School & District Management

Achievements, Dissension Marked Tenn. Chief’s Tenure

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 20, 2014 5 min read
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman leads a discussion on voucher schools in Nashville in 2012. Gov. Bill Haslam announced last week that Mr. Huffman is leaving his administration to return to the private sector.
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Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s decision to leave his position as Gov. Bill Haslam begins his second term in office comes at a time of transition for the state, which has been hailed by some as a role model on K-12 policy and performance, even amid dissension over standards, testing, and other issues.

Mr. Huffman, who was appointed by Gov. Haslam, a Republican, in April 2011, achieved national prominence for his policy positions and his work in the state. He oversaw the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a new teacher-evaluation system, and the state-run Achievement School District, which began the co-management of low-performing schools in the state in the 2011-12 school year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other K-12 advocacy groups pointed to Tennessee’s 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, which rose more than in any other state, as proof of the success of the state’s policies, boosted by $500 million from the federal Race to the Top grant program.

But Mr. Huffman ran into prominent opposition from several groups. Earlier this year, for example, Republican lawmakers blocked the state from using the assessment from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a common-core-aligned test the state had intended to use to evaluate students and teachers. One result is that Tennessee will use its prior assessment system for the 2014-15 school year, even though it also will be using the common standards.

Common core itself continues to provoke controversy. In October, Gov. Haslam announced that the state would be conducting a review of the standards and accepting input about possible changes from teachers as well as the general public. But separately, a few days after Mr. Huffman announced his departure, Tennessee lawmakers said they had filed legislation for the 2015 session that would require the state to develop new standards.

“We’ve had massive changes in our education system,” Mr. Huffman said in an interview. “Any time you have that volume of change and that speed of change, you are going to get pushback. So I don’t think that it’s really surprising that we got pushback.”

National Profile, State Work

Mr. Huffman’s replacement, who will be selected by Gov. Haslam, has not yet been announced. The governor said that he wanted Mr. Huffman to stay at his post for his second term. In a statement, the governor announced that Mr. Huffman would switch to a job in the private sector. His specific departure date has not been announced.

His will be the latest in a recent spate of turnovers among state education chiefs. Since the start of 2014, 14 states either have selected new chiefs through elections and appointments, or are slated to do so due to impending departures.

Mr. Huffman is a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of seven state education chiefs that supports policies such as school choice, closing low-performing schools that consistently fail to improve, and school accountability that includes measuring student performance. It is affiliated with the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Two other members of the group, Superintendents Tom Luna of Idaho and Janet Barresi of Oklahoma, are slated to leave their posts after this year.

In addition to overseeing the early stages of the state-run district, which now covers dozens of schools that have mostly been located in Memphis, Mr. Huffman also directed the education department’s use of $44 million in Race to the Top funds to train over 70,000 teachers in the common standards, a move that earned the state praise from both the Tennessee Education Association and analysts studying states’ implementation of the standards.

In addition, Tennessee began a shift to a new value-added teacher-evaluation model in the 2011-12 school year. Although the state had been using a value-added system for several years before that, the change was significant for how it used test scores to evaluate teachers in nontested subjects, among other reasons.

“Almost four years is a long time. It’s a long time to be doing this really tough work,” said David Mansouri, a spokesman for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based advocacy group that stresses college- and career-readiness in K-12 and has backed the commissioner.

Mr. Huffman singled out common core as the K-12 issue that would have the trickiest political terrain to cover in the coming months: “I think that’s where it’s the most unpredictable. I don’t think that’s any secret.”

Disparate Views

Mr. Huffman came under fire late in his tenure for his management style as well as his policy preferences related to the common core and other issues.

In 2013, nearly half the state’s district superintendents signed a petition directed at Gov. Haslam and state legislators in which they strongly criticized the commissioner’s leadership style, saying “we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued.” And earlier this year, 15 state Republican lawmakers officially demanded Mr. Huffman’s resignation.

Keith Williams, the president of the 7,200-member Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said that in addition to the Achievement School District’s poor record of uniformly improving the schools under its control, Mr. Huffman deserved criticism for how he brushed aside parents, teachers, lawmakers, and others involved in K-12 policy in favor of predetermined approaches including an emphasis on charter schools. The end result, he said, was “a very hostile work environment” for teachers.

“He had a national agenda that he promoted,” Mr. Williams said, referring to Mr. Huffman’s support for charter schools and his background working as an executive at Teach for America.

The Tennessee Education Association showed its opposition to the new evaluation system by suing the state to overturn it earlier this year.

Mr. Williams added that the state’s notable improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is counterbalanced by its relatively low standing on the test in terms of achievement—in 2013, the state ranked 31st in reading and 37th in math after its best-in-the-nation score gains. (Mr. Huffman has made a similar point in the past, and said in the interview that “simply staying the course” won’t ultimately lead to above-average scores from Tennessee students.)

For his own part, Mr. Huffman rejected Mr. Williams’ complaint that he shoehorned a specific policy agenda into Tennessee public schools. He stressed that despite his concerns about Tennessee’s relative standing in terms of student achievement, “We have done a pretty good job of advancing educational outcomes.”

Asked for any advice he has for his successor, Mr. Huffman said, “Bring your thickest skin.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Achievement, Dissension Marked Tennessee Chief’s Tenure


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