PET Talks to Kevin Huffman

Professional Educators of Tennessee launched a new online journal today and it contains a wide-ranging interview with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The full interview can be viewed here.

I’ve got some excerpts and analysis below.

PET:  You started in your post about 3 or 4 months into Governor Haslam’s term, after Tennessee was already several months into the Race to the Top (RTTT) Grant Award and after the new evaluation system was put in place.  Yet, many people seem to tie you to the changes in teacher evaluation which was actually included in the 2010 RTTT Application.  Is that fair?

Huffman: Yes and no. No in the sense that we committed to implement the system (including 50% student achievement for all teachers) through the First to the Top legislation and then through the grant. My first week on the job, the advisory committee (TEAC) completed its work which included the selection of the TEAM rubric and the format for the observations, so that was all done by the time I came, and it isn’t accurate to say that I created it.

What set us apart from other states, though, is that we didn’t back down. Other states committed to do evaluation too, and many delayed by a year or two, or kicked the can even farther down the road, and we stayed the course. If that means that I am tied to the evaluation system, I accept that, because I think the system has made instruction better and helped kids learn more. One of the things I think people miss in the evaluation discussion is that the real value is not in anything punitive: it is in ensuring that real feedback and conversations about instruction happen across the state with a common language. And I think that has happened.

What’s missing, in my view, is the attendant professional development and early career support.  Early career teachers need mentoring and support.  Teach for America, where Huffman got his start, places a heavy emphasis on targeted coaching and mentoring in the first two years. Even if the evaluation process is on balance a good one (and there’s debate about that), it’s difficult to see how it improves instruction significantly without supports and targeted professional development being provided to teachers. 

PET:  What changes do we need to make in teacher evaluations?  And what should the state have done differently in retrospect?

Huffman: We made a bunch of changes after the first year, which I think made the system better and certainly made educators feel the system was better in the second year. I think we have to keep looking each year at how to improve it. A couple of things over the long haul that I think we need to keep looking at: 1) adjusting language each year on the rubric so that it effectively matches the observations with the standards teachers are teaching. I think we have done a little of this but we have to keep looking; 2) the whole “15% measure” for achievement still doesn’t seem to be going very well. Many teachers and schools don’t feel like it accurately reflects teachers’ impact, so I want to keep looking at this.

In retrospect, I think the biggest piece missing was training and communication for teachers well in advance of the rollout. I think some teachers got strong communication from local schools and districts and others did not, and the communication piece was insufficient from the state. A good example of that was the initial “planning” strand. Some teachers spent hours and hours and wrote 20-page lesson plan documents, which was never the intent. Better communication way back in early 2011 would have made a big difference.

The evaluation process is an ever-changing one — and that’s frustrating for teachers.  Every few months, it seems, something new is decided or added or taken away from the evaluation process. No one objects to a sound evaluation of their performance.  What’s problematic is the implementation.  Further, the 15% measure for achievement is becoming more, not less problematic.  In some systems, teachers are forced to choose an “Annual Measurable Objective” connected to English/Language Arts or Math.  Rather than owning their own students (in the case of AP teachers, for example) teachers are sometimes tied to students they’ve never taught.  The State Board document on the 15% provides a number of choices and ample flexibility.  Revisiting this issue with the input of teachers from across the state would be a welcome policy change.

PET:  In your opinion, what are the top three current challenges facing education in Tennessee?

Huffman: This is a tough one. 1) Helping students with disabilities reach their potential. We have a huge gap in achievement and we are really focused on this at the state level right now. 2) Early grades reading. We heard all summer from teachers that they need and want more support for teaching reading and for intervening with students who are far behind their peers. We are offering a course through our regional CORE offices to thousands of teachers on reading instruction, and I hope it will help. 3) Integrating all of the changes. We have done a lot in the last few years, and we now have new assessments coming. Our focus is not on more change – it is on how to manage all of the change effectively.
I’m very bullish on our ability to navigate these challenges though.

One clear way to improve early grades reading is by ensuring access to high quality Pre-K programs.  Both the Comptroller’s study and the Vanderbilt study of Pre-K indicate its ability to help improve reading in early grades.  Governor Haslam, however, has indicated he’s not in favor of expanding a program that is proven to work to address what the Commissioner of Education identifies as a top priority for our state.
PET:  Any final thoughts you would like to share with Tennessee educators?

Huffman: I am deeply grateful for your service. Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the professionalism and commitment of our educators, and our students are lucky to have you.

I’m sure it’s nice for educators to hear those words.  But, you can’t buy groceries with gratitude.  So far, there hasn’t been a real commitment to improving the pay and support for the educators the Commissioner identifies as both highly professional and deeply committed.  We heard a lot about how important teachers were to the gains noted on this year’s TCAP’s.  What hasn’t been heard is how compensation and support will be improved to ensure Tennessee is attracting and keeping strong educators.  To be clear, it’s not just better pay, but more support and more resources that teachers need.

EDIT: Today (10/3/13) at 3:00 PM Central Time Haslam and Huffman announced a goal to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state when it comes to teacher salaries.”

More Huffman: “Too often we try to use gratitude as a substitution for compensation.” — is he reading as I write?

And he notes, “Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of teacher compensation.”

It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but it should mean more than this.

And then, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh offers this response:

“Teachers in this state are overworked, underpaid, and deserve to be treated as professionals.

However, after listening to teachers across the state, we are increasingly convinced that Commissioner Huffman’s unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.

“….Basing teacher pay on scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale, and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee.”

For more on Tennessee education news, follow us @TNEdReport

 

 

WCS Superintendent Explains Why He Signed Huffman Letter

A group of 56 Tennessee School Superintendents sent a letter to Governor Haslam this week encouraging him to ask his Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, to be more inclusive and collaborative in his approach on education reform.  The letter stirred up a bit of controversy and no doubt created headaches for Huffman last week and into this one.

Now, one of those who signed the letter, Williamson County’s Mike Looney, is explaining why he did.

Looney notes that he is a supporter of common sense education reform.  He indicates that his concern is with both the speed at which reform has been implemented and the lack of collaboration.

Here are a couple of important points made in Looney’s letter:

Our state secured and has spent $500,000,000 in Race to the Top grant funds in the last three years.  At the same time, Tennessee has realized small incremental improvements in student results.  One might argue that the dizzying rate of education reforms in Tennessee is the result of the huge influx of federal dollars rather than a careful, measured understanding of the needs of students.  Others believe these pockets of improvement are a result of implementing The Tennessee Diploma project, which preceded Race to the Top initiatives.  In reality, as most any researcher would concede, it is difficult to know which reforms have been beneficial because we have manipulated too many variables.

Perhaps most discouraging is the fact that 50% of the $500,000,000 was kept by the Tennessee Department of Education.  I wonder for what purpose and to whose benefit?  The district I serve received less than $400,000 which did not come close to covering the cost and burden of implementing these reforms.

This is likely why organizations like Professional Educators of Tennessee are asking for an audit of Race to the Top expenditures.

Looney continues:

Based on the number and pace of reforms, their strategy seems to be to throw as many darts as possible at the problem in hopes that something, anything, will hit the bull’s eye and stick.  Meanwhile, many teachers and administrators have encouraged a more deliberate, reflective and inclusive approach, which I believe will yield long term sustainable results.  In short, Tennessee students, educators and families are not well served by rapid-fire reform efforts that ignore the importance of collaboration and thoughtful implementation.

This is a thoughtful letter raising very legitimate concerns that should certainly be addressed by the Governor and Commissioner Huffman.  If Dr. Looney’s urging won’t encourage their response, perhaps some legislators will raise these very same questions.

Tennesseans deserve excellent education for all children.  They also need to know the reform strategy being pursued is being implemented thoughtfully and is efficiently using the state’s limited funds.

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

 

PET’s Core Principles

As the Senate Education Committee conducts hearings today on the Common Core State Standards, Professional Educators of Tennessee has released a set of principles that they hope will guide policymakers on the Common Core implementation and on education reform in general.

Here they are:

  1. Keep Common Core State Standards in Language Arts and Math in place.
  2. Common Core is a starting point.  The standards that are currently adopted are the minimal baseline and we must keep moving forward to increase these standards.
  3. Evaluate Tennessee’s role in PARCC. 
  4. Delay using student test results for Teacher Evaluations, at least until 2016-2017 at the earliest.
  5. Make individual student data-mining in Tennessee illegal.   Schools and schools systems need better policies in regard to school personnel having access to an educator’s personal summative and evaluation scores.
  6. Textbook selection and purchasing must be completely transparent. 
  7. Conduct a public review of All Race to the Top Expenditures. 
  8. Evaluate Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver. 
  9. Clarify the role of the State Board of Education. 
  10. Keep all stakeholders at the table.  

 

Several points are worth noting.  First, PET is made up of educators and is expressing support generally for the Common Core State Standards.  That’s important for parents and policymakers to know – the standards are, as PET says, a starting point.  They are an important starting point and a definite improvement over Tennessee’s previous standards.

Next, PET is calling for a delay in the use of the PARCC tests for teacher evaluations.  This makes some sense.  Transitioning Tennessee’s value-added date from TCAP to PARCC make take some time and adjustment (it’s not entirely clear how TVAAS will handle the transition from all bubble-in tests to constructed response tests, for example).  Delaying the use of this data in evaluations will give everyone time to see how the tests work and how to best fit them in to the TVAAS model.  Meanwhile, the teacher evaluation system itself can be improved — it seems it has changed often in the early phases of implementation and an opportunity to reflect and improve seems warranted. Further, for those who insist that some student data be included on evaluations, there are certainly other data points which might be included in a teacher’s performance evaluation.

I have been asked a lot about #7 — basically, what happened to all that Race to the Top money? How was it spent? Tennesseans deserve to know how the RTTT dollars were spent and what (if any) impact those dollars had on teachers and students.

Finally, in light of a recent letter from Superintendents to Gov. Haslam, it seems #10 also deserves some attention.  Intentionally including all stakeholders and ensuring their concerns are heard and questions are answered is a critical element in both Common Core implementation and in education reform in general.

Stay tuned for updates from the hearings today and tomorrow.

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

 

Haslam Backs Huffman

After ending last week silent on the brewing controversy surrounding Education Commissioner, Governor Bill Haslam has issued a letter to school superintendents telling them to essentially “back off.”

From the Tennessean:

“The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked,” Haslam wrote in a letter addressed to school system superintendents and dated Monday.

 

 

 

Kevin Huffman’s Bad Week

Teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools added to what has already been a pretty bad week in the tenure of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman today.

On the heels of a letter from over 60 Directors of Schools essentially stating “no confidence” in Huffman’s leadership and criticizing his lack of collaboration, the Metro Nashville Education Association announced today that its members have taken a vote of “no confidence” in Huffman.

Lisa Fingeroot has the full story

So far, the only response from Huffman has appeared here.

In it, he claims that he does collaborate and that moreover, his job is to take care of kids, not adults.

Nevertheless, when a large group (nearly half) of all Directors of Schools and the teacher’s association in the second-largest city are expressing doubts about the Commissioner of Education’s leadership, it’s not a good sign for his future.

So far, Governor Haslam has not said anything publicly regarding the controversy.