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.
“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.