ABOUT KEVIN HUFFMAN
• Age: 40
• Education: Swarthmore College, New York University School of Law
• Personal: married, father of three
Tennessee's new schools chief said getting the state off the bottom of lists that rank education boils down to two things - creativity and innovation.
"I think when our schools are failing students, and failing poor students in particular, we shouldn't take any option off the table," Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, said Friday.
Huffman, 40, said he wants to foster innovation in Tennessee schools by helping high-performing teachers and principals and coaching those who don't excel.
"We need to figure how to use excellent teachers as models, so that we can learn from them," he told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters and editors.
He hopes the new statewide effort to evaluate teachers more regularly will produce reports that show who is good at the front of the class and who isn't. Good teachers need to be on the fast track for administrative jobs, he said, and administrative jobs shouldn't, necessarily, go to the candidate who simply has the right advanced degree.
Like Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who recruited Huffman to the state, the new commissioner sees room for more charter schools and he's not opposed to school choice.
Opening doors at more charter schools that employ unique classroom styles and teaching practices could foster more learning, he said, and less regulation of those types of schools is a necessity.
"I think we need new and different kind of schools," said Huffman. "I think too many schools look exactly the same, and too many schools look pretty close to how they did 50 years ago."
Huffman was in Chattanooga with his new boss, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. They met with teachers at Hixson High School and Battle Academy in Chattanooga. It was the 10th teacher sit-down across the state for Haslam and the second for Huffman.
The men listened to teachers complain about how federal No Child Left Behind rules push them to teach how to take tests, but the 20 or so educators also praised new teacher evaluations as welcomed guidance from their bosses.
Huffman said stops like the ones in Chattanooga are helpful because they connect him with the professionals who spend every day in the classroom.
"Doing this, we can get ideas that I wouldn't necessarily get from people sitting around the agency," Huffman said.
Teachers seemed encouraged by the meeting and by the willingness to listen to their concerns, though Haslam made no promises and offered minimal feedback on their input.
"I think him meeting with us was great," said Debbie Rosenow, a fifth-grade teacher at Battle Academy. "It's so refreshing to see that he's open to hearing our concerns."
Haslam said he waited to appoint a state education chief because the position is one of the most important positions in his Cabinet.
"I had conversations with people all over the country and in state who I thought had some real insight into education, and [Huffman's] name kept coming up," Haslam said.
"He'll definitely push for change, but I don't think he's saying that we've got to go back and start from scratch in Tennessee," the governor said. "I think he realizes there are a lot of good things happening here right now."
Huffman has three years of classroom teaching experience but a wealth of legal and executive experience for the nonprofit Teach for America, which recruits teachers from the private sector to teach in high-demand positions in public schools.
"I think Tennessee is ready for change ... and a lot of that has already begun," Huffman said. "I've been brought in under a pre-existing mantel of change to help figure out how we get from where we are now to where we want to be."