Why TN Teachers Didn’t Like Kevin Huffman

Kevin Huffman announced yesterday he’s leaving his post as Commissioner of Education. The news was met positively by many teachers around the state. But, why didn’t Tennessee teachers care for Kevin Huffman? Why did a number of local teacher associations vote “no confidence” in Huffman in 2013? Why did Directors from across the state sign a letter telling the Governor that Huffman needed to do a better job?

I wrote a post for a different blog back in 2011, Huffman’s first year, about his remarks on teacher evaluation. In short, he got off to a bad start in terms of communicating with and about teachers, and never recovered.

Here’s that post from 2011 in its entirety, with some notes about what has happened since then included:

Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman, offered his thoughts today on the state’s new evaluation system for teachers which takes effect this year.


While I certainly agree that the evaluation system needed significant improvement, I have some concerns about the Commissioner’s statements.


Specifically, he notes:


Tennessee is now a few weeks into a new era of evaluation. The new system is strong, though not perfect, and it represents a dramatic leap forward over the past system that told nearly all teachers they had succeeded, even when students had failed.


This statement assumes that the poor performance of Tennessee students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was solely or primarily the result of bad teachers. By his calculations, since 70 percent of students failed to meet satisfactory progress on the NAEP, 70 percent of Tennessee teachers must not be performing up to par.


What’s missing from his analysis, however, is the reality that until 2010, Tennessee had incredibly low standards relative to the NAEP. In fact, nearly 87% of students were deemed proficient on TCAPs despite only 27% testing proficient on the NAEP. Here’s the deal: Tennessee schools were held accountable under NCLB for hitting TCAP benchmarks. Tennessee policymakers set the standard. And Tennessee teachers were hitting the mark they were told was important. In fact, data suggest more and more Tennessee students were marching toward TCAP proficiency each year. By that indicator, Tennessee teachers were doing a fine job. Policymakers set a target, and Tennessee teachers hit it year after year. Since curriculum and accountability were not tied to NAEP, it seems unreasonable to expect that teachers would be helping students hit NAEP benchmarks.


Huffman’s remarks also ignore this reality: Tennessee spends less per student than most of our neighboring states. 8 states test 100% of graduates on the ACT. Tennessee ranks 7th in that group, below every other state that spends MORE per pupil than Tennessee. Kentucky spends about $1500 more per student than Tennessee and gets significantly better results on the NAEP year after year. The point being: teachers can only do so much with limited resources and our state has done a pretty good job of limiting the resources.


Huffman also notes:


As new student assessments are developed and vetted by Tennessee educators and experts, we expect that next year, it will be possible for 70 percent of teachers to be evaluated by their own student-assessment results. Eventually, more than 90 percent of teachers will have such options.

This dream still hasn’t been realized — Portfolios are available for some non-tested subjects, but are not in wide use due to cost.

So more teachers will have their own value-added data. This means more assessments (TESTS) for Tennessee students. Will there now be TCAP-like tests in grades K-2? As the parent of a Kindergartener, I certainly hope not. What about related arts? Will there be a written test for an instrumental music course? Or is the value-added that a student who previously struggled with the flute now excels? How is that measured? In performance-based art, music, and theatre classes, will more time be spent drilling on concepts so a kid can pass a written test rather than on actually improving one’s ability to draw, sing, or perform?


Finally, the new evaluations are time-intensive and do provide regular feedback. That’s a good thing. However, there’s no indication of available funding for meaningful professional development tied to the evaluations. There is yet to be a serious discussion of funding for mentors for early career teachers to help them get up to speed on key concepts and improve their technique. Teach for America (where Huffman worked as a teacher and then as a national organizational leader) relies heavily on intensive support for their Corps members. Lessons are video-taped, coaches are provided, feedback is regular and strategies for improvement are offered. Research suggests that intensive mentoring in the first two years of a teacher’s career not only improves their practice and increases retention, but also results in higher student achievement.


Tennessee’s new evaluation system for teachers is no doubt an improvement. But unless that system is coupled with meaningful support for teachers and adequate classroom resources, we’ll still find ourselves far behind the rest of the country.

There’s been no significant commitment to professional development or intensive mentoring by the state. Teachers didn’t get a promised raise this year.

So, Tennessee teachers started off hearing from Huffman that they had failed. Then, resources for support didn’t materialized and the transition to Common Core wasn’t well-communicated. Huffman suggested the same flawed, value-added based evaluations were responsible for a 2013 NAEP boost, and then a promised pay raise was taken away.

Is it any wonder Tennessee teachers aren’t too sad to see Huffman go?


For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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  1. Pingback: Teaching, a love story: PART 4 (the final chapter) – MY TWO CENTS

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