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.

awarding leaders

Meet the nine finalists for Tennessee Principal of the Year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's 2016 principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis. This year's winner will be announced in October.

Nine school leaders are up for an annual statewide award, including one principal from Memphis.

Tracie Thomas, a principal at White Station Elementary School, represents schools in Shelby County on the state’s list of finalists. Last year, Principal Docia Generette-Walker of Middle College High School in Memphis received the honor.

Building better principals has been a recent focus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as roles of the school leaders change under school improvement efforts.

“Successful schools begin with great leaders, and these nine finalists represent some of the best in our state,” McQueen said. “The Principal of the Year finalists have each proven what is possible when school leaders hold students and educators to high expectations.”

The winner will be announced at the state department’s annual banquet in October, where the winner of Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will also be announced.

The finalists are:

West Tennessee

  • Tracie Thomas, White Station Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Stephanie Coffman, South Haven Elementary, Henderson County School District
  • Linda DeBerry, Dyersburg City Primary School, Dyersburg City Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Kenneth “Cam” MacLean, Portland West Middle School, Sumner County Schools
  • John Bush, Marshall County High School, Marshall County Schools
  • Donnie Holman, Rickman Elementary School, Overton County Schools

East Tennessee

  • Robin Copp, Ooltewah High School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Jeff Harshbarger, Norris Middle School, Anderson County Schools
  • Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary School, Johnson City Schools

you better work

Hickenlooper, on national TV, calls for bipartisanship on job training for high school graduates

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to reporters on the eve of the 2017 General Assembly.

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Sunday said Republicans and Democrats should work together to rethink how states are preparing high school graduates for the 21st century economy.

“It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue to say we want better jobs for our kids, or we want to make sure they’re trained for the new generation of jobs that are coming or beginning to appear,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, appeared on the Sunday public affairs program alongside Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, to discuss their work on healthcare.

The Colorado governor brought up workforce training after moderator John Dickerson asked what issues besides healthcare both parties should be addressing.

“Two-thirds of our kids are never going to have a four-year college degree, and we really haven’t been able to prepare them to involve them in the economy where the new generations of jobs require some technical capability,” Hickenlooper said. “We need to look at apprenticeships. We need to look at all kinds of internships.”

Hickenlooper has long supported a variety of education reform policies including charter schools and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. Last fall he backed a new program that is expected to this year connect 250 Colorado high school students with paid job training.

Watch Hickenlooper and Kasich here. Hickenlooper’s remarks on job training begin right before the 11- minute mark.