Kevin Huffman begins his recent Washington Post column with a warning about problems he expects to result from the widespread, coronavirus-driven school closures: “As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well.”
This is pretty harsh. While in many places teachers are going to enormous lengths to create interesting projects to challenge children and keep them engaged, virtual schooling is a challenge. Online efforts school districts are undertaking to meet children’s needs during this long break are likely to be uneven. Huffman describes Stanford University research on the problems with virtual schooling, problems that are being exacerbated today by inequitable access to technology.
But what Kevin Huffman neglects to tell readers is that his purpose is not entirely to analyze his subject—the ongoing shutdown of schools. At the same time as he discusses the widespread school closure, he also manages to share the agenda of his current employer, The City Fund, a relatively new national group that finances the election campaigns of of charter school advocates running for seats on local school boards, supports the rapid expansion of charter schools, and promotes portfolio school reform. And when the Washington Post tells readers that Huffman, “a former education commissioner of Tennessee, is a partner at the City Fund, a national education nonprofit,” the Post neglects to explain The City Fund’s agenda.
Huffman serves on the The City Fund’s staff, along with Chris Barbic who, under Huffman, was brought in to lead the now failed Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), a state school takeover body founded when Huffman was the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch describes Huffman and Barbic’s work in Tennessee: “The State Education department, headed by Disrupter Kevin Huffman, selected a charter school star, Chris Barbic to manage the new ASD. Barbic had previously led the YES Prep charter chain in Houston. Barbic boldly pledged that the low-performing schools in the ASD would reach the top 25 percent in the state rankings within five years. The ASD opened in 2012 with six schools, and the countdown clock began ticking. The annual cost was estimated at $22 million a year for five years. In year four, Barbic had a heart attack and resigned from his leadership role to join the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. By the end of year five, none of the initial six schools in the ASD had reached the top 25 percent. All but one were still mired in the bottom 5 percent… The ASD experiment failed.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 247)
Huffman’s tenure as Tennessee Commissioner of Education was not smooth. Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s former husband, came to Tennessee following work as an executive at Teach for America. When he resigned from his Tennessee position in 2014, reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press described his tenure as Tennessee’s state commissioner: “Last year, the former Teach for America executive drew complaints from nearly a third of local superintendents who wrote a letter to (Governor) Haslam complaining about Huffman’s leadership style, saying he showed little respect for their views and professional educators generally… (I)n June, 15 conservative GOP lawmakers wrote Haslam to demand Huffman resign or be fired. They listed grievances of school administrators and teachers.”
When Chris Barbic left the Tennessee Achievement School District, he moved to the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Now Barbic and Huffman are both on staff at The City Fund, an organization whose funding comes primarily from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and from Netflix founder, Reed Hastings.
Once one sets Huffman’s recent Washington Post commentary in this context, his recommendations and the sources he quotes are not surprising. He compliments the “nimble and collaborative” approach of the no-excuses charter school chain, Achievement First and thanks Achievement First for offering to guide the Providence, Rhode Island public schools. Achievement First charter schools employ a strict, no-excuses learning philosophy that demands obedience enforced by punishment, a learning strategy that has been criticized as developmentally nappropriate for young children and contrary to fostering inquiry and curiosity.
During the coronavirus-driven school closures, Huffman encourages public school leaders to join in a virtual, online forum to be hosted by Chiefs for Change, where “school districts can share how they are collaborating with charter schools during this crisis.” Chiefs for Change is the state school superintendents’ organization founded by Jeb Bush to promote entrepreneurial and business-driven school accountability. Huffman enthuses that charter school-public school collaboration—the ideology behind portfolio school reform—will support children while the schools are closed: “Hopefully, in the coming weeks, those jurisdictions struggling to support online coursework will catch up and find workarounds for students without access to technology, learning from the more entrepreneurial players.”
The City Fund is a promoter of “portfolio school reform” in which school district leadership treats charter schools and traditional public schools alike as though they are investments in a stock portfolio, managing them all, and supposedly promoting their collaboration, and then shedding the bad investments and investing in the successful experiments. Portfolio school reform has not succeeded in fostering charter and traditional district school collaboration in the places where it has been tried—New York City, and Chicago, for example. The competition built into the model pits one school against another, especially when charters are given the freedom to choose the neighborhoods where they open and compete for students and budgets with the neighborhood public school.
Huffman concludes by recommending that as public schools open next fall, states should demand that schools administer the standardized tests most states have cancelled this spring because their public schools are closed: “(S)ince states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.”
The assumption here is that teachers themselves will not be able to assess children’s needs as they welcome their students back to school next fall. Huffman is certainly correct that any standardized tests after the months’ long break should not be used to rate and rank the schools the students have been unable to attend during the pandemic. But to assume that teachers need standardized tests—whose results are always released months after the tests are administered—is ridiculous. Certified public school teachers and other local school professionals are trained to be able to assess each child’s needs. The best investment when schools reopen will be in small classes where teachers can devote time and attention to helping every child catch up.