breaking news

Kevin Huffman out as education commissioner

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.


“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.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.