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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17 Responses to I’ll Huffman and I’ll Puffman and I’ll Blow Your District Down

  1. About those NAEP scores Tennessee politicians keep bragging about… they never mention the brand new law that was implemented the year before the last NAEP test. The new law prohibited 3rd graders from being promoted to 4th grade if they were not proficient. Nobody knows how many 3rd graders were held back in 3rd grade the year the NAEP test was taken, but it makes sense that keeping the low-scoring children out of 4th grade, and thus unable to take the NAEP, lifted the state’s average to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in the nation on the NAEP.”

  2. I suggest taking Peter Greene’s nomenclature and hereafter referring to them as “reformsters.” “Reformers” certainly isn’t an accurate term. And thanks for doing this article on my state. Huffman also didn’t mention the growing opposition to the ASD by parents here. Here’s an article written by one of the leaders of ASD opposition: http://tsdmemphis.com/news/2015/jan/30/stench-education-reform-and-need-respond-now/?page=1

    • Old Teacher says:

      I call them privateers, similar to buccaneers. They seek to steal what is not theirs and plunder every place they visit. They also fantasize that they are dashing heroes saving the unwashed masses. They do not realize they are the villains. Privateers make and produce nothing.

  3. Amy Frogge says:

    Hi, Gary-

    I am a member of the Nashville school board. The existing (pre-conversion) grade levels at Brick Church outperform the new charter school grade levels. It’s also interesting to note that data from Brick Church indicates a likely change in students: There was a spike in achievement along with corresponding negative growth. Email me if you’d like to see the data.

    Thank you for your work.

    Amy Frogge

  4. jcgrim says:

    Parents in TN weren’t fond of Huffman’s type of reforminess and started this movement to have him removed. Although, not before he did severe damage to the entire TN education system. https://www.facebook.com/RemoveKevinHuffman

  5. jcgrim says:

    Ironically, DFER, Arne Duncan, Bill Haslam & Jeb Bush are some of Huffman’s loudest cheerleaders.

  6. Brian Davison says:

    Why not objectively measure results and try to determine which policies work best? If schools can recruit and retain teachers who provide the most value-add, why shouldn’t they pursue that goal?

    • To answer your first question: Because the teaching and learning process is a very human activity that cannot be measured. Please enlighten me as to how one can “measure” the love of one’s spouse, children, parents, friends as the human interactions of “loving someone” that they are.

      The NAEP test scores as a metric is a false one to begin with as that test, along with all other standardized tests suffer all the errors and falsehoods in their epistemological and ontological underpinnings, i.e., their primary conceptual basis, identified by Noel Wilson in his never refuted nor rebutted treatise on educational standards and standardized testing that render any results as he puts it “vain and illusory” or in the parlance of psychometrics-COMPLETELY INVALID.

      To understand that COMPLETE INVALIDITY, read and comprehend Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700

      Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine.

      1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.

      2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

      3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

      4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

      In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

      5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

      6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

      7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

      In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

      My answer is NO!!!!!

      One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

      “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

      In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

      • Brian Davison says:

        Duane Swacker, a rather long-winded excuse for why teachers should not be objectively measured. I understand that you may not have a STEM background, so forgive me if you don’t truly understand the scientific method. But here’s the deal. We don’t always need to understand the mechanism by which something works to actually measure it. For example, folks don’t truly understand how gravity works even though it was discovered hundreds of years ago. We could measure it and prove that it exists.

        The same goes for outcomes. Let me give 2 examples:

        1. Both Professor Chetty’s study on the financial benefits of highly effective teachers and the benefits of Head Start rely on the same underlying principles. In both sets of data, the increased test scores of the children fade away within a few years without sustained highly effective teachers. But many years down the road, those children experience more positive outcomes than the ones who did not have highly effective teachers or who did not participate in Head Start. The exact mechanism may not be known. It could simply be that highly effective teachers inspired their students to pay attention in class and love learning. It almost certainly is not because those teachers “taught to the test”. But the positive outcomes are still the same.

        2. In science, we try to conduct controlled experiments and only change a single variable to ensure that variable is truly causing the effect. In social sciences, this is often a very difficult task. The best data on highly effective teachers comes from Tennessee and the Gates Foundation Studies. In those studies, they analyzed the VAMs of teachers who switched schools to see how their individual VAMs and the aggregate VAMs of the schools changed after the transition. As you aggregate many samples, any anomaly like having an especially gifted or special education class in a single year fades away. The analysis concluded that highly effective teachers at one school carried those scores to the new school and that the prior school’s overall VAM declined with his/her departure. Likewise, ineffective teachers’ VAMs carried over to their new school and the prior school’s overall VAM increased with his/her departure.

        Based on #2, we can reliably measure teacher effectiveness on test scores through VAMs. Based on #1, teachers’ VAM make a positive difference in the life outcomes of children.

        It all goes back to rather basic points. Schools do not exist to employ teachers. Schools exist to effectively educate students. By protecting ineffective teachers, you are literally taking future income from the pockets of disadvantaged students and placing it in the paychecks of ineffective teachers. That, by definition, is evil.

      • Brian,
        You are quite correct in ascertaining that I do not have a STEM background, whatever the hell that has to do with the price of tea in China.

        Yes, I do understand what the scientific process entails. It’s not only that I understand the scientific process but I have extensively read, studied rationo-logical/philosophical thought processes and linguistical practices that underpin the scientific process. And one main concept put in layman’s terms that underlies the scientific process is “crap in, crap out”, in other words when your basis of making a statement is a falsehood any conclusions drawn are more likely than not, probably close to 99.99% false/invalid. The basis of VAM/SLO/SGP evaluation schemes is standardized test scores which Wilson has proven to be COMPLETELY INVALID. Read his study and please get back to me with any refutation or rebuttal of his arguments. I’ve been looking for, asking for some for over 15 years now and haven’t encountered a single valid one. Please email me with any refutations/rebuttals that you may have: dswacker@centurytel.net.

        Again, please inform me of how one “measures” the complex human feelings and interactions that are the love of one’s spouse, children, parents, friends. The teaching and learning process, just as the loving process, is far too complex in physiological processes-think of the millions if not billions of neuronal electro-chemical activities occurring every second, linguistic usages, hereditary and environmental factors to attempt to “measure”. To attempt to do so is rationo-logically bereft.

        ” By protecting ineffective teachers, you are literally taking future income from the pockets of disadvantaged students and placing it in the paychecks of ineffective teachers. That, by definition, is evil.”

        Your attempt at using a strawman argument that I said anything whatsoever about “protecting ineffective teachers” is sophomoric and high school debate team members would pick it apart in seconds. So, again, starting with a false premise you come up with a false analysis using invalid conclusions-“taking future income from the pockets. . . placing it in the paychecks. . . ” that is so risible and ludicrous I’m not sure why I’m taking the time to respond to such spurious accusations other than I woke up too early and haven’t had my first cup of tea yet.

        The evil involved is not that of your made up accusations but of using falsehoods-standardized test scores for anything (again read and comprehend Wilson to learn why). The evil is sorting and separating, labeling students, and through invalid standardized testing and VAM/SLO/SGP regimes which harm many innocents, the students.

        P.S. Chetty, et al’s work and VAM/SLO/SGP schemes have been debunked many times. Google it. Economics is one of the worse areas of study in insisting it has a “scientific” basis when in reality it’s a rather meager, paltry social study that has minimal basis in rationo-logical thought. Economists are a definite drain on the economy-how about that for a casuistic opinion!?!

      • Brian Davison says:

        Duane, I will read that study when I have time. I’m a little tied up trying to unfunk my local school system and VDOE in court at the moment, but I will read it and reply.

        Here is the real issue that nobody on the “opt-out” side wants to discuss. There really are ineffective teachers in our classrooms. Yet school universally report that 99%+ are “effective”. These ineffective teachers do not inspire our kids. They do not teach them to think critically. They do not teach them skills or facts. They don’t teach much of anything. Yet, you will not acknowledge that A) these ineffective teachers exist and B) our current evaluation system is incapable or unwilling to identify them.

        Why don’t we generate more realistic evals based on observations and then compare them against the objective ones. If you used the Gates Foundations recs and used student surveys (of items such as classroom discipline) and VAMs, I think those eval results would pretty closely mirror a high-quality eval based on observations. But the difference it objective data doesn’t have a friendly relationship with the teacher. The objective data doesn’t mind if the teacher hates the principal who must observe him/her. So the objective data doesn’t report that 99%+ of teachers are “effective”.

        I absolutely mean what I said about taking money from the pockets of disadvantaged kids. If you are not willing to end this charade that 99% of teachers are effective, you are destroying the lives of disadvantaged kids. They drop out when they have multiple ineffective teachers. They don’t learn the skills needed to maintain employment. This is not an esoteric game. Education is serious and has real consequences. You just focus on the potential “harm” that can be done if a single teacher is unfairly evaluated or fired. Meanwhile, you ignore the tens of thousands of lives that are harmed when ineffective teachers are placed in thousands of classrooms every day. So spare me the “sophisticated explanations” for why objective data will never work. If you actually produced reliable evals, we wouldn’t be in this predicament, now would we?

        As I said before, schools have nothing to do with providing employment for teachers. Schools only focus is to effectively educate kids. When you bring evidence that shows all students have an effective teacher, then we can stop talking about VAMs/SGPs. Deal?

      • virginiasgp says:

        Duane, I never thought it would happen but Diane Ravitch is essentially completely blocking my posts. Maybe she will let one fly by so she can attack it and then never let me respond. But most of my posts never see the light of day on her website. Such a shame.

        I had written you a long post about the court cases with links to several but I’m afraid it’s lost on Diane’s blog, never to return. I’ll try to re-create.

        Anyway, here are the briefs in our SGP case down in Virginia that currently under consideration. I guess Diane thought they were too “dangerous” to see the light of day. Here’s hoping Gary will let them through (haven’t had anything blocked on his site yet, that I recall)

        Davison v VDOE closing arguments: Davison (#29 and all other appendices)

        Davison v VDOE closing arguments: VDOE

        Davison v VDOE closing arguments: Loudoun County School Board

        Speaking of what “great” officials we have here in Loudoun County (17% FRL), the current board is now trying to rezone around the core town (Leesburg) and segregate all the minority kids to 1-2 Title 1 schools. Nobody in their right minds would think a district would intentionally put all the poor and minority kids in a single school to “help them”, but that’s what my district is claiming. In fact, Title 1 funds are given out to more concentrated FRL districts because it’s harder to teach in a high-FRL school than in an affluent one. The ironic thing is that the two elementary schools with the best success now are the integrated ones (40% FRL and 30% FRL). After this rezoning, we’ll have 60% FRL schools and 5% FRL schools. How nice….

      • Sorry to hear that VSGP. I know she has blocked various posters over the years. It is her site to do as she wishes. I prefer to read all commentators but that’s just me. I have no complaints mainly because it is a private forum and Diane has the right and privilege to do what she wishes. It’s all part of the internet landscape as it is. Good luck on pursuing more open school district’s functioning (even though I don’t agree with your stance on the teacher evaluation). The more transparency the better but at the same time using false metrics for teacher evaluations cannot by definition be a good thing and then publishing those false metrics is even worse.

    • To answer your second question: Because there is no way to accurately determine (see my first reply as those scores are being used, albeit wrongly in VAM and SLO/SGP evaluation schemes) which teachers “provide the most ‘value-add'” whatever that ‘value-add’ may be.

      The teaching and learning process need not be and indeed SHOULD NOT be a GRAND COMPETITION but one of helping, enabling each individual to strive towards whatever goals, objectives, life being that each individual desires and determines.

  7. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Grades Kevin Huffman in Tennessee | Diane Ravitch's blog

  8. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein Grades Kevin Huffman in Tennessee | GorgeousRicmond

  9. Jim Dunning says:

    Diane, if the “learning process is a very human activity that cannot be measured,” why is it that teachers get to assign grades to students’ learning all the time? “

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