The ‘A’ Word: Kevin Huffman — ‘Parents Don’t Dislike Testing as Much as People Think They Do. They Hate Test Prep’

Kevin Huffman

This interview is part of The ‘A’ Word series, produced in partnership with the Bush Institute to examine how “accountability” became a “dirty word,” and what can and should be done going forward to ensure accountability withstands the test of a bad reputation. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed, and edited for clarity and length. The same questions, or types of questions, were put to each participant to see what they thought independently and collectively about accountability. Their answers will take the reader into the inner workings of schools, the intricacies of the politics of education, and the ways in which campuses can better serve students. Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations.

Kevin Huffman served as Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2015. The New York University Law School graduate now serves as a chief-in-residence at Chiefs for Change and a fellow with New America. He started his education career as a Houston elementary school bilingual teacher. Later, Huffman represented school districts, state education departments, and universities in his law practice. He then joined the senior leadership of Teach For America, serving as general counsel and executive vice president of public affairs.

In this ‘A’ Word interview, he describes how his state tried to change the education conversation from being about money and conditions (adult concerns) to instruction, learning, and academic outcomes (student priorities). He makes the point that accountability alone cannot improve student outcomes — it can only point out the need for strategies and supports that help students learn.

To Huffman, helping get those supports and strategies to classrooms must become part of the next generation of the accountability movement. So must getting rid of so much test preparation, which he believes is what most irritates parents about the testing component of accountability. He also contends that school accountability must include more elements that parents care about, such as access to quality courses and a good school environment.

How do you define accountability, and has that changed over time?

Accountability is the use of transparent information and results to differentiate what happens to adults in a system, what happens to the schools in a system, and what happens to the governance of those schools.

My definition probably has changed a bit. From my time in Tennessee, I came to have broader appreciation for how people responded or didn’t respond to public reporting of information about schools and public pressure about that information. I also have a broader appreciation for how people responded or didn’t respond to the weighting of some factor in an educator’s evaluation or in the ratings of schools. 

(Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations)

How did this shift come about?

Sometimes we have too much of a rational-actor theory around education accountability. We assume that people are able to rationally calculate which things are more important and which are less important, based on how we’re weighting them or the likelihood of a potential outcome. But people are not as rational as we assume.  

People would have intellectual arguments about whether student growth should count 50 percent, 35 percent, or 25 percent in the evaluation of a teacher or principal. In fact, people’s behavior doesn’t change at all based on the percentage that you put on something. You can spend all sorts of time arguing about 50 percent, 35 percent, or 25 percent, and the actual impact on the adult behavior is nothing.

People respond to the low likelihood of high-impact events more than you’d think they would. For example, the probability of an educator actually being fired because their students got a bad result on tests in a particular year is extremely low. Yet the level of mass hysteria that would rise up over teacher evaluations and the use of student test scores was extremely high relative to the probability of anything happening to an individual.  

What does change the behavior of adults in the system?

When something counts as a rating for your job, it changes behavior. These things are important to change behavior, and it’s why accountability is incredibly important. Individual teachers and principals do respond to accountability metrics. They sometimes over-respond, so figuring out how you’re going to take that into account is important.

Tennessee has the largest growth of any state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over a four-year period. I believe the biggest driver of that was our accountability for teachers, principals, schools, and districts. As a result of accountability, people respond. They do different things, and focus on different things. Accountability puts the impetus on making sure you’ve got the right things on the list.

How did you use accountability principles as a state leader?

​We pushed policies that ensured some level of accountability for everybody who worked in the system. We pushed teacher evaluations and the implementation of teacher evaluations. We pushed the use of data in differentiated compensation so that every district had to create a differentiated compensation plan for teachers. And we pushed the use of accountability to determine which schools would be eligible for state takeover through the Achievement School District, which obviously was a big deal. We also used accountability to determine which schools and districts we held up based on their high level of performance. 

We tried to make sure that, up and down, we evaluated everyone who was working in the state. We included a discussion of the state’s academic results as part of performance conversations. We could credibly say to schools in the districts, “We are evaluating our people just as you are evaluating your people, with the same level of seriousness, and with real accountability for people who work here.”

What did these principles help you accomplish?

The most important thing is advancing student outcomes. This meant creating a world where the focus of adults in the system was to advance student outcomes, and where the conversations with district and school leaders shifted from a focus on money and conditions to instruction, learning, and academic outcomes.

As a result, the level of focus on academic results shifted pretty significantly. It also shifted the kind of people who work in the system.

As we implemented teacher evaluations, we heard the mythology that teachers were leaving and quitting the system. We would hear from superintendents and legislators that teachers are so upset, they’re all quitting and leaving.

But an interesting thing happened when we looked at the data. Teachers were leaving the system at exactly the same rate as before we started doing evaluations, except for teachers who were at the lowest level of student growth. The ones who were leaving had the lowest impact on improving student outcomes. They were leaving the system at twice the rate as teachers who had the highest impact on student growth.

Interestingly, before we did teacher evaluations, those with the lowest impact left at the same rate as other teachers. So, the overall number of teachers leaving the field was the same, but we saw a shift to underperforming teachers leaving the system. They were doing so at double the rate of high-performing teachers.

That was not accidental. And that was not teachers being fired. That was people self-selecting out of the system as the understanding of what it means to be successful changed.

Could you talk about a time when you were able to see an over-response coming and then managed around it or solved it?

At some level you’re rowing against a culture challenge in education, which is a culture of non-differentiation. 

I spent a lot of time on the road during the first year of teacher evaluations. A teacher came up to me in the hall, which was fairly common.  I had visited her classroom, and she seemed like a really good teacher. But she was crying, and said, “You know, I had my first observation. I’m just so upset.” I thought, “Oh, no, this is not good.” I said, “Well, so you had your first observation. What was your score, if you don’t mind my asking?” And she said it was a 4, on a 5-point scale. She had the second-highest score.

The culture we have built over time in education is such that telling somebody they weren’t perfect was like a major slap in the face. You can only battle this challenge by going forward and going through.  

At the state level, your tools are limited. But you can put people in front of their peers and have them talk about what they have done to lead at the local level. It’s fascinating how you go to one county, and no teachers were upset or freaking out about evaluation. You go to the next county, and everyone was freaking out.  

The differentiating factor was local leadership. Was it stoking anger, or was it saying, “This is going to be fine. We’re going to do this together. We’re going to do this well. We’re going to do this together.”

Where have we gone wrong in building strong broad support for accountability? 

We have not done a good enough job elevating a broad range of voices at all levels, starting with parents. You wind up with white upper-middle-class parents and the teachers union, which is predominately white middle class and obviously educated, dominating the conversation around accountability.

We have not done enough to elevate the voices of parents who want better options for their kids, who want transparent information and who get frustrated with being stonewalled by the system. On the side of the teacher, principal, and superintendent, whose associations and organizations tend to be anti-accountability, we haven’t done a good enough job elevating the voices of people who have a different perspective.

​It simply was not the case in Tennessee that teachers hated accountability. The union did not like teacher evaluations, but if you surveyed teachers as we did, there was a broad range of opinion. A vast majority of people thought evaluations were improving instruction.  

I don’t think we always have done a great job taking into account other things that parents and the public care about. Sometimes in the reform world we’ve sort of acted like these are soft things, and that you’re being soft if you care about school culture and access to particular kinds of classes, such as the arts. We should have had the perspective of “What do parents want? And how can we be responsive to what they want?” Parents want more things than reading and math.  

We also let people get away at the school level with doing way too much test prep. Parents don’t dislike testing as much as people think they do. They hate test prep. That is a uniform reaction when I will drill down with parents. It’s not the sitting down for the standardized test. It’s the classroom time when all the kids are doing is practicing for the test.  

That’s just bad academic practice. It’s not good instruction. Data and analysis shows it doesn’t work. Even if you’re just doing it to try to drive up scores on the test, it’s not even effective at that.  

States are assuming greater power under the Every Student Succeeds Act. What should we expect of state leaders, school board members, and district leaders when it comes to revising accountability?

Some states will do a really good job in having pretty sophisticated accountability systems that are focused on improving student outcomes, closing gaps, and taking in additional meaningful factors. Some states will have accountability plans that are fairly weak. They won’t call for that much growth or improvement, so they’ll be able to declare victory without actually accomplishing as much as they need to accomplish. And then, you will see everything in between.   

I am less troubled by the push to states than some of my colleagues. The old federal system was fairly prescriptive in terms of what counted and what didn’t count. But you had a wide range of states in terms of their execution. So, you can have federal accountability and some states will do it incredibly poorly.  

This will take a lot of watchdogging. Outside groups really need to watch results. But I hope that we understand the important place to hold their feet to the fire is actually on whether kids learn.

What would be your perfect accountability system? 

​I don’t think there is a perfect accountability system but a few things are important.  

One is a significant focus on growth, as opposed to just raw results. There is a standard that we want people to meet, but growth is critically important. We want people to be focused on the kid who is scoring below basic at the bottom of the barrel. We want them focused on advancing that kid as far as they can, even if they’re not going to get to the grade-level bar that you’re setting.  

A second thing is a concerted focus on closing gaps between groups of kids in a meaningful way over time. And the more subjects that you can include, the better. 

In terms of non-academic outcomes, figure out the things that are actually meaningful to parents, measure them, and use them in accountability. For example, access to courses is important to people. Parent and student parent surveys about school climate are good, too. Even if you don’t have a baseline to use them in accountability right away, getting on a path to where you can use them is important.  

Another that I would highlight is teacher absenteeism. When a student is absent, he hurts himself; when teachers are absent, they hurt every kid in the class. I would include reduction of chronic teacher and student absenteeism in an accountability system. There’s a direct tie to academic outcomes that’s been measured over time. 

Are accountability systems doing a good enough job of getting supports to students and classrooms? Or does this need improvement?

​It needs a lot of improvement. Accountability on its own is not sufficient to drive improvement. Accountability just creates a world in which there’s opportunity to identify the things that work and don’t work, reward people doing the best work, and designate people who are doing the worst work for improvement and support.  All accountability does is create the conditions where additional support and resources can make a difference.  

But it’s pretty clear we do a bad job. For all the dollars we spend on professional development, it has literally zero impact. That’s terrible. A lot of times we don’t have professional development tied to accountability. We have professional development that operates independently of accountability.

​What worries you as states assume new authority under ESSA?

My worry is not that different than before. I worry some states and districts will not improve. I worry some states and districts will improve for some kids without improving for others, and that that will be deemed good enough.   

Probably the most appalling thing I saw in my time in Tennessee was that improved student outcomes did not change the public conversation. The way the media often covered education, the way politicians discussed education, and therefore the way the general public experienced education was to lump student outcomes as equals in a bucket with how adults working in the system are feeling at the moment about policies.  

Do we care if a state is making real gains and real growth for all kids? Are we going to hold that up? Or instead, are we going to care mainly about whether the adults who work in the system are happy because there haven’t been any changes? This is a genuine question.

What uncomfortable truth in education have we been unwilling to address?

I don’t know whether we’ve been unwilling to address uncomfortable truths as much as we have struggled to address those truths. For example, we’re working really hard across the country to increase the percentage of kids that graduate from a two-year or four-year college. But let’s say we succeed in driving up the percentage of kids who are getting degrees to 60 percent. For the 40 percent who don’t get a postsecondary degree, we are not giving them good options right now.  

Career education across the country is not well structured. It doesn’t drive against outcomes like employment opportunity and income, and it’s embedded in a system that doesn’t make sense. If you were going to invent career education from scratch, you would never stick it inside a school with tenured faculty, many of whom haven’t been on the job for the skill they’re teaching in a very long time. You would never invent it that way.  

At the opposite end of the scale, we have not figured out a good enough plan to grapple with brain development, trauma, and other factors that impact kids from [ages] 0 to 4. This challenge has the highest impact on the lowest-performing schools.  

If you peel back the bottom 1 or 2 percent of schools in performance in any state, there are a lot of things that are not well done in those schools, but we also haven’t done enough to wrestle with the massive challenges and developmental issues that impact these kids before they walk through the school door. If we don’t take that on, we’re probably never going to make a genuine stride for the lowest-performing schools in the country.  

The good thing is some people in the reform community are talking about this. Educators and unions have been talking about it; so have people in the early childhood community. There’s alignment about the need to take it on, but I don’t think the game plan really exists.  

What’s at stake for the country as well as a state to get all these issues right?

We’ve seen in Tennessee the way the global economy plays out. Many plants and factories that opened here are foreign companies. It’s not just a question of whether a plant is going to be in Tennessee or Alabama. It’s a question of whether the plant is going to be in Tennessee compared to any of a number of countries around the world. You could see the global economy in real time play out in jobs here.

We’re either going to get to a place where many more people are getting college degrees, and where we’ve got real training to put people on a path to the middle class if they don’t get a college degree, or we’re going to have massive challenges in this country.  

The stakes couldn’t be higher. I just continue to believe that we can actually make a difference.

I am a huge believer that we can take our existing systems and significantly improve them, but there’s got to be leadership and the desire to do it. I’m a little worried that we’re at a moment where the left is going way to the left, and the right is going way to the right, and we’re losing the sensible middle in education.

What didn’t we ask you that we should have?

Here’s one last thing: The highest-performing teachers, principals, and superintendents want feedback. They don’t want to be patted on the back and told, “You’re perfect.” They want to be told the things they can do to get to an even higher level. It’s just a misunderstanding of accountability that it is just about punishing the laggards. People don’t understand that there is a craving among the highest performers to continue to improve.

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