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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: I’ll Huffman and I’ll Puffman and I’ll Blow Your District Down

Kevin Huffman was the first Teach For America alum to become a state education commissioner.  Despite having only taught for two years between 1992 and 1994 and having had no role related to schools for the next seventeen years (he was a VP of TFA for a time) he was appointed to his position in Tennessee in 2011 by the current Governor, Bill Haslam.  In November 2014 after the Governor was re-elected, Huffman ‘resigned’ saying that “it feels like the right time to pass the baton.”  Huffman was one of the ‘Chiefs For Change’ a group of reform-minded ‘leaders’ who have nearly all resigned or been fired over the past few years.

There is a trend I’ve noticed recently where reformer leaders resign their positions rather than get fired and then they disappear from the public.  Besides Huffman, the most notable one is Huffman’s ex-wife, reform celebrity Michelle Rhee, now Michelle Johnston.  My sense is that these reformers are following the old adage sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  I have mixed feelings about this rotating group of reformers strategy.  On the one hand, it seems like the opposition to their brand of reform is winning some battles as these leaders step down.  But I worry that these are only victories on a superficial level and that these reformers are still very active behind the scenes while new fresh faces, someone like Campbell Brown, get a turn to be in the spotlight before they too go underground.

Sometimes these reformers pop up again in unexpected places.  Huffman was in Pennsylvania the other day where he testified in front of their senate and also wrote an op-ed for one of the local papers with the title ‘Want Pa. schools to flourish?  Try this Tennessee model that worked.”

Tennessee has been getting a lot of mileage out of their 4th and 8th grade NAEP ‘gains’ on the most recently published scores a few years ago.  Obama praised them in a State of The Union address for this.  Reformers do like to cherry pick the results that suit their narrative.  So there was little mention about how Tennessee’s 12th grade NAEP scores had some of the lowest increases or about how their scores on their own test scores have been flat or even down by a little in recent years.  Also the NAEP gains, reformers imply, are a direct result of the reforms they enacted through Race To The Top even though some other states, notably Louisiana, did the same reforms, even more so, and didn’t get any gains at all in NAEP.

Huffman is encouraging Pennsylvania to start a state-run district modeled after the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) which, itself, is modeled after the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD).  Throughout the country, different states are considering creating their own version of this kind of school district.  It is unfortunate that in the ed reform discussion there is way more PR than there is true transparency.  So Huffman can get the opportunity to speak to the Pennsylvania senate and to write an op-ed where he can say:

The early returns in Tennessee are promising. Last year, schools completing their second year in the ASD had strong growth, and we anticipate that this year’s results will show even stronger performance.

This is not true, even by Tennessee’s own metrics.  The mission of the ASD is to take schools that are in the bottom 5% in the state in terms of test scores and, in a five year period, get those schools into the top 25%.  The initial idea was that there could be no accusation of them doing this with different students since they would take over existing neighborhood schools.  This isn’t quite what happened and now they have gotten permission to recruit kids from further away districts for next year.

But just by the numbers, the results are truly mixed.  Of the original 6 ASD schools that are currently in their third year under the ASD, two school have improved, two have stayed about the same, and two have gotten worse.

There are two ways that the ASD can do a school takeover.  There is the complete takeover where if a school is 5th through 8th, they continue teaching all the students who are continuing at the school and also the new class of incoming 5th graders.  The other model is called a phase-in where the students who graduate to the next grade reman part of the ‘old’ school while the ASD school just works with the students new to the school for the first year and ‘grow’ one grade at a time.  The two schools that have improved their test scores were both phase-ins while the other four were complete takeovers.

ASD uses the fact that the phase-ins have had much more success than the complete takeovers as ‘proof’ that phase-ins are better.  But another interpretation is that phase-ins offer much more opportunity for skewing the results as there are exactly zero students from the old school attending those new schools so it becomes pretty hard to do an accurate comparison.  The crown jewel of the ASD is Brick Church College Prep which supposedly got their scores up from 10% passing to 40% passing in just two years and Superintendent Chris Barbic once said in an interview that at this rate of improvement, Brick Church will get to the top 25% in just 4 years, one year ahead of schedule.  I will definitely keep my eye on Brick Church and their enrollment patterns and things like that in the coming years.

ASD tries to put all the positive spin they can on their results, but the thing that they try not to mention is that in this past year the ASD got the lowest possible score on their ‘growth’ metric, a 1 out of 5.  In Tennessee they take their ‘growth’ scores very seriously.  They have been experimenting with this kind of metric for over twenty years and they base school closing decisions on it and also teacher evaluations.  So it is hypocritical, though not surprising, that Huffman fails to mention that the ASD, on average, got the lowest possible score on this last year, and instead they focus on the two schools that have shown test score improvements.

Huffman dramatically concludes his op-ed by writing:

When I spoke with Pennsylvania state senators last week about school turnaround work, one senator asked me directly, “When you created the Achievement School District, were you worried that it was too risky?” I responded, “The greatest risk would be to do nothing.”

Indeed, doing nothing would be unconscionable.

In other words there are only two possible choices:  Do nothing or do what they did in Tennessee.  Of course there are plenty more options, but reformers like to phrase things this way.

There is absolutely no reason why Kevin Huffman should be given the opportunity to pitch his ideas to the Pennsylvania senate or in the media over there.  It is like a state trying to improve their economy and asking for guidance from a man who got rich by winning the lottery.  Huffman is a person who knows very little about education, but who has been very lucky to get to where he is.  He taught first grade for two years, spent a bunch of years working for Teach For America, got appointed as Tennessee education commissioner mainly because of his famous ex-wife, and only managed to keep his job for three years before basically getting run out of town.  He has gotten credit for the 4th and 8th grade NAEP gains between 2011 and 2013, but has taken none of the blame for the lack of progress for 12 graders or for the recent drops in the Tennessee State reading test scores.  This is a new kind of phenomenon, the edu-celebrity who rises to power, leaves after a few years having accomplished very little, and then making a living as a consultant.  Some gig.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...