Sunday, May 24, 2015

PA: Huffman Sells Snake Oil

As i wrote earlier this week, some Pennsylvania legislators have been looking at an Achievement School District for the Quaker State. This is a great idea if you are interested in converting public education into a system of private schools that make investors and operators rich. If your goal is to actually educate children, an ASD is probably not your best shot-- the process disenfranchises local voters and taxpayers and hands their schools over to charter operators.

Kevin Huffman has thrown in his two cents. Huffman is a former Chief for Change, a lawyer who managed to become Tennessee's education head on the strength of two years with Teach for America and plenty of fine connections. He eventually slunk away from that job, but since reformsters seem to only fail upwards, he's still working the circuit, pitching reformsters programs.

That pitchmanship brought him to PA, where he "testified" in favor of the ASD and penned a lovely op-ed for PennLive.

In that piece, he notes that "additional funding is key," which may seem like a violation of the reformster mantra that throwing money at public education is a bad idea. But throwing money is actually an approved reformster idea-- as long as you throw the money at the right people.

Huffman outlines his two-step program for turning schools into healthy investment properties around.

First, we created an Achievement School District (ASD) - a district that has the authority to remove chronically low performing schools and manage them outside of the home school district.

Second, we empowered local districts with district-run Innovation Zones in which schools are given more autonomy to select staff, run different programs, and change the school-day schedule to improve performance.

So first, strip local school boards and voters of authority over their own schools. Second, allow a mixture of innovation and stripping teachers of job security and pay. The stated plan in Tennessee was that the bottom 5% of schools would move into the top 25% within five years. Doesn't that all sound great? But hey-- how is it working out in Tennessee?

That depends (surprise) on who is crunching which numbers, but even the state's own numbers gave the Tennessee ASD the lowest possible score for growth.

In fact, Huffman forgot to mention the newest "technique" proposed to make ASD schools successful-- allow them to recruit students from outside the school's geographical home base. This is the only turnaround model that really has been successful across the nation-- in order to turn a school around, you need to fill it with different students.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is just starting to digest the news of this year's magical increased test scores. Could these be inflated for political reason? Well, duh. You didn't think that cut scores are set by some sort of sound pedagogical process, did you?

Huffman has been known to say Dumb Things. He once claimed that students with disabilities lag behind because they aren't tested often enough. He uses his special Dumb Thing skill to wrap up his op-ed.

When I spoke with Pennsylvania state senators last week about school turnaround work, one senator asked me directly, "When you created the Achievement School District, were you worried that it was too risky?" I responded, "The greatest risk would be to do nothing."

Pretending that any senator actually answered that question, the answer is still dumb. Your child is lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and broken after being struck by a car. A guy in a t-shirt runs up with an axe and makes like he's about to try to lop off your child's legs. "What the hell are you doing?" you holler, and t-shirt guy replies, "Well, the greatest risk would be to do nothing."

Doing Nothing is rarely as great a risk as Doing Something Stupid. Achievement School Districts are dumb ideas that offer no educational benefits and run contrary to the foundational principles of democracy in this country. They are literally taxation without representation. Huffman should move on along to his next gig and leave Pennsylvania alone.


  1. Misusing millions of dollars in federal funds doesn't seem to be a deterrent to Huffman's credibility with the media, with politicians or a small group of very important people. I guess risking millions of taxpayers dollars is a mere drop in the ocean when there's so many unfinished turnarounds and so little time.

  2. Thank you for making me chuckle in these humorless times...referring to your comment about reformers failing upward - so sad, so true!

  3. Thank you for making me chuckle in these humorless times...referring to your comment about reformers failing upward - so sad, so true!

  4. I am shocked, shocked I tell you. Cuomo missed the opportunity to hire this guy to lead NY schools!