New Education Chief Sworn In; Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Tennessee’s new commissioner of education says everyone is looking at the controversial teacher evaluation issue all wrong.

It’s about finding the good teachers, Kevin Huffman says, not identifying the bad ones so you can kick them out of schools.

But trying to get Huffman to wade into the still-contentious collective bargaining issue being debated in the Legislature is fruitless. He won’t go there unless his boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, tells him to, Huffman says.

Huffman, who was introduced publicly by Haslam last month, was formally sworn in by the governor Tuesday at the Andrew Johnson Tower in Nashville. He now serves officially, replacing Patrick Smith, who had been the interim commissioner.

Huffman is aware of the battles going on in the Legislature regarding education reform. One of the squabbles regards whether the state’s ability to evaluate teachers based on performance data is advanced enough to merit implementation.

Democrats have asked for more time in order to get the evaluations right, but Republicans, who hold substantial majorities in both houses, have decided it’s time to move forward with tenure reform.

The Legislature has approved Haslam’s plan to extend the probationary period for tenure from three years to five. The system for assessing teacher performance calls for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance, with 35 percent of that coming from a measure of year-over-year student improvement through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

“One of the things I’m excited about with this new teacher evaluation system is we’re going to be able to identify teachers across the state who are at the very top of performance,” said Huffman.

“We’re going to be able to go to them, learn from them and also talk to some of them about the possibility of becoming principals, starting charter schools and about spreading their impact.”

Huffman comes from the innovative Teach for America program, where young “corps members” commit to teach two years in troubled schools with the aim of high student achievement. Huffman was executive vice president of public affairs for the program when chosen by Haslam. Tennessee has more than 250 Teach for America teachers in its public schools. He is originally from Ohio.

Huffman steps into both a wave of positive momentum and boisterous legislative turmoil in education reform in the state. The state is primed to make strides based on its success in the federal Race to the Top competition. Haslam’s plans include the tenure reform and lifting the cap on charter schools, measures that have seen relatively smooth sailing in the Legislature thus far, although Democrats have been successful at snarling some movement on charters.

But a separate reform measure, an attempt to end or substantially restrict mandatory collective bargaining between local districts and unions that represent teachers, has sprung from the Legislature, not the governor, and resulted in protests and political wrangling.

The House has moved away from an outright ban on collective bargaining to a more permissive proposal, HB130, limiting what the union could negotiate.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Republicans have maintained that union collective bargaining in public school systems is “unproductive” for students, taxpayers and ultimately the teaching profession in Tennessee. They’ve most recently proposed replacing traditional collective bargaining negotiations with open hearings where teachers’ perspectives, concerns and priorities are aired publicly before elected school board officials.

Huffman would not offer an opinion on the collective bargaining issue when introduced last month, and he wouldn’t budge on it Tuesday either.

“The House and Senate are going to get together and try to figure things out with the help of the governor’s office,” Huffman said. “I’m going to try to stay out of it, unless the governor pulls me in to offer my thoughts and opinions on it.

“Obviously, we’ve got two pieces of legislation moving through, and I think the House and Senate leadership and the governor will get together and decide what the right answer ultimately is.”

Haslam wants to lift the cap of 90 charter schools currently in place. A public-private partnership was announced last month that provides $40 million that could create 40 new charter schools over the next five years.

Asked how many charter schools might be implemented with new opportunities put into law for them, Huffman said he isn’t sure. “Part of that will depend on the charter operators that are out there and the ideas they generate, but I think there is more we can do to get talented people to come and think about opening charters who haven’t thought about it before,” he said.

Huffman frequently mentioned getting “pipelines” of good teachers and principals in place. He said one of the objectives is to make things easier, not harder, on teachers.

“The governor, from my own personal conversations with him, is incredibly committed to making sure teachers’ lives and jobs are easier in driving toward the kinds of outcomes we want,” Huffman said.

Haslam recently held meetings with teachers across the state to get their input. The administration repeatedly insists it supports teachers rather than opposing them. Many legislators, teachers and their supporters have claimed the legislative efforts have been an attack on teachers, especially from the Legislature.

Haslam on Tuesday said since he named Huffman as his education choice last month he has heard from many people with unsolicited congratulations on his pick.

“After I named Kevin in this position, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people at the leading edge of education reform from around the country, basically saying, ‘You hit a home run, and you don’t know how well you did in hiring Kevin,'” Haslam said. “So it was a thrill to me.”

Just before having Huffman repeat the oath of office in the swearing-in, Haslam said he promised to do a little better than he did on his inauguration day when he flubbed part of the oath for other Cabinet members. The Huffman event went off without a hitch.

After the swearing-in, Haslam walked rather than ride back up Capitol Hill, and he encountered a group of 4th-grade school students from Eagleville at the monument to President James K. Polk. Haslam stopped and interacted with the students, who were on a tour of the Capitol.