breaking news

Kevin Huffman out as education commissioner

PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee's education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

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.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”