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Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman
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State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says he knew coming into Tennessee that as Gov. Bill Haslam's personally recruited "change agent" in education he would "upset the apple cart" and encounter "push back" from the state's education establishment.

But Huffman said the harsh criticisms he encountered over nearly four years from much of the state's education establishment and some lawmakers aren't what's causing him to leave a job in which during his tenure Tennessee students last year won national recognition for gains they made on national test scores.

Haslam, a Republican, announced on Thursday that Huffman, who became a lightning rod for criticism, had decided not to join him in his second term and was leaving for the private sector.

The governor praised Huffman's work, saying, "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."

Huffman, 44, said that coming into the job, "I certainly knew what the governor tasked me with which was explicitly being a change agent. I knew that was going to upset the apple cart, and I'm not surprised that there was push back.

Last year, the former Teach for America executive drew complaints from nearly a third of local superintendents who wrote a letter to Haslam complaining about Huffman's leadership style, saying he showed little respect for their views and professional educators generally.

The year before, teachers were irate as he sought to persuade the State Board of Education to make teacher certification dependent on their evaluations. The board initially approved that but later balked. Lawmakers then passed a law banning it.

But Huffman succeeded in allowing local school systems to change teachers' pay schedules. And he -- and his boss -- successfully pushed to tie teacher tenure to evaluations. Continuing the reforms initiated by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and embraced by Haslam, Huffman pushed rigorous testing.

But in June, 15 conservative GOP lawmakers wrote Haslam to demand Huffman resign or be fired. They listed grievances of school administrators and teachers. Many of the 15 and a number of other lawmakers were also upset over Huffman's resistance to halting planned use of controversial Common Core education standards.

Earlier in this year's annual legislative session, an oddball coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats dealt the governor and Huffman and stinging defeat by postponing the tests for a year. The administration is now switching to another test vendor and coming up with something besides Common Core.

Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association that fought Huffman on issue after issue, said it comes as no surprise to him that he's leaving.

"I assumed when all those directors of schools signed that letter in essence saying all his policies were wrong and they had little confidence in his leadership, that his tenure as state commissioner was going to be over," he said.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said he always found Huffman accessible and willing to talk.

"He had a tough job," Gardenhire said. "He was under fire constantly."

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, who didn't sign the superintendents' letter, said Huffman's ideas didn't always go over well in Tennessee.

"He came into Tennessee from Washington, D.C. He had different ideas and quite frankly pushed us in the state of Tennessee to look at things very differently."

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education said in a statement that Huffman "has been a leader in education in Tennessee during a challenging yet rewarding time -- challenging because our state has made important changes that haven't always been easy; rewarding because during his tenure Tennessee made historic progress toward the goal of all students graduating high school prepared for college and the workforce."

The group said Huffman's "leadership has been an important and meaningful part of these gains, which have made Tennessee the fastest-improving state for student achievement."

In 2013, the governor and Huffman celebrated as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, announced Tennessee had the largest gains across fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading of any state in the country.

And this year, the state also made its largest gains on the ACT since all high school students began taking the assessment.

Before joining the Haslam administration, Huffman spent nearly two decades working with public education systems as a teacher, lawyer, nonprofit executive and nonprofit board member.

He said he still finds it difficult to understand how Common Core became so controversial.

"I've never viewed Common Core to be the end all, be all," he said. "I viewed them as stronger academic standards than we had before, which seems to me a good thing that people would want to support."

So why is he leaving now?

Huffman said he continued to enjoy Haslam's backing, but he noted, "I think you get to the end of a term and it's just the appropriate inflection point. ... I try to go 100 percent every day ... but that's pretty draining."

There's also his family to think about, Huffman said, but one thing seems sure.

"I'm staying in Tennessee and Nashville," Huffman said. "I really like it here."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at timomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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