breaking news

Kevin Huffman out as education commissioner

PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee's education commissioner from 2011 to 2014. He is now a consultant and writer living in Nashville.

Citing the pressures of the job, Kevin Huffman, who since 2011 has led the Tennessee Department of Education through the tumultuous rollout of a slate of drastic changes, will leave at the end of this year.

After Tennessee became one of the first states to win a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant in 2010, Education Commissioner Huffman was charged with implementing the controversial Common Core state standards, dramatic changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system, and the rapid expansion of charter schools to partly help some of the state’s worst-performing schools improve.

“Those are all things the governor wholeheartedly supports that he brought me here to push,” Huffman said in an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday evening.

Huffman was supported by education leaders like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his bold changes. But he ultimately failed to gain the support of a large portion of the state’s educators and lawmakers, who said his changes were too rapid and sloppily rolled out.

His critics were unsurprised to see him go.

“He was given the opportunity to resign  and leave gracefully and not be fired,” said Rep. Rick Womick, a Republican from Rutherford County who signed a letter calling for Huffman’s dismissal earlier this year.

Huffman said he was leaving not because of political pressure, but because the timing was right for him and his family.

“I didn’t feel like I was ready to make a long term commitment [of another four years],” Huffman said.

The Bexley, Ohio native is expected to move into the private sector but stay in Nashville, a city he says he’s grown to like.

His resignation comes just a week after Gov. Bill Haslam was reelected to office by a large margin.

“Improving education in Tennessee has been a top priority for our administration, and having someone of Kevin’s caliber to lead the charge during this time of significant progress has made a difference,” Haslam said in a statement. “I am very grateful for his commitment to our students, educators and parents, and I wish him well as he continues his commitment to education.”

Huffman, now 44, worked as a teacher in a low-income school in Houston, an education attorney and then as a fundraiser, attorney and executive vice president of Teach For America. He was married to former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee before they divorced in 2007.

In his first year as commissioner, he rolled out a new teacher evaluation system that more heavily relied on student test scores, which he said was necessary to weed out the state’s bad teachers.  Several teachers’ advocates complained that the test scores were flawed and an unfair reflection of how well they performed in the classroom.

In 2013, he approved adjustments to teachers’ salary schedules, changing the worth of an advanced degree.

Throughout his tenure, Huffman oversaw the shift to the Common Core, a set of increasingly controversial standards Tennessee adopted in 2010 that outline what students should know in math and literacy by the end of each grade. While Huffman said the standards will increase classroom rigor, several Republican legislators complained that the standards take away local control. More than half the teachers now don’t support the state’s use of the standards because of the way it has negatively impacted their evaluations, according to a recent study.

Huffman also led the establishment of the Achievement School District, a state-run district empowered to take over the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis. The ASD can either run the schools directly or hand them over to charter school operators. The district’s results, so far, have been mixed.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

“Just thinking about the toll of the last years and the difficulty of the job, I think it’s a good time for me to pass the baton.”
Outgoing Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

“Improving education in Tennessee has been a top priority for our administration, and having someone of Kevin’s caliber to lead the charge during this time of significant progress has made a difference.”
— Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

“It’s not a shock that someone in the commissioner position might feel that one term is enough of a challenge.”
— Wayne Miller, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

“I’m not surprised. The commissioner had lost confidence of lawmakers who had been listening to folks back home.”
Jim Wrye, lobbyist, Tennessee Education Association

“Under the leadership of Governor Haslam and Commissioner Huffman, Tennessee has made significant improvements in education. I applaud him for his contribution to the work and wish him well in his future endeavors.”
— Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent

Last year, the state had some of the nation’s highest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which Huffman and Haslam attributed to increased standards and school choice.

“Commissioner Huffman is a strong, courageous leader with an unwavering belief in Tennessee’s students,” said ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic in a statement Thursday. “The greatest testament to his leadership is student achievement. … we’re the fastest-improving state in the country and our kids are much better off today than they were three years ago.”

Haslam had been steadfast in his support of Huffman as recently as June, even in the face of mounting criticism from the state’s largest teachers’ union, superintendents, and some legislators.

The intensity of criticism increased after a delay in the release of TCAP scores last month which impacted students’ grades, culminating in a letter from 15 Republican representatives asking Haslam for Huffman’s resignation.

“Anytime that you push to change the way that we’re doing things, which we’ve been doing with education in Tennessee, there are going to be people that are unhappy,” Haslam said in June. “I think we’re (going in) the right direction, but I also think it’s important to listen to folks with other views.”

Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, which had long criticized Huffman, said he expected the commissioner to resign ever since the lawmakers publicly called for his resignation.

“I’m not surprised,” Wrye said. “The commissioner had lost confidence of lawmakers who had been listening to folks back home.  Once you lose local leaders and they really do not feel that the state has their interest and the understanding of issues at their heart, your tenure at some point is going to end.”

Huffman’s departure means the state must search for a schools chief at a time when several key initiatives, including the creation of new standardized tests and the continuing takeover of low-performing schools, are unfolding.

The leadership change creates an opportunity for initiatives like those to happen with more local support, Wrye said.

“I don’t really know moving forward what’s going to change but what we’re hoping is that whoever is the next state superintendent will have a really strong understanding of what happens in schools across the state,” Wrye said.

Womick, for one, thinks the next commissioner won’t change much policy, since Haslam seems to be sticking to his stance on the Common Core.

Huffman told Chalkbeat that he expects the next commissioner to continue many of his efforts.

Here’s a brief look at Huffman’s career since he was appointed commissioner. Click here to view the timeline on its own page.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools

Super Search

‘Who we are:’ Denver’s background statement for superintendent candidates, annotated

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to faculty during a town hall meeting in Denver on Aug. 20, 2013.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Denver school district is searching the nation for its next superintendent. The school board recently hired a big search firm to help find candidates to replace Tom Boasberg, who is stepping down in October.

The board also penned a four-page document introducing the 92,600-student district – and its greatest strengths and weaknesses – to potential future leaders.

“The point of this document is to make a statement to those who would apply and to the community that we understand how important this job is,” board member Happy Haynes explained at a recent meeting where the document was unveiled. “We wanted to make sure people have a holistic view of our district: the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

Chalkbeat has embedded the full document below. We’ve also annotated it with explanations and context about the various initiatives described in it, as well as links to our previous coverage and to other sources. Click on the highlighted yellow passages to read our annotations.