tweet storm

Tennessee’s former ed chief: Betsy DeVos must resign; Trump’s comments have undercut her moral authority

PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee's education commissioner from 2011 to 2014. He is now a consultant and writer living in Nashville.

Tennessee’s former education commissioner called on Betsy DeVos to resign as the nation’s education chief Thursday because of her boss’s ambivalent response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Kevin Huffman, who led the Tennessee Department of Education from 2011 to 2014, said President Donald Trump’s comments have undercut the secretary’s ability to work on behalf of public school students, many of whom are students of color.

He fired off a morning tweet storm urging her to “please resign your office” over Trump’s statements blaming both white nationalists and counter-protesters for weekend violence that left one protester dead.

Other education leaders have denounced Trump for walking back his denunciation of racist groups that are part of his political base. But Huffman’s comments were unique in insisting that they equally implicate DeVos.

It was the first time since last October that Huffman had tweeted — and he let loose a string of messages that he said later was aimed at holding Trump and his administration accountable. While many top executives have left Trump’s jobs advisory councils over the president’s comments, none of his cabinet members have resigned for that reason.

“There have been a lot of generic calls on people in the administration to resign, but it’s too easy for everyone to duck responsibility,” said Huffman, now an education consultant and writer living in Nashville. “I think it’s appropriate for people to call out specific people in our own field.”

He said the education secretary’s main responsibility is to uphold civil rights in schools — and Trump’s comments mean “she has lost the moral authority to do her job.”

“I can’t imagine Secretary DeVos walking into a room of educators and explaining that your civil rights agenda is to advance all kids, particularly children of color. How would you have the moral authority to have that conversation, given the things your boss has said, particularly when you’re unwilling to call out your boss?” he said.

DeVos posted several tweets over the weekend criticizing the “behavior and the violence and hate-filled rhetoric displayed” in Charlottesville.

But many education leaders called her response inadequate and unspecific, and urged her to take advantage of a teachable moment to call out bigotry.

On Thursday, DeVos went further in a letter to her staff.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” she wrote, calling the events in Charlottesville “tragic and unthinkable.”

“The view of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal.”

Huffman led Tennessee’s Department of Education under Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, and during the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat. He was instrumental in the state’s overhaul of K-12 education spurred by the $500 million federal Race to the Top award received from the Obama administration and its first education chief, Arne Duncan.

Huffman, who said he has met but does not know DeVos, added that people he respects believe that her policy agenda is “driven by a deep desire to expand educational opportunities for all kids, including and especially low-income kids.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: