Reform-minded TN education chief Huffman

Nov 25, 2013 by

Kevin Huffman former Teach for America executive is a favorite — a virtual rock star — of a national education reform movement

Despite test gains, educators complain policies go too far

On the ninth floor of a state building on Nashville’s James Robertson Parkway, Tennessee’s much-celebrated yet much-maligned education commissioner doesn’t work from his own office.

Kevin Huffman sits at a desk on one end of a large room, with Capitol Hill visible from a row of windows. He’s stationed alongside his cohorts at the Tennessee Department of Education, a deliberate arrangement he says that’s about collaboration.

“Everybody thought they were going to hate it because of noise, but I actually don’t think it’s very loud,” Huffman said.

Outside the headquarters, though — in the boardrooms of local school districts, the hallways of Legislative Plaza and in the education and political blogosphere — the battle over public education in Tennessee has never been louder. And at the center of it all is Huffman, cast as the agitator, not a role he seems fond of playing.

“We genuinely care only about results,” he said in a recent interview with The Tennessean, calling the political score-keeping that surrounds education these days “peripheral.”

The 43-year-old former Teach for America executive is a favorite — a virtual rock star — of a national education reform movement that has put Tennessee in the spotlight for its abundance of new reforms.

Yet even after Huffman and his boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, told the world about Tennessee’s historic test gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report card this month — marks that drew glowing praise from President Obama’s administration — his opponents haven’t backed down. Two more local teachers’ unions — one from Williamson County, the other from Rutherford County — have since passed resolutions that gave “no-confidence” statements on Huffman, adding to several that had already mounted.

There’s still a Facebook page calling for his removal, along with the most publicized indictment of his leadership: a letter in September signed by nearly 60 Tennessee superintendents that accused him of considering teachers, principals and superintendents “impediments to school improvement rather than partners.”

“Instead of a receptive ear, our overtures have been met with scripted message and little interest in accomplishing great change by changing culture,” the stinging petition reads.

Big changes

Huffman, at the helm here for 2½ years now, said that while not enjoyable, public criticism is simply part of the job when challenging the status quo at a fast pace.

Those changes have been major: advancing a teacher evaluation system that factors in student test scores for performance, adopting a differentiated teacher pay plan that gives less importance to advanced degrees, overhauling teacher licensure, overseeing a new agency that has tapped charter school operators to take over the state’s lowest-performing schools and continuing the statewide transition to Common Core standards.

The piling on from teachers’ unions, adversaries of Huffman early on, shocked few, but the message from superintendents raised eyebrows. Huffman said he has talked to many who signed the letter and others who didn’t, and he believes there is no “monolithic critique” from them.

“Anytime you make a lot of changes, all people who work in a system are impacted by those changes, and I think people have varying reasons for why they’re critical,” he said.

On one day, anyway, Huffman was able to dial down the negativity.

That came on Nov. 7 at a Mt. Juliet middle school when he unveiled NAEP results that showed Tennessee was now the fastest-improving state in education gains in the nation, a moment that for some proved the critics wrong. Huffman credited the hard work of students and teachers foremost, while also pointing to higher academic standards and teacher evaluations as playing some role.

“We never lost confidence that the work was having a positive impact,” he said.

In his corner since he began his job, and during this month’s celebration, have been two allies: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Haslam. The Republican governor, who has been tested politically by the reform resistance, would end up sending a letter back to the disgruntled superintendents, defending someone he said has brought “a new perspective and energy” to Tennessee.

Haslam, while also crediting his predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen, for setting the path toward higher standards, called the NAEP results perhaps his most important announcement during his term.

For Huffman, who said he teared up during the national anthem during the lead-up of the event, the news marked a defining moment since his transition in April 2011 from the head of growth and development at Teach for America to a state bureaucrat.

Back then, he had plenty of options. With a wave of new governors just elected to office, education commissioners were in high demand. Huffman said four other states contacted him about positions, though he declined to name them.

Huffman said his career choice originated from a call to social justice.

‘Stars aligned’ in TN

A graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he went from college immediately to Teach for America, teaching for a brief stint at a low-income elementary school in Houston. He later became an education attorney and then joined TFA’s executive staff to lead fundraising. He lived in Washington, D.C., where he was previously married to former Washington schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who came under fire for her reforms to an even larger degree than Huffman.

In Tennessee, he said he chose a place where the “stars were aligned.” Under Bredesen’s First to the Top law, Tennessee had initiated some of the reforms Huffman would adopt and advance. And in Haslam, Huffman said he saw “something fundamentally different” in his commitment to make substantial changes.

It’s those changes, of course, that have opened the door to scrutiny. Skeptics have been reluctant to credit Huffman for the NAEP triumph. And Democrats, still sensing that the education war is an issue they can exploit, are at ease in delivering him blows.

“I think Kevin Huffman is a bad education commissioner in the same way Don Rumsfeld was a bad defense secretary,” Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville said. “He starts off with a very radical, untested vision and imposes it rapidly and with very little concern for the well-functioning institutions that his actions affect.”

Inside schools, some have accused him of installing measures from the top down.

“When you have statewide reform efforts that don’t take into account local reform efforts, there inherently is going to be conflict,” said Williamson County superintendent Mike Looney, among those who signed the letter targeted at the commissioner. He said he has “struggled to form an effective partnership” with the commissioner.

It should have been clear that Huffman might ruffle feathers.

If Huffman’s TFA background wasn’t an indicator of his reform mindset, piles of newspaper clippings were. As a guest columnist for the Washington Post, Huffman wrote humor pieces, touched on politics and virtually telegraphed the approach he would take when he got to Tennessee.

“We must make this the decade of education reform,” he wrote in January 2010, later citing initiatives he favors: decisions driven by “transparent data on student achievement,” differentiated pay for high-performing teachers and, perhaps most telling, “taking seriously who needs to leave the system” to upgrade the teaching profession.

In the same column, he quoted Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former superintendent: “To me the burden of proof is not on the people who want to change the system, the burden of proof is on people who want to keep it the same.”

More battles could loom. Metro school officials have questioned the equity of the state’s education funding formula as it relates to Tennessee’s largest cities and the state’s mechanism for funding charter schools.

Eyeing the upcoming legislative session, Democrats are already warning Haslam’s administration against moving the needle any further — demanding it not push school vouchers or a new policy to give the state the authority to approve charters. Both stalled last year.

It’s unclear if these will be some of Huffman’s last big political bouts. He said he’s not spoken to Haslam on whether he would serve into the governor’s second term if Haslam is re-elected next year.

“I’ve literally never had a conversation with him about it,” he said.

via Chorus of criticism doesn’t stop reform-minded TN education chief Huffman | The Tennessean |

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