. But, it seems a lot of other people don’t feel that way. This first thing they will pull a child from is art for something that’s considered more important. How do you feel about that?”
Huffman says he “doesn’t have a great answer from the state level” on the situation and adds, “I think one of the things we need to make sure does not happen in the rush to focus on science and math is to forget the importance of art and music.”
Centertown teacher Brandi Mansfield questioned the need to compare Tennessee to other states and the need for so much student testing.
“I’m concerned we are comparing ourselves too much to other states,” she said. “I think instead of worrying about our rate and our numbers, we should be concerned with children. Are they happy? Are they healthy? Are they wanting to come to school everyday? If you focus on that, everything else should fall into place.”
After an applause from the audience, she added, “I understand there is a need for TCAP and regular testing, but I feel like I’m giving an assessment every time I turn around. I’m swimming in data and numbers that I don’t really know what to do with. I don’t need three instructional days to tell me which of my little darlings was affected. I guess I’m asking if there is a plan to streamline the process and get teachers back to do what they do best.”
Huffman says comparing states to one another is necessary.
“Up until a few years ago, we just let everyone believe that things were going great,” he said. “It turned out, compared to the rest of the country, that our kids were not. I think it takes a measurement and comparing ourselves to other states to determine if we are doing as well as we think we are.”
Huffman also defended the need for testing.
“I think, if done well, testing is a powerful tool that can lead to better instruction,” he said. “The data can also provide you with which instruction is sticking and which is not. If you offer instruction on a subject and 50 percent of the students fail the test, then you know you need to go back over the information.”
Director of Schools Bobby Cox presented Huffman with a gift basket.
“Commissioner Huffman has been a good friend to Warren County and to me,” said Cox. “Whenever I want to talk to him or I’m in need of something, he has made himself and his staff available. We appreciate him including Warren County in his tour.”