Your editor wasn’t surprised that Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman handed in his walking papers yesterday. For one, running a state education agency, especially in an age in which states are the lead players in overhauling public education, may actually be harder (especially given the lack of resources for the complex tasks) than operating a traditional district. As Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week notes, just 21 states have the same chief state school officer they had in place two years ago when he started covering his beat. [Even more have changed over since 2007, when Dropout Nation began what was then irregular publication.]
Secondly, in the case of Huffman, there was also the fact that Volunteer State Gov. Bill Haslam, often a fair weather reformer when it comes to such matters as expanding school choice, was likely to back off on implementing Common Core reading and math standards in order to assuage movement conservatives opposed to them. If Haslam is already willing to give up on this important aspect of systemic reform, he will likely back away from the teacher quality reforms and other efforts Huffman was overseeing.
This isn’t to say that the former Teach For America executive’s efforts were always the most-sensible for kids. Dropout Nation has been particularly critical of Tennessee’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets allowed by the Obama Administration as part of its successful No Child waiver plan. Sure, Huffman, Haslam and other officials may think they mean well by focusing solely on growth instead of also looking at overall proficiency. But the consequence of this is simply condemning poor and minority kids to low expectations as well as letting districts and schools off the hook for providing high-quality education for all kids. For that, Huffman should offer an apology to Volunteer State children for even codifying such thinking into policy.
Yet at the same time, Huffman has done plenty of good in continuing the much-needed overhaul of Tennessee’s public education system, often battling traditionalists (including districts and the National Education Association’s Volunteer State affiliate) opposed to any effort to provide kids with high-quality education.
Huffman’s successful implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, which uses objective test score growth data to measure 35 percent of teacher performance, has not been welcomed by either the NEA or by other traditionalists because it promises to shine an even harsher light on the low quality of teaching that persists in the state, especially in schools and districts serving Tennessee’s poor and minority children. Yet in implementing the evaluation system — and in successfully convincing the legislature to increase the frequency of evaluations for tenured teachers from every five years to annual — Huffman has helped foster a culture in which teachers can be recognized for success in improving student achievement or held accountable for failing to do so. At the same time, the moves also hold districts in the state accountable for doing the proper job of measuring teacher performance and weeding out those who don’t belong in classrooms. There’s still plenty to do on this front. But these are important steps that deserve recognition.
Huffman’s moves on teacher compensation have also been in important. By consolidating salary scales from 21 steps to four Huffman helped the Volunteer State admit decades of evidence that show that there is no correlation between seniority and ability to improve student achievement. In eliminating all but two salary increases for attaining graduate degrees, Huffman also helped the state admit the fact that there is also no correlation between degree attainment and teacher performance in the classroom. Both moves allow districts to offer performance-based bonuses and other pay increases tied to what teachers actually contribute to improving the futures of children. Add in his efforts to create new paths for teachers who want to take on more-challenging roles, yet don’t want to move into classrooms (including creation of coaching positions for teachers to help their peers implement Common Core), and Huffman’s efforts on the teacher quality front have been substantial.
Then there is Huffman’s willingness to serve as a strong messenger for advancing systemic reform — even against powerful opponents in the legislature as well as district superintendents such as Williamson County’s Mike Looney (who managed to get a state law passed effectively exempting his district from the state’s accountability system). That fact is one reason why 15 legislators — including Rep. Mike Sparks — issued a letter earlier this year calling for Haslam to force Huffman out of the job. As current and former counterparts such as former Indiana and Florida education chief Tony Bennett can attest, this is often be hard for any chief state school officer to do. There’s nothing wrong with being polarizing and divisive on behalf of our children. In fact, no one can fight for brighter futures for our children without taking stands that force men and women to make choices they would rather avoid. And for this being divisive and courageous, Huffman deserves praise.
Meanwhile Huffman has done something that chief state school officers, regardless of their party or policy orientation, should always do: Be honest and responsive. When Dropout Nation noted last year that Tennessee excluded high numbers of ELL students and kids in special ed ghettos from the latest edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (including a 27 percent exclusion rate for eighth-graders in special ed on NAEP’s reading exam, and an 18 percent exclusion rate of 14 percent of eighth-grade special ed kids from NAEP’s math exam), Huffman didn’t offer an excuse. Instead, he explained the Volunteer State’s long and sordid history of how it would engage in this form of test-cheating, discussed how the state cut such exclusion levels by half under his watch, and pledged that the state would continue to reduce NAEP cheating. This stands starkly in contrast to responses from other states with high NAEP exclusion levels, many of whom didn’t even bother to respond or came up with excuses for their misbehavior.
One can imagine how much more Huffman could have done if Haslam was more-willing to use his political capital to continue reform. Haslam did nothing earlier this year when the Volunteer State’s legislature passed a law barring the use of test score growth data from the state’s Value-Added data system (the oldest in the country) in licensing decisions. Haslam’s move last month to launch a review of Common Core also undercut Huffman’s efforts to advance systemic reform. Because Haslam has been far more concerned with being liked and getting re-elected (even though he had almost no credible competition among either Republicans or Democrats), he has done little more than weaken Huffman and the state board of education, who have actually shown far greater backbone in withstanding traditionalist and movement conservative opposition.
Huffman’s resignation, along with the likelihood of Haslam appointing a less hard-charging state schools chief, bodes badly for children (especially my nephew and niece — this is personal) in the state. Your editor expects Haslam to fold like a tabloid newspaper on Common Core implementation within the next year. There’s also little chance that Haslam will push hard on other reforms (including expanding school choice) or even strongly defend the efforts Huffman has already undertaken.
But this turn of events is not shocking. As Dropout Nation has continually pointed out, any notion among reformers that one party is better on advancing systemic reform than the other is a fallacy; especially in southern states such as Tennessee (where school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities, the most-powerful political players, and the breeding grounds for so many politicians), Republican domination of statewide politics does not any advancements in overhauling public education. [This, by the way, is why conservative reformers need to temper their exuberance over last week’s Election Day victories; as seen in the case of Haslam, as well as Florida’s Rick Scott, being a Republican or a conservative doesn’t translate into being a reformer.]
For reformers, Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan. This means cultivating supporters in both parties to sustain reform efforts, as well as build up strong grassroots support in order to keep politicians honest.
The good news, however, is that Huffman can now go back to the national stage and advance systemic reform as he has done for most of his career. He has set a fine example of school leadership that his soon-to-be former colleagues, along with future state school chiefs, should follow.