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Tennessee education commissioner hopeful that STEM will make big difference in schools

Jennifer Sprouse • May 23, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Preparing Tennessee students for the jobs of the future requires raising their skill levels in several areas, especially math, the state’s education commissioner told a gathering of more than 200 educators at the Millennium Center Tuesday night.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman addressed the audience about the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Innovation Network program being implemented in schools across the state.

The conference started just after noon and Huffman spoke to participants later that evening.

Speaking before, Huffman said he would discuss the importance of the system in the broader context of reforming education and stressed that improving math and science education will help kids transition to a job market that is already leaning toward certain careers that require much higher skill levels in those two subjects.

“That’s what employers tell us and then it matches up actually almost exactly with our biggest area of deficit in national standardized tests,” he said. “We are farther behind in math than we are in any other subject right now, so the combination of the fact that we’re far behind, employers tell us that they notice we’re far behind and the jobs of the future are going to require a higher level of math and science, means we’ve got to prioritize it.”

After the state integrated a higher level of educational standards three years ago, the annual Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program given to students has shown improvements in testing.

“We’ve actually made significant gains and we’re optimistic that when this year’s results come back that we’ll see gains as well,” Huffman said. “We’re starting to see teachers and principals and the whole education system adjust to new higher standards. People are really meeting the challenge.”

While high school graduation rates are on the incline, the numbers of students graduating from college are down.

“I think it’s a combination of just the skill level that kids have when they leave high school, so not enough kids are college ready. We’ve got to build more of a culture of going on to post-secondary education across the state,” he said. “Only 21 percent of adults in Tennessee have a four-year college degree and we need to increase that number, but we also need more kids going to technical school and two-year colleges.”

Huffman said the goals of the STEM program are to improve students’ basic skill levels and to be able to display high exemplars of excellence statewide.

“If we’re going to do innovative things, we have to get kids foundational skills to a much higher level,” he said.

One of the ways the state hopes to achieve these goals is by opening up STEM academies and STEM hubs. East Tennessee State University will be the STEM hub in this area and the Kingsport City and Sullivan County School Systems, recipients of a $1 million STEM grant, will be the participants.

“We’re really excited about the potential for the school and the hub to make a difference here, but we’re doing six of those across the state,” Huffman said. “We put $16 million into these schools already to build the schools and the hubs, and the hope is that in the long-run ... they’re going to churn out the best practices that other districts can use.”

Huffman said as far as funding and budgeting education in Tennessee, the state has not cut any education funding and it has actually spent more money on education over the last few years.

The commissioner said the message he hoped to spread Tuesday night was his belief that kids can perform at increased academic standards.

“We are asking them to achieve at a higher level, but they can do it,” he said. “They can meet that bar and we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable for getting them there.”

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