Gov. Bill Haslam didn’t sound like he was giving any serious consideration Tuesday to kicking his education department chief to the curb, as some who oppose Tennessee’s new school reform efforts would desire.
The governor sent a letter to superintendents across the state asking them to back off their push to have state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman removed. Tennessee is “at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms” with respect to education, Haslam wrote, and he lauded Huffman’s “vision and leadership” in that regard.
“(Huffman) has brought a new perspective and dynamic energy to education reform in Tennessee, and while you may not always agree with some of our administration’s specific initiatives, there is no doubt that we’re improving the future for more Tennessee children,” Haslam wrote.
A petition circulating among the state’s public school superintendents asserts that Huffman tends to ignore local input and doesn’t seem to value “genuine participation in the decision development process.”
“We have begun to feel that the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners,” the letter says.
But Haslam had nothing but kind words and praise for Commissioner Huffman as he delivered a keynote address on his administration’s education policy initiatives before a U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Haslam commended both Huffman and Chris Barbic, the superintendent for the state’s Achievement School District, as “great leaders” hired for their ambition and past records of innovation and success. “Both Chris and Kevin believed in this idea that every child can learn,” said the governor.
The governor also outlined some of the controversial education reforms he said have rejuvenated the professional teaching environment in public schools over his term in office.
The “big first step” was making it more difficult for teachers to win tenure. Prior to Republican-led efforts in 2011 to overhaul the state’s system, “the standards were such that about 96 percent of the teachers were granted tenure after (a) three-year period,” said Haslam.
“So we went in and changed it from three years to five years, because we truly believe you need that long to evaluate someone to make a lifelong hiring decision, which is what tenure is,” he said.
Lifting the cap on charter schools was “a fairly complicated piece of legislation,” Haslam said. He noted that with respect to the state running the failing schools that were shifted into the Achievement School District, “in most cases we brought in high-capacity charter school operators who went out and recruited the very best teachers possible.”
Shaking up the way teachers are evaluated was the third aspect of his education reform package. Haslam acknowledged that effort wasn’t initially well received.
“When we put that in place, you would have thought that the world was coming to an end,” said the governor. “I had legislators who came to see me saying, ‘I have great teachers saying they are going to quit if you put this into place.’ And the push-back was incredibly strong.”
“But we honestly believe that part of improving in anything is understanding how you are doing and getting honest feedback,” he continued. “And what we found with a lot of our teachers was that they hadn’t had an evaluation in years.”
The results of the reform package are starting to speak for themselves, said Haslam.
“For three consecutive years our achievement scores have shown significant gains, with last year’s showing the highest aggregate gains in the history of the state,” said Haslam. “We have 91,000 more students who are proficient in math and 53,000 more in science because of the new standards we’ve put in place. We have double-digit graduation gains in the last year.”
Haslam said he believes education reform efforts across the country are at a “tipping point.” Overcoming opposition from the obstructive forces of the old order is and will continue to be the primary challenge for advocates of learning innovation and new teaching approaches, he said.
“You’ve seen a lot of reform efforts happening around the country, and a lot of the folks who aren’t so pleased with the reform are organizing their efforts to push back, and they are seeing some political wins in some places, and whether it be battling Common Core or not liking who the commissioner is or any of a number of other things, I think the push-back is very strong,” Haslam said. “So the tipping point is real.”