Kevin Huffman is one of two TFA alumni who is currently a state education commissioner. I was a 1991 Houston corps member and Kevin was one in 1992 so I have known him, at least informally, for over twenty years. I interacted with him from time to time when he was a TFA vice president of public affairs for several years.
A few days ago I saw a tweet from TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer which was also retweeted by the other co-CEO Elisa Villaueva-Beard about an important op-ed written by Huffman defending a new merit pay scheme in Tennessee.
Huffman was responding to a quote from the Tennessee teachers’ union president Keith Williams in an article in a local paper the week before. Just so I’m not accused of taking anything out of context, here is Huffman’s piece in its entirety:
On May 8, during Teacher Appreciation Week, the Tennessee Department of Education announced a new program to provide $7,000 signing bonuses and $5,000 retention bonuses for high-performing teachers willing to teach in “Priority Schools” — the schools performing at the bottom of the state in academic outcomes. Most of these schools — 69 out of 83 — are in Memphis.
The money, which in the past would have been spent on consultants, vendors or administrators, represents a historic effort to help struggling schools turn around student performance by investing directly in proven, superstar teachers.
If you are not deeply immersed in the upside-down world of public education, you might assume that the teachers union in Memphis would be ecstatic about millions of dollars flowing directly to teachers, and about the recognition of the incredible impact that great teachers have on their students’ lives.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Upon learning of the signing bonuses, Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams remarkably told The Commercial Appeal in a May 9 article: “These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society. Those students don’t do well until you put other programs in place for their families.”
Think about that for a minute. “These teachers” won’t make a difference — teachers who have the highest Level 5 competency rating and a proven track record of advancing student learning. “Those students” don’t do well, no matter their teachers — students in poverty, the children most in need of supportive adults who believe in their abilities.
Williams is dead wrong. Every day, in Memphis and across Tennessee, we see
teachers who work with students in poverty making a profound difference in the lives of children and families. Let me introduce you to two of them.
Katrina Armor and Casie Jones are both proud Memphians who teach at schools with high poverty and historically low overall achievement.
Armor has been teaching for five years and is in her first year at Corning
Achievement Elementary School. Jones, a fellow in the Teach Plus program, is an 11-year veteran teacher and is in her fourth year at Martin Luther King Jr. Student Academy.
Despite the challenges in their daily work, Armor and Jones are committed to holding themselves, their students and their colleagues to high standards. Last year, just 27 percent of the fifth-grade students at Corning were proficient in math on TCAP. This year, as they headed into TCAP, Armor had more than doubled that proficiency percentage. Because of her leadership, her students achieved significant growth that will change their academic trajectories and their future opportunities.
Jones works with students who have been part of the juvenile justice system or were expelled from their previous schools, teaching English to some 400 sixth- to 12th grade students each year.
Despite these challenges, Jones aims to ensure that all of the students she works with have access to college and other strong postsecondary opportunities and know what is possible in their futures regardless of what has happened in the past.
While not every teacher achieves great results, many do. Last year, 29 percent of Memphis City Schools teachers scored a Level 5 on rigorous performance evaluations which incorporated measures of student growth.
Most of these teachers served students in poverty, and did it extremely well. I dare say, most of them believe they make “a substantial difference” in the lives of kids and that “those students” can succeed, no matter their families’ income levels.
Poverty has a massive impact on our students, and it is without question an enormous challenge in the work of educators in Memphis. It is critical that states and cities, churches and nonprofit organizations, businesses and civic groups work together with schools and continue to address the underlying causes of poverty. Doing so will make the work of educators more manageable and sustainable, and will multiply the impact of a strong foundational education.
But we must also be clear on this point: Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve. This is happening every day in classrooms across our state. When exceptional teachers and great leaders build schools focused on student growth and outcomes, they can help break the cycle of poverty.
At the state Department of Education, we recently adopted five core values to guide our work. One of these values is optimism, which we defined as follows: “We believe in the potential of all Tennessee students to reach high levels of academic achievement. We believe that, in collaboration with our colleagues across the state, we can and will build a system that helps our students meet their potential. We operate with a strong sense of possibility that we can accomplish difficult tasks, and we foster innovation in ourselves and others.”
It is long past time for adults in leadership roles to express their belief in the potential of all children, and in our obligation to build a system of schools that serves them. Our best teachers share this belief and deserve to be recognized, and if any of their representatives believe otherwise it is regrettable.
Before I get into my analysis of Huffman’s statement, here is the full text of the article in which the quote that so offended Huffman appears:
Tennessee upped the ante Wednesday, offering $7,000 bonuses for high-performing teachers who agree to work for two years in any of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools.
The teachers will get $2,000 for signing and the remaining $5,000 the next summer. The state is also offering a $5,000 retention bonus to teachers with similar credentials who agree to stay another year in a priority school. The bonuses are effective immediately.
In both cases, the money will be forfeited if the teachers do not achieve the same high test scores, or in the case of the retention bonus, renege on their commitment to stay a year.
The Department of Education will provide the funds to the school districts. It did not say how much money it has set aside.
“We know that teacher effectiveness is the most important school-based factor impacting student achievement,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “Our goal is to get more of our most effective educators into our struggling schools. We value our teachers, and this is a great opportunity for us to show it.”
Teachers must be Level 5 on their overall evaluation scores and three-year TVAAS average. The state says it will make allowances for teachers too new to have three years of test score data.
The bonuses also only apply to teachers who agree to leave a stronger school to work in priority schools, or those scoring in the bottom 5 percent. Those schools are all in Memphis, Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman and Knox counties.
The bonus is expected to help teacher recruitment in the Achievement School District, which will operate 17 low-performing schools in Memphis this fall.
“We need Tennessee’s best educators to be builders of the possible in our Achievement Schools,” said Ash Solar, ASD chief talent officer.
Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association, is wary. “These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society. Those students don’t do well until you put other programs in place for their families.”
Despite the passionate rhetoric of Huffman’s writing, I believe I ‘get’ what Williams was saying and I fully agree with him. I think that Huffman probably understands what he was saying too, but took this as an opportunity to accuse someone of having low expectations for poor kids.
What Williams said was that the teachers who transferred from the ‘better’ schools to the low performing schools would not make a ‘substantial’ difference. I think that nearly all teachers make a positive ‘difference’ in students’ lives. This includes teachers with ‘average’ and even ‘below average’ value-added scores. So the idea that by bringing in some ‘ringers’ who got excellent evaluations at much easier schools will surely ‘significantly’ improve the more difficult to teach in schools is pretty unlikely. These amazing ‘level 5’ teachers who apparently represent 30% of all the teachers in Tennessee are not at all guaranteed to get a level 5 the next year when they transfer to the lower performing school. Maybe those teachers are a very good fit at the school that they are currently in, but would not be able to adjust to the greater demands at the new school. Though value-added is supposed to be an unbiased measure of teacher quality, it is very fickle from year to year, even with students with similar demographics so when a teacher transfers to a school with so many more out-of-school factors to contend with, the consistency of the value-added scores is even worse.
Notice that even though Huffman describes the bonus as a $7,000 signing bonus to transfer, the second article explains that it is actually just a $2,000 bonus to transfer. Only if the teacher gets at least a level 4 at the new school will she be able to get the remaining $5,000. The fact that they wouldn’t just give the teacher the full $7,000 up front is an admission that the value-added scores might just not be consistent from year to year, especially if the teacher makes a big decision to leave an easier school.
I will say with a lot of confidence that very few people will take this gamble. Giving up a position that you are excelling at, even by this limited definition of excelling, for just $2,000 is absolutely crazy. Maybe some teachers will be duped into this if they don’t read the fine print, I guess.
Here is some of that fine print:
So a teacher would first have to have had a level 5 in 2011-2012. Then they would be eligible to apply, BUT sometime this summer they will get back their 2012-2013 scores and if they have fallen below a level 4 they will lose their eligibility. THEN they must also get another level 4 or better at the new school. I know that 30% of teachers get this high rating, but if the Tennessee system (they invented value-added in Tennessee over 20 years ago, actually) is as inconsistent as it is elsewhere, this seems like a pretty big risk.
I actually would support giving all teachers in a high poverty school a raise, even though I know this is something that the union might not like. Another way to compensate teachers for teaching at the toughest schools would be to have their class sizes capped at 20 students, or have them just teach four classes a day instead of five or six if they are a secondary school.
Looking at Huffman’s argument, we see that he highlights two teachers who ‘prove’ that teachers can make ‘profound’ differences. One teacher, Katrina Armor, is an experienced teacher who is in her first year at a charter school in the Tennessee Achievement District. The school, Huffman says, only had 27% of the 5th graders scoring proficient in Math last year and now, look at the careful wording, “This year, as they headed into TCAP, Armor had more than doubled that proficiency percentage.” Not that her students got the 50% proficiency, since I don’t think the tests are even scored yet, but that she did this “as they headed into the TCAP,” maybe on some diagnostic, I guess. Perhaps her students will get good results when they come back, but it is a bit funny that of all the teachers he could have chosen, he has picked one that he doesn’t have hard data supporting how good she is at improving test scores.
The other miracle teacher is working with the toughest to serve population, kids who have been expelled or are imprisoned. And the evidence of her success isn’t ‘data-driven’ at all, but just “Jones aims to ensure that all of the students she works with have access to college and other strong postsecondary opportunities.” So she “aims to ensure,” but does she actually accomplish it? Huffman is very careful with his words.
Perhaps Keith Williams could have been a bit more careful so that Huffman wouldn’t misunderstand (or at least pretend that he misunderstood) what his point was. It isn’t that teachers can’t, or don’t, make a difference. It is just that bringing in ‘ringers’ from the easier schools getting a whopping $2,000 signing bonus aren’t going to make a difference that is ‘substantial.’ I guess it depends on what you think qualifies as ‘substantial,’ but based on my definition, I’d agree with him.