Policy project leads to career shift for Centre senior

Posted by Centre News in Academics, News, Research 06 May 2014

huffmanAn Appalachia native and the son of two teachers, Tony Huffman ’14 has long had an interest in the policy aspects of public school education.

He recently concluded a yearlong comparative analysis of the highest and lowest performing school districts in Eastern Kentucky as a John C. Young Scholar at Centre College.

“I wanted to make a substantial academic contribution,” Huffman says of his decision to undertake such an extended study. “This project was a way of testing whether my interest could be sustained in the long run.”

His inquiry yielded a number of unexpected results, on both academic and personal levels.

“My initial hypothesis was that the biographical information and pedagogical methods would be radically different between the high- and low-performing districts,” he says of his research. “I was surprised to find that spending per student, teacher-to-student ratios, and teacher credentials and experience are nearly identical across the high- and low-performing districts.”

Nevertheless, he did find possibilities for improving public school education, including encouraging high expectations and rethinking personnel issues that relate to teachers.

“The differences that do exist between these districts are that much more important and deserve considerable attention when we are talking about educational reform,” says Huffman, who grew up in Corbin, Ky., where his mother teaches. (His father teaches in neighboring Laurel County.)

No student starts an extensive research project without a strong interest in the topic — and probably a plan for how it will influence life after graduation.

For nearly eight years, Huffman had a clear vision for his future: law school followed by a career in educational policy research.

But research results have a startling way of upending initial assumptions. Instead of finding clear explanations for poor school performance, he found that in most aspects the schools looked the same. And instead of trying to improve education through policy, he’s discovered a more personally rewarding approach: art history. After earning a Ph.D. in the field, he hopes to become a museum curator.

It is, he admits, a “radical shift,” but “everything is connected,” he says.

“I like to think that I truly am the product of a liberal arts education,” he adds. “I majored in government with a strong emphasis on international relations, took French every semester, minored in art history and pursued a research project on public education.”

He also studied abroad twice, using his French in Strasbourg during a long term last spring and traveling in Spain during the short CentreTerm as a sophomore.

Educational outreach is increasingly important to museum curators, and he thinks his background will turn out to be well suited to such a career, even though it’s not the one he originally planned.

“I can highlight the fact that I have experience working with teachers and administrators on improving professional development programs and curriculum planning, topics museum staffs are deeply interested in when it comes to partnering with local schools and educators,” he says.

Now in its 25th year, the John C. Young Scholars Program provides funding and two terms of course credit for independent research and study. The seven 2014 Young Scholars presented their work and results at a formal symposium in April. The name honors Centre’s fourth president, who helped establish Centre as a leading institution of higher education.

by Diane Johnson