Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Gives “Inspiring” TEDxNashville Talk

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The purpose of TED talks is, and since their inception in 1984 has been, to share “ideas worth spreading, “in the most innovative and engaging” of ways. It seems that somebody in the state of Tennessee hijacked this idea, however, and put the Tennessee Education Commissioner (Kevin Huffman) on the TEDxNashville stage, to talk about teachers, teacher accountability, and why teachers need to “work harder” and be held more accountable for meeting higher standards if they don’t.

Watch the video here:

And/Or read the accompanying article here. But I have summarized the key points, as I see them, for you all below in case you’d rather not view/read for yourself.

Before we begin, though, I should make explicit that Commissioner Huffman was formerly an executive with Teach for America (TFA), and it was from his “grungy, non-profit cubicle in DC” where the Governor of Tennessee picked him and ultimately placed him into the state Commissioner position. So, as explained by him, he “wasn’t a total novice” in terms of America’s public schools because 1) he was in charge of policy and politics at TFA, 2) he taught in Houston for three years through TFA, and 3) he brought with him to Tennessee prior experience “dealing” with Capitol Hill. All of this (and a law degree) made him qualified to serve as Tennessee’s Education Commissioner.

This background knowledge might help others understand from where his (misinformed and quite simply uninspiring) sense of “reality” about teachers in America’s, and in particular Tennessee’s public schools comes. This should also help to explain some of his comments on which he simply “struck out” – as demonstrated via this video. Oh – and he was previously married to Michelle Rhee, head of StudentsFirst, former Chancellor of Washington D.C.’s public schools, and the source of other VAMboozled! posts here, here, and here. So his ideas/comments, or “strikes,” as I’ve called them below, might actually make sense in this context.

Strike 1 – Huffman formerly wrote an education column for The Washington Post during which he endured reader’s “anonymous…boo and hiss” comments. This did not change his thinking, however, but rather helped him develop the “thick skin” he needed in preparation for his job as Commissioner. This was yet another “critical prerequisite” for his future leadership role, not to ingest reader feedback and criticism for what it was worth, but rather to reject it and use it as justification to stay the course…and ultimately celebrate this self-professed obsession, as demonstrated as follows.

Strike 2 – He has a self-described “nerdy obsession” with data, and results, and focusing on data that lead to results. While he came into Tennessee as a “change agent,” however, he noticed that a lot of the changes he desired were already in place…and had already been appropriately validated by the state of Tennessee “winning” the Race to the Top competition and receiving the $500 million that came along with “winning” it. What he didn’t note, however, was that while his professed and most important belief was that “results trump all,” the state of Tennessee had been carrying this mantra since the early 1990s when they adopted the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) for increased accountability. This was well before he probably even graduated college.

Regardless, he noted that nothing had been working in Tennessee for all of this time, until he came into his leadership position and forced this policy’s fit. “If you can deliver unassailable evidence [emphasis added] that students are learning more and students are benefiting, then those results [should] carry the day.” He did not once mention that the state’s use of the TVAAS was THE reason the state of Tennessee was the first to win Race to the Top funds…and even though they had been following the same “results trump all” mantra since the early 1990s, Tennessee was still ranked 44th in the nation all of those years later, and in some areas lower in rank in terms of its national levels of achievement (i.e., on the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]) twenty-years in… when he took office. Regardless of the state’s history, however, Commisioner Huffman went all in on “raising academic standards” and focusing on the state’s “evaluation” system. While “there was a bunch of work” previously done in Tennessee on this note, he took these two tenets “more seriously” and “really drove [them] right in.”

Strike 3 – When Huffman visited all 136 school districts in the state after he arrived, and thereafter took these things “more seriously,” there were soon after “all of these really good signs” that things were working. The feedback he got in response to his initiatives was all [emphasis added] positive. He kept hearing things like, “kids are [now] learning more [and] instruction is getting better,” thanks to him, and he would hear the same feedback regardless of whether people liked him and/or his “results trump all” policies. More shocking here, though, were his self-promotional pieces given there are currently three major lawsuits in the state, all surrounding the state’s teacher evaluation system as carried forth by him. This is the state, in fact, “winning” the “Race to the Lawsuit” competition, should one currently exist.

In terms of the hard test-based evidence, though, in support of his effectiveness, while the state tests were demonstrating the effectiveness of his policies, Huffman was really waiting for the aforementioned NAEP results to see if what he was doing was working. And here’s what happened: two years after he arrived “Tennessee’s kids had the most growth of any kids in America.”

But here’s what REALLY happened.

While Sanders (the TVAAS developer who first convinced the state legislature to adopt his model for high-stakes accountability purposes in the 1990s) and others (including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) also claimed that Tennessee’s use of accountability instruments caused Tennessee’s NAEP gains (besides the fact that the purported gains were over two decades delayed), others have since spoiled the celebration because 1) the results also demonstrated an expanding achievement gap in Tennessee; 2) the state’s lowest socioeconomic students continue to perform poorly, despite Huffman’s claims; 3) Tennessee didn’t make gains significantly different than many other states; and 4) other states with similar accountability instruments and policies (e.g., Colorado, Louisiana) did not make similar gains, while states without such instruments and policies (e.g., Kentucky, Iowa, Washington) did. I should add that Kentucky’s achievement gap is also narrowing and their lowest socioeconomic students have made significant gains. This is important to note as Huffman repeatedly compares his state to theirs.

Claiming that NAEP scores increased because of TVAAS-use, and other stringent accountability policies developed by Huffman, was and continues to be unwarranted (see also this article in Education Week).

So my apologies to Tennessee because it appears that TEDx was a TED strike-out this time. Tennessee’s Commissioner struck out, and the moot pieces of evidence supporting these three strikes will ultimately unveil their true selves in the very near future. For now, though, there is really nothing to celebrate, even if Commissioner Huffman brings you cake to convince you otherwise (as referenced in the video).

In the end, this – “the Tennessee story” (as Huffman calls it) – reminds me of a story from way back in 2002 when then Governor George W. Bush spoke about “the Miracle in Texas” in an all too familiar light…he also ultimately “struck out.” Bush talked then of all of the indicators, similar to here, that were to be celebrated thanks to his (which was really Ross Perot’s) similar high-stakes policy initiative. While the gains in Texas were at-the-same-time evidenced to have been artificially inflated, this never hit the headlines. Rather, these artificial results helped President George W. Bush advance No Child Left Behind (NCLB) at the national level.

As we are all now aware, or should be now aware, NCLB never demonstrated its intended consequences now 10 years past, but NCLB demonstrated, rather, only negative, unintended consequences instead. In addition, the state of Texas in which such a similar miracle occurred, and where NCLB was first conceived, is now performing about average as compared to the nation…and losing ground.

Call me a cynic, call me a realist..but there it is.

5 thoughts on “Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Gives “Inspiring” TEDxNashville Talk

  1. The real reason that the NAEP scores in TN jumped so dramatically is that the year before, there was a law passed that prohibited 3rd graders from being promoted to 4th grade if they were not proficient. So, all the failing students were Left Behind in 3rd grade. Only grades 4 & 8 take the NAEP. Keep out the low-scoring kids and the state average goes up! Voila!!!

    You can read more at this link, including links to the law: http://www.tnparents.com/our-voicesblog/category/naep

  2. Great job Dr. Amrein-Beardsley! I recently started reading your book, and it is perhaps the best collection of referenced sources pertaining to VAMs.

    The parts of his TEDx Talk that hit me were when he said everybody takes the NAEP and that the NAEP had been given for 10 years. Maybe I’m being overly-picky. If by “everybody” he means “every state,” well okay. But it’s a representative sample of students in each state (and I don’t have an issue with sampling btw). As for ten years… well yes it’s been administered for 10 years AND longer. It’s just annoying, albeit minor within the larger picture of your points 1-3 of “what REALLY happened.”

    What really gets me however is his omission of the 12th grade NAEP. Sure, TN has shown recent gains on the NAEP in 4th and 8th grade. Of course, nationally the 12 grade NAEP has been pretty flat since NCLB, but (even with that being the case) the 12 grade NAEP scores for reading and math are among the lowest in the nation.

    So he claims to have a “nerdy obsession” with data… In the Fall 2011, I heard him claim, “Data is [sic] neutral.” He went on to claim that data are not susceptible to political influence. Perhaps he is really that naive. Or maybe he knows better and is that disingenuous.

  3. Okay. So two more explanations re: the situation in Tennessee coming from followers. Tennessee on the grade 12 NAEP ranks among the lowest in the nation, and in Tennessee, before the 4th grade NAEP tests were taken again, the state withheld an inordinate proportion of (low-scoring) students in the 3rd grade which caused the artificial gains. Tennessee is not the first to have done this either – see Walter Haney’s article about the aforementioned Texas Miracle here: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/432
    See also a readers’ comment about Huffman’s gross overstatements about his state’s participation in the NAEP. Like this viewer wrote: “The parts of his TEDx Talk that hit me were when he said everybody takes the NAEP and that the NAEP had been given for 10 years. Maybe I’m being overly-picky. If by “everybody” he means “every state,” well okay. But it’s a representative sample of students in each state (and I don’t have an issue with sampling btw). As for ten years… well yes it’s been administered for 10 years AND longer. It’s just annoying, albeit minor within the larger picture of your points 1-3 of “what REALLY happened.”

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