Accountability Commissioner Huffman Style

th-3Growing results while closing achievement gaps is incredibly hard work,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “The goal of Tennessee’s accountability model is that all students grow. Accountability data help us sharpen our focus on the students who need added support.

I love the above quote. Say it with me now…accountability model. The renaming of test scores as accountability data, is brilliant. I hope the irony isn’t lost on you. The department that seems to have no accountability is tossing the word around like beads during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Which leads me to question, are they perhaps using a different definition then the one I am using? Reformers are so good at co-opting language that perhaps there is a new definition of accountability and I’m no aware of it.

First place I decided to check was the glossary of Education Reform. I typed in the word “accountability” and I got four results, Summative Assessment, High-Stakes Test, Test Accommodations, and Equity. None of those are what I was looking for. Back to the drawing board I went.

After looking around for a while I stumbled upon the Devils Dictionary of Education Reform and I found this one, “accountability – holding the 99%, especially teachers, students and administrators, responsible for the damage done by the 1%.” That one seems to fit perfectly. The TNDOE was trying to hold everyone else accountable while failing to meet their own responsibilities.

Let’s look at how accountability is applied in Commissioner Huffman’s world. By now it’s old news that test scores were delayed and that waivers of a state statute had been granted, but more then a few people have been wondering where the TNDOE of education got that kind of power. I decided not to speculate and just go straight to the horses mouth and ask them. This is the response I got.

Mr. Weber:


Your email was forwarded to me for response.  The waiver authority you referenced in your 2013 email below was based on Tenn. Code Ann. §49-13-105.  With limited exceptions, this law authorizes the sponsor of a proposed public charter school to apply to either the local education agency (LEA) or to the commissioner of education for a waiver of any Tennessee State Board of Education (SBE) rule or state statute that inhibits or hinders the proposed charter school’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission statement.


During the past legislative session, the general assembly passed a new law granting the commissioner of education the same waiver authority for LEAs that was previously only available to charter schools.  Pursuant to Chapter 672 of the Public Acts of 2014, upon application by an LEA, the commissioner of education may waive (with limited exceptions) any SBE rule or state statute that inhibits or hinders the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission.  Based on the language of the public chapter, only LEAs may apply to the commissioner for waivers of state statutes or SBE rules.  I have attached the new public chapter to this email for your review. 

and here’s the statute referenced,

(1) Upon applic~tion by)he !.£AJor one en or more of its schools, the

commissioner of education may waivec.:any statel)oard rule or statute that inhibits or

hinders the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission. However, the

commissioner may not waive regulatory or statutory requirements related to:

(A) Federal and state civil rights;

(B) Federal, state and local health and safety;

(C) Federal and state public records;

(D) Immunizations;

(E) Possession of weapons on school grounds;

(F) Background checks and fingerprinting of personnel;

(G) Federal and state special education services;

(H) Student due process

(I) Parental rights;

(J) Federal and state student assessment and accountability;

(K) Open meetings;

(L) Educators’ due process rights; and

(M) Reductions in teachers’ salaries.

(N) Employee rights, salaries and benefits; and

(0) Licensure of employees.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law,

See that part that I made bold? That part about Federal and state assessment and accountability, it would be my interpretation that he doesn’t have the authority to waive the use of the accountability data. That makes this a classic use of the “say it with a straight face like your serious and maybe people will believe you” policy. Around my house we refer to that as avoiding accountability. Its also symptamatic of  the arrogance that grows when nobody actually holds you accountable.

Years ago I read an article about how upper middle class kids were ending up in trouble because all their lives nobody and had ever held them accountable. Every time they got in trouble, mommy and daddy would just show up and make everything all right. Then the child got in his early 20’s and would get in serious trouble. They would be shocked because mommy and daddy suddenly couldn’t or wouldn’t help. The young person had absolutely no concept of what accountability meant and were at a loss of how to practice it. Its my opinion that we’ve gotten to a similar place with Commissioner Huffman.

Apparently there is a lack of understanding of the very concept he is demanding from others. Instead of facing up to a very major failing of those under his leadership, he tries to change the rules to mitigate the seriousness of their actions. Any of you with small children are all to familiar with this kind of behavior. My children attempt it all the time. When it happens, we sit them down, discuss the actual facts of what transpired, their role in it and the consequences of their actions. We then lay out a corrective course of action. It’s extremely important to run this process continually because its the only way my children fully understand the concept of accountability and can grow to become accountable adults.

The amazing part of all this is that the TNDOE tries to create this smoke screen without abdicating any control. Waivers have been granted to allow grades to be issued without test scores being factored in, but teachers TVASS scores will still include the corrupted scores. In what world does that make any sense at all? In essence they are trying to create a diversion from their inability to be accountable while still trying to hold others accountable. It’s absolutely ludicrous and further demonstrates the Commissioners lack of understanding of the concept.

I’ve been managing people since I was in my mid-teens. One of the first lessons I ever recieved on management and leadership was to not ask of anybody something that you would not ask of yourself. Its a lesson Commissioner Huffman should take to heart. As President Obama used to like to say, this is a potential ‘teachable moment”. The TNDOE should step up and own the mistake they made. They should demonstrate that they recognize the severity of their actions and offer transparent explanations as to why it happen. Show parents their children’s actual tests and results. They need to offer explanation of  the answers so that everyone can understand how the test scores were arrived at. Then it should be acknowledged that you can’t hold others accountable when you are not meeting your own responsibilities  and teachers should receive the same waivers as students. If he was willing to do the right thing, Commissioner Huffman could use this fiasco to actually instill more confidence in the policies he’s promoting and bring a greater understanding to the testing process.

Right now the ball is in Mr Huffman’s court, unfortunately he’s not showing signs of picking it up and running with it. Luckily we have some adults in charge to offer guidance. Representatives Gloria Johnson, Bo Mitchell, and Mike Stewart are demonstrating that they are willing to have that tough conversation with the TNDOE if necessary and we should give them full support. Sometimes we all need a little guidence and thats why we elected these people. Its a system of checks and balances but it only works when everybody does their part.

I still hold out hope that everybody will do the right thing and step up t0 the plate. This fiasco creates the perfect opportunity to bring more transparency to our testing policies and demonstrate to our children that we are not demanding anything of them that we don’t demand from ourselves. That should be the goal of Tennessee’s accountability model, but first we all need to be working off of the same definition.





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