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Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman
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Haslam letter to superintendents


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Tennessee School Directory

State Department of education

At first it was the union types. Then groups of parents grew frustrated. And now even the state's school superintendents are piling on criticism of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

His reform agenda was always controversial. After all, the state has dismantled public education's traditional structure in recent years, changing the rules for teachers and students alike.

But lately, criticism of Huffman has reached new heights. Teachers dig into his background and create petitions. Some 6,000 people have organized on Facebook calling for Huffman's ouster. And just this month, more than 50 of the state's 137 superintendents signed a letter to the governor criticizing his education chief.

That letter, drafted by Tullahoma City Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson, says Huffman's department "has no interest" in a dialogue with school leaders and instead views teachers, principals and superintendents as "impediments to school improvement rather than partners."

On Friday, Huffman talked to reporters about the letter. "I think it expresses a level of discomfort with the pace of change," Huffman said. There has been a "lot of change," Huffman acknowledged. "And I think there's been a lot of change needed."

In a Times Free Press interview earlier last week, Huffman said it's important to gather input, but "at the end of the day we're going to make decisions that are in the best interests of children in Tennessee."

As unpalatable as changes can seem, he said they are necessary to boost Tennessee's educational performance up from its traditional place among the lowest of American states.

But even as Huffman's boss, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, backed his commissioner, the governor also signaled a possible change in style, publicly calling for a "fresh approach to communications."

In last week's interview, Huffman also struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging he needs to do a better job of communicating.

"We're going to double down and try to do a better job of that. ... I think it's clear we need to keep at it," he said in Nashville.

But on policy, neither Huffman nor the governor is budging.

Critics say the 43-year-old Huffman has pushed his reform agenda in a top-down manner, with little regard for the repercussions in the classroom. But he says many of his policies, like a controversial change to the state's teacher pay scale, have actually done the opposite, giving local school boards more latitude.

That move, approved by the state school board this summer, requires that districts create some form of differentiated pay scheme, but allows districts to still largely use their old salary schedules that rely heavily on years of experience and degrees attained if they choose.

"I think a lot of the things we're trying to do is give education back to districts," Huffman said.

Haslam faces re-election in November of next year, and his continued support of Huffman could become a political liability if he's faced with a credible opponent. But at the moment Haslam is standing firm.

While critics are unhappy, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly praised Tennessee's progress over the past two years.

"Tennessee is literally helping to lead the nation where we need to go in education," Duncan said in an April speech in Knoxville.

Still, the growing outcry over Huffman's policies may point to a larger issue: together with fallout from other high-profile reformers across the country, observers say it appears that many people are growing tired of too many changes to our public schools. Maybe the public's appetite for school reform is dwindling. Maybe teachers and parents have had their fill.

"We see it here in Philadelphia. We've seen it in Chicago. In many places, parents, teachers unions and local community organizations are responding in ways to school reform we've not seen before," said Matthew Steinberg, assistant professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

Of course, complaints vary across regions. In large, urban cities like Chicago, parents protest the mass closing of schools in the name of reform -- a measure that Tennesseans haven't seen. But Steinberg says many parents are increasingly skeptical of the growing reliance on high-stakes tests. Education chiefs in Maine, Indiana and Florida have stepped down or been voted out in the past year amid growing criticism of their reform platforms.

Tennessee teachers often say they, like superintendents, feel left out of Huffman's decision-making circle. But for reform to be successful, experts say, teachers need to be at the table when drastic policy shifts are discussed.

"It does matter where this comes from and whether or not there's a coalition at the state level," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. "People don't like to feel like they're being left out of the process."

A common criticism from teachers lies with Huffman's own background.

His ex-wife is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools who gained notoriety and immediate criticism for her aggressive reforms in the district. Rhee resigned after a 2010 mayoral race that was considered by many to be a referendum on her leadership. Huffman and Rhee are products of Teach for America, a program that places recent college graduates -- usually with backgrounds other than education -- in poor school systems to teach for at least two years.

Teacher groups often criticize the program, saying the profession needs more permanency. Huffman taught three years in Houston and later went on to work for a Washington, D.C., law firm. For more than a decade, he worked within Teach for America's top management.

"I think the fact that he doesn't have an education background is a real bone of contention with a lot of people," said Hamilton County school board member Donna Horn, a retired teacher. "He's trying to implement things that are going to change teachers' lives and he doesn't seem to know the effect it's going to have on teachers' lives. And I don't think he cares."

Along with hiring established Tennessee educators, Huffman recruited other Teach for America veterans to work in his department. And while he said he believes in letting traditional educators have a voice at the table, those from nontraditional backgrounds should also get a seat.

"I think you get bad policy if you don't have the voices of any educators or people in the system," he said. "But I also think you can get myopic policy if you only have people who have the same experience in making decisions."

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell said the results of Huffman's reforms speak for themselves. In the past several years, test scores have largely been on the rise for Tennessee students.

"The bottom line is the changes we're putting in place are working," Harwell said. "Our scores are going up."

Teachers unions have remained some of Huffman's biggest critics from the time he was appointed in 2011. Just this month, the Nashville union passed a vote of no confidence in Huffman and threatened political fallout for the governor if he continues his support.

The Tennessee Education Association and Hamilton County's union have been critical of Huffman's policies but less harsh in their rhetoric. TEA President Gera Summerford said she doesn't doubt Huffman's intentions, but she said much of the national reform movement is based on an assumption that there's a quick and easy way to measure teaching and learning.

"When you question that assumption as we do and understand that teaching and learning is very complex and hard to measure," she said, "then you can't turn it around, you can't turn it upside-down and change everything fast and furious like what's being done right now."

In the past three years, Tennessee has taken on sacred cows in its education system. Both Haslam and his Democratic predecessor, Phil Bredesen, rolled out extensive reforms, beginning with Tennessee's $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.

Since 2010, the state has changed rules on teacher tenure, collective bargaining rights and the teacher pension plan. Teacher evaluations are now directly linked to student test scores and Huffman has moved to do the same with licensing. Collectively, critics say, those reforms seem to point to teachers as the major problems that plague schools.

"He comes across as a guy who doesn't respect teachers and quite frankly doesn't like teachers," said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

But allies say Huffman's flaws are less malicious.

"I think if he's got a weakness, it's communication," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick. "And that's being shown by the superintendents that are upset with him.

"It would be better to have people buy in than run over them."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249. Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.