SummerMountains

July is upon us and summer is in full swing for educators across our country.  While school is the farthest thing from the minds of many kids and families, the reality is the start of a new school year is only a few short weeks away and there is much to do between now and when students arrive back on campuses throughout the valley.

Many people believe a major perk of being an educator is getting summers off from work.  While it is certainly true that educators get some down time in summer (that they deserve!), for most teachers and administrators the summer is not a completely work or stress free time.

For most educators, they spend at least some time during the summer attending learning events like conferences or professional meetings.  Many other educators turn into students in the summer by taking graduate credit coursework.

For my wife Sarah (a teacher) and I, this has certainly been the case.  Just in the past few years, Sarah has taken classes at places like the New York Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, and the MOMA to become a better art teacher.  Summers for me the past few years were spent as a graduate student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where I completed my doctoral work.  Both of us are proud to bring the knowledge these experiences gave us back to Eagle County for our students and community.

Here in Eagle County Schools, we hold teaching to be a profession and thus we encourage this kind of professional growth.  We want all our students to be life-long learners and our staff embodies this character trait.  Our district does provide a small tuition credit ($1,500) to help incentivize these efforts, but by far most of the costs are picked up by the educators themselves.

At any given time, we have educators pursuing their Master’s degrees, Education Specialist degrees, and even Doctorates.  We also have educators taking coursework from colleges, universities, professional associations, and other educational organizations that is independent of a specific degree track.

But the ongoing learning and work of the educators during the summer only represents a part of what’s going on in our schools over the summer “break.”  With hard fought dollars from this past legislative session, we are able to replace flat-panel monitors or install “smart-board” systems in our classrooms.  We’ve also been able to get our teacher laptops and student computer lab machines all under warranty again.  And, we’ve been working hard to improve the “curb appeal” of our buildings through grounds-keeping, landscaping, paint, and sidewalk work.

We’re also working hard to get ready academically for the next school year.  While we still have a ways to go, I’m proud to say we were able to restore of the some staffing cuts in buildings that happened during the great recession.  This means our kids in Eagle County Schools will get more support and individual attention.

We also had a banner year recruiting – drawing more candidates from selective colleges and universities.  While I’m excited about this talented crop of hires for our schools, all new teachers need support.  To meet that need, we’ve been working hard this summer to put in place orientations and mentoring supports so that every educator starting out in Eagle County is supported with good information and seasoned expertise.

Finally, we’ve been working hard to align our curriculum systems in math and language to internationally benchmarked expectations.  Our kids can and should learn at the same pace and level as kids anywhere in the world.  To meet that goal, we’ve been working hard this summer to get these foundational elements of math and reading aligned to high expectations and to think about how we can support all kids toward world-class expectations.

So, on behalf of all the dedicated and proud employees at Eagle County Schools, let me say “enjoy summer!”  But know that in every public school in our community there is a buzz of activity and excitement about August.  Our schools and the people in them are on the move and we are excited about what the future holds for our students and our community.

A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on July 9, 2014.

 

 

 

bellwether

 

Yesterday, Bellwether Education Partners, “a national non-profit dedicated to helping educational organizations,” released a new report entitled “Genuine Progress, Greater Challenges: A Decade of Teacher Effectiveness Reforms” by Andrew J. Rotherham and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel.  The report can be accessed here.

This report is national in scope, but popped up on my radar when Colorado’s Donnell Kay Foundation tweeted out a link to the report under the Colorado education policy hashtag “#edcolo,” which I review for state news on a regular basis.

After reviewing the report, I added some (admittedly cheeky) commentary on the report via Twitter.  Specifically, I criticized it as pseudo research parading as empirical evidence.  I also noted that no high performing education system has achieved greatness pursuing the strategies recommended in the report.

One of the authors of the report, Andy Rotherham (a known national education policy wonk), replied to my tweet, stating “When U actually read report & engage w/ what’s in it (rather than playing to crowd) we’ll be here @COJasonGlass @bellwethered.”  Almost immediately, Donnell Kay (or whoever handles their account) favorited the tweet and Andy Smarick (another national policy wonk on education reform and a partner at Bellwether) retweeted it. *Profuse apologies for those unfamiliar with “twitter-speak!”*

Given that the report itself is a re-cycle and re-hashing of the same usual suspects and policy positions when it comes to educator quality and all these individuals/groups have an extreme propensity for citing one another’s writings and hyping each other up, I find the accusation that I’m the one “playing to the crowd” downright amusing!

But,  I digress.

Andy did have the courtesy to send me a very respectfully worded email, asking if we could talk about the report and the issues therein and suggested that there was room for common ground.  I sincerely appreciate the civility and spirit of that message and I do think Andy is a quality writer and good thinker.  My critique of the report is in no way personal toward him or his co-author.

I do think that Andy deserves a more full explanation of my concerns with his report and I do apologize for the abruptness and lack of depth in my tweets on this matter – thus is the inherent drawback of using Twitter for complex conversation!

Rather than respond privately to Andy via email, I am choosing to critique his report via this public forum.  The reason for this is that Andy and the Bellwether Foundation have put forth this document in the public realm, ostensibly with the goal of influencing public policy when it comes to educator quality.  As such, a critique of the report also belongs in the public realm.

So, in the spirit of respectful public dialogue and a commitment to a free-market of ideas (which I am sure Andy equally supports), below is my critique of the Bellwether report.

One last thing before I begin – I apologize for the free flowing form of my thoughts in the writing below.  I am a working Superintendent and father and my time is precious.  Forgive me if this lacks the flow and organization of a more professional piece.

AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT

Instructional quality is of great importance – the Bellwether report makes this statement early and prominently and I could not agree more.

Teachers matter a great deal to student outcomes – with the qualification of “within school factors,” I strongly agree with this statement.  The Bellwether report does acknowledge this qualification.  To be more clear, outside of school factors actually matter more when it comes to student outcomes.  This is not noted as an “excuse” for why our system of education cannot and should not be better, it is noted to say that one cannot reasonably expect to systemically and at-scale improve student outcomes if one ignores the out of school factors.

The industrial union model has been, to a degree, a detriment to the teaching “profession” – While teachers’ unions adopted an industrial and confrontational approach to bargaining for good reason (low wages, discriminatory practices, inhuman working conditions) and have historically gained in these areas as a result, holding on to this model in today’s era is a detriment.  Unions must evolve to be guardians of of quality and of the profession.  In my professional opinion and to the credit of unions, this transformation is underway in the United States – but it has been and continues to be a process.

Educator quality has a long and interesting history – The report notes that efforts to improve educator quality through mechanisms such as licensure and efforts to define “highly qualified”  have been underway for several years.  I would also add educator preparation program accreditation and prospective teacher testing as other levers, which are touched on in the report – if only briefly.

Pension reform is necessary – To which I would add two qualifications.  First, this is not true in all states.  Some states have over-promised and mis-managed their pension systems and created massive unfunded liabilities.  However, other states have been conservative and pragmatic with their systems and they are quite sustainable.  Second, we must be cautious about the motives and plans of those wishing to reform pension systems.  While there are some who genuinely wish to shift the funds to public employees in the form of defined contribution plans and increase direct compensation, there are others who wish to “reform” pensions as a back-door way of de-funding public education and intentionally harming public servants.  Similarly, we must also be suspicious of the motives of Wall Street firms who wish to destroy and privatize pensions so as to create opportunities for profiteering.

Personalize professional development - While I take a bit of exception that this must be in some way hitched to evaluation, to the degree that we empower and provide autonomy to our front line educators to determine and customize professional learning to their context and needs, we are in agreement.

Focus on recruitment – The best performing education systems in the world are damned selective about whom they allow to enter the teaching profession. Generally, this is accomplished through a combination of raising the prestige of the profession, raising the initial compensation levels, and treating the profession with reverence and respect.  If the United States approached the teaching profession in the same way many high performing global systems do (and the way the best performing systems in the U.S. historically have), the thinking that we need to rank and fire people would diminish tremendously.

AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL DISAGREEMENT

A one sided historical narrative - The report attempts to tell the story of educator quality in the United States.  While this is indeed a worthwhile and interesting topic (at least in my judgment!), the report relies on a tired narrative of unions and comatose school administrators as the villians and education reform groups and their “get tough” leaders as heroes.   How can anyone expect a historical review of educator quality to be taken seriously as a scholarly piece without even a mention of John Dewey?

Unions are the problem - As previously mentioned, this story needs a villain and teachers’ unions serve that role in this report.  However, the highest performing education systems on Earth are (for the most part) highly unionized.  In these systems, unions serve as professional guilds and important partners for educator quality.  Using this report as yet another frontal attack on unions does not help us make the transition to that professional and collegial model.  Using the lens of international benchmarking to best systems, dismantling and disenfranchising the union does not seem to be in the playbook.

Evaluation is a mechanism for improving educator quality – This report repeatedly leaps to the conclusion that improving evaluation systems will improve teaching and improve student outcomes.  This causal link has no empirical basis and giants from the field of business management (notably Deming and Herzberg) have been telling us for decades the practice is an ineffective means of improvement.  Yet, the education reform movement has swallowed whole this approach of evaluate/rank/punish as a mechanism for improvement and now we have national education policy build on this unproven and potentially detrimental assumption.

Achievement gaps exist; and teachers are the answer – As discussed previously, teachers are really, really important and on this point we agree.  Yet, by this report’s citations teacher effects account for 7% or 8% of the variance when it comes to student outcomes.  Much of this variance, we know, comes from societal issues relating to student poverty.  Any systemic effort aimed at closing the achievement gap must include a commensurate systemic effort at mitigating the effects of poverty on learning.

“The last few years have produced real progress on teacher effectiveness and more generally in American schools…” – This statement comes directly out of the report and makes the classic logical fallacy of “post hoc, ergo proptor hoc.” More simply, Y followed X, so Y must have been caused by X.  In spite of the constant attacks and shaming of the American education system in an effort to beat the drum of reform, American schools are better performing now than ever and achievement gaps are narrower than ever.  To make any sort of claim that this improvement (which has been underway since the 1960′s) is the result of relatively recent “educator effectiveness” reforms is bogus.  While often maligned as  unresponsive and overly bureaucratic, the American education system has actually been very adaptive to the shifting demands our society has placed on public education.  Rather than a system which has been resistant to change, the American education system has been very successful at meeting change.  See Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class for a lengthy discussion on this point.

Removing ineffective educators is the key to large scale improvement – I am unaware of any organization or system, public or private, which achieved systemic and sustained greatness via the creation of large scale, complex and Rube Goldberg-ish attempts to rank and fire employees. Even in the so-called cut-throat world of American business, firing people is a relatively rare occurrence.  Focusing on firing people is more likely to create alienation and fear in an organization than large scale improved performance.  This is not to say that individual accountability isn’t important – some people need a lot of it!  Rather, it is to say that we have other higher leverage strategies more likely to produce the outcome we want, such as more effective recruiting and empowerment of our professionals.

Performance-based compensation is a key element for improving educator quality – The report does acknowledge that the research is “mixed” on this point, but I’d more characterize the evidence to indicate that performance-based compensation has no impact on student outcomes.  I’d urge Rotherham and Mitchel to more closely read the Vanderbilt POINT study, which they do reference.  The “no effect” finding should come as no surprise.  Researchers like Frederick Herzberg and Deci & Ryan have clearly told us that the most important aspects of a compensation system is that it is adequate and fair and that money is not a strong “motivator” for quality.  The simple behavioristic approach of offering merit pay to educators so they will work harder for kids has no basis in evidence and is professionally insulting.

Transparency and choice will lead to improved teacher preparation – This statement comes right out of the report as the authors recommend creating more of a free market for teacher preparation, allowing more groups to prepare teachers, and removing barriers to entering the profession.  Rather than a recipe for quality, this is a recipe for increased variability.  Higher performing education systems actually restrict educator preparation institutions and demand higher quality to get a systemic impact.  No high performing system has used a Teach for America or “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to educator preparation.

Traditional education “interest groups” have too much power and are the problem – While it is clear that the authors did put some considered thought into this report and their writing, this claim borders on laughable and is, at a minimum, self serving.  The traditional interest groups (of which I would include those groups which represent teachers, school boards, and school administrators) are the only groups representing the large scale voices of practitioners in the field.  It is groups like Bellwether (and Donnell Kay here in Colorado, for that matter) who have worked to shove out these traditional groups and the voices of practitioners and replace them with a parade of of ideologically-minded nonprofits who are all advocating for some vision of an American education system built on test and punishments, the deconstruction of public schools, and the destruction of community-based decision making.  The traditional interest groups are not the problem; the hijacking of education policy by big money philanthropists and their nonprofit fronts are precisely the problem.

IN CLOSING

I’d like to again thank Andy Rotherham for calling me out on my Twitter criticisms of his report.  It is a lengthy piece that deserved more attention than 140 characters could provide.  I hope this blog posting makes my concerns with the report more clear and I look forward to engaging with Andy (or others) in the spirit of open and respectful discussion.

 

Testing

I can’t think of anyone who likes to take tests. The mere mention of acronyms like ACT and SAT conjure up cold sweats and bad memories of hours sitting in auditoriums or school cafeterias feverishly coloring in bubbles in a state of nervous anxiety. Yet, these experiences have become such a foundational element of the American education system that they are almost a ritualistic rite of passage, or perhaps a form of systemic hazing.

While there aren’t many people who like tests, I also can’t think of an educator worth their salt who doesn’t place high value on valid, reliable, and timely assessment data.

A quality educator uses testing data, tightly aligned to the curriculum, to see how students are progressing in their mastery of course content and skills. The quality educator then adapts the instructional technique (differentiation), or lines up additional supports (specialists or assistive technology), to help each student reach the goal.

FORMATIVE AND SUMMATIVE TESTING

Testing for the purpose of adapting instruction and providing support is known as formative assessment. It is a hallmark of all high performing education systems.

Paradoxically, most of the tests mandated through state or federal laws (like No Child Left Behind), are not formative in nature and have almost no instructional value. These tests are summative – they occur at the end of instruction to measure what the learner retained.

These summative tests are given to students in subjects including reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and English Language proficiency. They happen near the end of the school year, and it takes months before we get the results. This makes summative tests akin to an autopsy – they give us great information about what happened, but are woefully late to do anything to assist the patient.

ASSESSMENT IN THE UNITED STATES & IN HIGH PERFORMING SYSTEMS

Interestingly, there is only one system in the world where every student is tested at the end of every year using a machine-scored, multiple choice format: the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, high performing global systems (including Finland) do have tests, but these tests are formative in nature and are used to direct instructional decisions and provide learning support.

When high performing systems do give end of year summative tests, they are very different than the machine scored, bubble-sheet forms we see in Colorado.

Instead of testing every student every year, high performing systems test at key “gateway” points in a student’s progression. These assessments are given at the transition from elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and on exit from high school.

High performing systems also tend to use tests which require students to demonstrate skills like writing, formulating and defending a position, synthesizing complex information, problem solving, and critical thinking. Classroom teachers (instead of machines) frequently score these tests, so that feedback on how instruction might be improved immediately gets to where it can do the most good.

TESTING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY VS. TESTING FOR INSTRUCTION

In Colorado, we test every student every year from grades 3 through high school in a variety of subjects.  One driver behind this approach is so that we can amass data to identify, shame, punish, and occasionally reward schools and teachers who get high test scores.

No high performing system in the world uses such an approach as a strategy for quality.

Instead, high performing education systems are judicious about their use of testing and insist on clear and immediate connections to teaching and learning.

THE PATH AHEAD FOR TESTING IN COLORADO

Colorado is in the process of redesigning its system of assessments to move away from those scanned bubble sheets covered with #2 pencil lead. It is replacing those tests with computer-based tests, which are intended to measure higher-order thinking skills instead of multiple choice test accuracy.

The tests in English language arts and math are called PARCC (Partnership of Assessment for Readiness in College and Careers). They are aligned to the internationally benchmarked high expectations embedded in Colorado’s Academic Standards and the Common Core.

These efforts to improve the assessments and to align to high expectations are the right work. However, the PARCC test is still a summative grade-by-grade, every student every year test that is then hitched to the state’s blame and shame system of accountability for schools and teachers.

We should applaud efforts to improve the state’s assessment system – but we should know by now that the era of hyper-testing and punishment ushered in under the federal No Child Left Behind Law isn’t working for our kids, schools, or communities.

THE LOCAL CONNECTION

Our schools are obligated by law to participate in these big data state-testing schemes. However, we are putting our focus on formative assessments that link closely to our curriculum and serve to improve instruction.

While we have to take part in the big government solutions imposed on us by Washington D.C. and our own state legislature, we can choose to put our energies into formative measures that will actually be of value to our students. The by-product of which is improved student

Note – this article originally appeared in the Vail Daily

 

Photo courtesy of James Butler via Flickr

Photo courtesy of James Butler via Flickr

The Vail Symposium, a great civic organization we have here in Eagle County dedicated to facilitating key public policy discussions, had recently scheduled a tremendous event on education to discuss the role of unions.

The event was to have featured Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and Hannah Skandera, state education Chief in New Mexico, to square off in a sort of edu-celebrity cage match on unions.

Because of the nature of our resort community, it is not uncommon for our valley to get very talented speakers, musicians, and artists to visit.  Still, we were excited about this conversation because of it’s focus on education policy and that it would have allowed our community to engage with two key national figures in Weingarten and Skandera.

Regrettably, both speakers cancelled.  However, the Symposium was kind enough to allow me to fill in and facilitate a larger discussion with the community on education policy.  I’m looking forward to the event and information on it can be found here.

Our school district, Eagle County Schools, did provide a brief for the prior speakers to give them the local context of our district and its relationship with our union.  This document can be accessed here:

VailSymposiumEagleCountyContext

To sum up, we are working to pattern the approaches we use in Eagle County after those strategies that have been proven effective at systemically improving student outcomes in other high performing education systems.  In these high performing systems, we see relationships that are collaborative, healthy, and respectful.

For us, it calls into question the wisdom of any reform strategies predicated on disenfranchising or dismantling unions.  In the high performing systems we have studied, union-busting just doesn’t seem to be in the playbook.

Note that we do not make the claim that unionization has a causal relationship with high performance.  There are certainly plenty of education systems with strong unions that are not high performing.  However, in those systems which have achieved the kind of long-standing and systemic success we are seeking, we find none of them have gotten there through expending energy on an adversarial relationship with the union.

As always, I look forward to and appreciate any reactions.

Grass in Motion by Robbie via Flickr

Superintendents representing 99% of the public school students in Colorado sent a letter to state elected officials and Governor Hickenlooper today.  The letter is straightforward in its request.  I present it here for your consideration and distribution:  LetterToGeneralAssembly

Rwenning

Today, on Twitter, I asked some critical questions about opinion piece the Honorable Rep. Jared Polis wrote for the Denver Post.  You can read the article yourself, but the central claim of Rep. Polis’ argument is that “public school choice is an asset to improve all schools.”

I’ve written before that I’m not an opponent of school choice.   However, I do question whether school choice policies have the capacity to actually lead us to system-wide improvement and, if school choice isn’t carefully overseen, that it can lead to a re-segregation of our schools – effectively returning us to an era of “separate but equal.”

I asked Rep. Polis (and a non-profit called “A+ Denver” which claims to “advocate for the changes necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in public education”) some questions about school choice and its ability to really “improve all schools.”  I’ll put these questions here, and also provide some answers based on the evidence.

Question 1 – Which high performing global systems have used choice and competition as drivers for greatness?  Answer – no education system that leads the world’s performance league tables has used school choice and competition as a driver for greatness.

Question 2 – Does school choice improve all public schools?  Answer – there is no peer reviewed, journal quality evidence to support this claim.

Question 3 – Are we overselling school choice as a policy for large scale improvement?  Answer – given that no high performing system has used this approach, and we have no quality evidence to support this claim, I’d deduce that we are overselling this policy, if the goal is that all schools improve.

From Rep. Polis, I got the typical imperious silence one should expect from a Member of Congress.  “A+ Denver” did respond with another statement/claim, saying “school choice combined with performance management will have an impact on the largest school systems.”  To which I again say: evidence, please.

Enter Rich Wenning

Rich Wenning is the current Executive Director at BeFoundation, a nonprofit purportedly working to bring about “sustained and dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students and the vitality of their communities.”

Let me say that I make no personal criticisms of Rich or his organization.  While I admit I don’t know a lot about them or the strategies they use, BeFoundation has a wonderful purpose statement and I applaud any group that champions better services for students in poverty.  Also, Rich and I both spent some time at the Colorado Department of Education, though our tenures did not overlap.  State agencies are incredibly tough place to work, and I commend him for the work he did with the Colorado Growth Model website – although the Growth Model doesn’t take into account the error present in all student assessment data, which is a serious methodological flaw, in my professional opinion.

Rather than address any of the questions I raised, Rich chose to attack my school district, Eagle County Schools using the Colorado Growth Model.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that when someone goes on the attack when a critical question is asked, it is an indication that they recognize that there is some truth or a painful point in the question that they are trying to deflect.  But since Rich and I didn’t fully explore this notion (and Twitter certainly has its limitations!), we’ll let that issue go without further examination.

In his attack, Rich also used data from before I was even the Superintendent in Eagle County, but that is another matter as well.

For the sake of discussion, let’s explore Rich’s attack and the point (I think) he was trying to make.

Rich compared Eagle County’s growth results to those of Denver Public Schools.  According to the way-cool bubbles on the growth model, DPS’s results generally outperform Eagle County.  To this, I’d say “congratulations” to DPS!  It’s great they are making progress and it’s additionally great news because they are such a large district.

I think Rich was trying to make the point that DPS’s results were higher because they have school choice.  However, there are a great variety of school choice options in Eagle County as well.  According to a CDE report on charter schools, about 12% of students in Denver are in charter schools.  In Eagle County, about 20% of all students are in either charter or private school options.  Since Eagle County and DPS both have school choice options, can we really make the inference that school choice is driving the results?  I think Rich is generally a smart guy, based on his successful career and many accomplishments – but this seems like a pretty basic logical error.

Also of note, Chalkbeat Colorado did a great job covering the heartbreaking story of Denver’s Manual High School and how, despite years of “no excuses” and other disconnected/disjointed education reforms, little real improvement had been made.

I wonder, Rich, how can this possibly happen given Denver’s myriad of school choice options?  Aren’t all schools supposed to improve as a result of school choice?  Shouldn’t choice and competition and the supposed open market for schooling have pressured Manual to get better? Could it be that school choice facilitated “white-flight” that may have actually exacerbated the poverty-based problems Manual continues to struggle with?  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping you do, Rich.

Rich, Eagle County is not a perfect school system.  But we did have one of our two comprehensive high schools recognized by U.S. News and World report as one of the top 10% in the United States.  And our other high school produces Boetcher Scholars and puts a number of kids into top colleges (including Ivy League Schools) every year.  We even have a ski and snowboard academy that is a public school and which put four current or former students in the Olympics.  But we don’t have a story like that of Manual High School, Rich.  Somehow, despite all our shortcomings, we’ve been able to keep that kind of failure from our community and our kids.

Rich, like all schools, we have students who struggle.  But we are working very hard, Rich, to build not just a good system – but a great system, a world-class system.  We have a great plan, Rich and we are proud of it, we are excited about it, and we are executing it.  I’d love to have you read our plan and think about it too, Rich – we’d love to have your feedback in helping us become a great school district!

So, Rich, please do resist the urge to make unfounded claims about school choice being yet another “silver bullet” that will be the cure-all for schools.  Such claims are misleading to the public and to families.  I know you are a data guy, Rich, and the evidence just doesn’t support that claim.  No matter how much you (and others) may say it, believe it, and want it to be true – that just doesn’t make it so.

What is true is that the work of building a great school is really, really hard work and it doesn’t matter if you are a public, charter, or private school.  Genuine greatness requires a focus on instruction, it takes being supportive and respectful of great teachers, it takes working hard to customize instruction to fit students, and it takes intensive efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty as early and as aggressively as we possibly can.

Rich, though you might feel defensive, try hard not to take shots at us.  The people in our schools are giving it all they’ve got in a genuine effort to be great.  We will get tired, so we need people like you cheering us on and supporting us.

So, Rich, we at Eagle County Schools aren’t perfect.  But, we are trying really, really hard to be better – because we love our children and we love our community and we want wonderful outcomes for both of them.

This exchange was probably more than you expected!  I do appreciate your engaging with me and I look forward to your reactions and thoughts, Rich.

Kind regards,

Jason

Photo by A. Gould, above Eagle County, CO via Flickr

Eagle County Schools is closed for a snow day, today.  As this is a mountain community, used to tough weather, this is not something that happens frequently.  In fact, about once a decade!  In considering whether or not to call off school, I talked to a number of people in my organization.  Having some time to think today, I realized something very humbling and thought I’d share it.  Below is the message I sent to staff today:

Dear Colleagues,

As you are aware, schools in Eagle County are closed today due to weather conditions.

As part of the process of reaching this decision, I called and talked to some principals and our transportation staff.  I wanted to get their perspectives (based on what people in buildings and drivers were saying) on what we should do given the emerging weather situation.

Without exception, this is a summation of what they told me:

“The conditions are tough, but we respect that it’s your call, Dr. Glass.  Know that if you decide to go – we are going to be there and we will get school open.”

As I thought more about what that meant, I was just awestruck.

We talk a lot about how we support teachers and people in buildings, who are doing the real work of educating kids.

You probably don’t hear this enough – but I just want to say “thank you” for supporting me.

I know we made the right decision about a snow day today.  But, I also know that if we’d made a different decision (though you might not have agreed with it), you would have been there, schools would have opened, and great things would have happened for our kids.

I hope you enjoyed your snow day, got some time to catch up, and got to spend some time with your families and friends.  Thanks again for supporting me – I have the best job on earth.

With respect and admiration,

Jason E. Glass, Ed.D.

Superintendent & Chief Learner

Eagle County Schools

www.eagleschools.net

Colorado

As part of a growing, grassroots effort to take back the agenda on education policy in Colorado, I created some talking points for our community to share with elected officials.  The document can be accessed here (Talking Points on Education Policy) and the full text is also presented below.  I hope this contributes to the growing movement in our state about the direction of our schools.

Talking Points on Colorado Education Policy for 2014

Context

Today, it is incredibly important that the voices of educators, parents, students, and community supporters of public education are heard in policy deliberations by our legislators and elected officials.

For too long, the education policy agenda in our state has been driven by out-of-state groups, out-of-state money, mandates from Washington D.C., and individuals with little to no practical knowledge of what happens in our schools.

As a result, public schools are under siege with a barrage of disconnected laws and unfunded mandates which have questionable (at best) evidence to support them.  In many cases, these policies are distractions and disruptions that are actually detrimental to efforts within schools to improve outcomes for students.

At the same time, Colorado schools have experienced devastating budget cuts.  From pre-recession levels, revenues for schools have fallen nearly 20%.  At this time, there appears to be no plan or commitment from the statehouse to confront this issue, which has had the practical effect of massive layoffs, larger classes, cutting important services like counseling, the elimination of art, music, and physical education, and pay cuts for school employees.

During the recession, the state gutted education spending as a cost-saving measure to get spending in line with lower state revenue.  State officials used a controversial mechanism called the “negative factor” to effectively give, and then take away, money from schools which was supposed to be guaranteed under Amendment 23 to the Colorado state constitution.

Today, the legislature sits on an “education fund” totaling over $1,000,000,000.  Bills already introduced this session are aimed at draining this for pet and pork projects, rather than addressing the negative factor.

As a community of people who love our schools and our children, we have a responsibility to stand up.  It is immoral to allow this go unchecked.

What Our Elected Officials Need

Our legislators and elected officials need to hear from the people deeply connected and dedicated to our schools that the decisions made in the statehouse have an impact on our community and our children.  They need to understand that the only “experts” they need to listen to when it comes to education policy are the people who live in their communities; not those from a policy think-tank or political careerists.

Our elected officials need to understand that the best decisions for kids happen locally, determined by those who know and care most about students; not from a big government and “Washington D.C. style” top-down mandates.

Our elected officials also need to understand that our schools are starved for resources and that the restoration of adequate education funding is the most urgent education policy priority.

Now that the state’s budget has improved, our elected officials need to understand that continuation of the “negative factor” also represents the continuation of a failed promise and broken commitment to the state’s children.

General Pointers for Interactions with Elected Officials

Our legislators, governor, and other elected officials deserve our respect for their service.  All of them went through the difficult process of getting elected because they want to do good for their communities and our state.

It is also important that we are respectful in interactions with these individuals.  Elected officials are people just like us – and we should always strive to treat them with dignity and kindness.

With that said, it is equally important that we are direct and clear with our elected officials about what our schools need, what educational priorities we need them to be focused on, and that we (as the people) intend to hold them accountable for their decisions and votes.  Remember, they work for us.

General Education Policy Priorities

  • We will no longer tolerate unfunded mandates being piled on our schools.  If there is not a sufficient appropriation to pay for any policy, it must not be passed.
  • Top-down, Washington D.C. style, big government policies have no place in our schools.  The best decisions for schools are made in communities and closest to the students.  We respect our legislators and CDE, but committee rooms and state bureaucracies are far removed from what happens in classrooms.
  • We must be suspicious of outside groups, outside money, political careerists, and their ideologically-driven political agendas.  The education “experts” that elected officials need to pay the most attention to are the people in their own communities.
  • An abundance of quality, peer-reviewed, scientific evidence must back all education policy.  Making a mistake with education policy means (over time) hundreds of thousands of educators and millions of children can be negatively affected.
  • Public schools are vital to our country’s commitment to equity and the American Dream – where everyone has the chance to succeed.  Damage and disruption to public schools is damage and disruption to the American dream.
  • Public schools are vital to our economy and are the hearts of our communities.  We need our elected officials to work to build schools up and be of support to the people in them.

 

Specific Education Policy Matters

  • Restoration of the negative factor is the most urgent education priority.  Our state needs to make good on its promise in Amendment 23 to adequately fund schools.
  • A key education policy being considered this session is increased financial reporting to the state in the interests of financial “transparency” for schools.  Our schools already publish some 200 pages of budget documentation annually.  Further burdening schools with reporting requirements to satisfy curiosity (or to feed the interests of those who seek to destroy public education by twisting data) will not lead us to being a high-performing education system.
  • Another key policy being considered is a changing the student “count date” from October 1st to instead count students every day of the school year.  Yet, there is absolutely no evidence that this either improves attendance or achievement.  In fact, some of the best performing states in the country have single-day counts.  This proposal is built on the belief that educators need an “incentive” to serve students after October 1st.  This is professionally insulting and wrong-headed.

 

Question mark in Esbjerg by Alexander Henning Drachmann

A Lively Debate

Last night, I entered into a very engaging exchange with the person who manages the Twitter account for @COCharterSchool – whom I later found out is a very nice person named Stacy Rader, the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Director of Communications!

I had a number of questions for Stacy about charter schools after reading through the Colorado League of Charter Schools brand new marketing document - an annual report with a lot of tables about charter schools (most in comparison with what they call “traditional public schools”) and a calendar with lots of great photos of kids and other facts.  I’ve put together a Storify document that captures our exchange, linked below.  Do note that I changed some of the order of tweets so the questions and answers are together.

http://storify.com/COJasonGlass/a-twitter-discussion-with-cocharterschool

To Stacy’s credit, we ended the discussion agreeing to sit down and talk more and she was kind enough to offer to come to Eagle County with the League’s new President, Nora Flood.  We haven’t been able to find a mutually agreeable date yet, but we are working on that and I’m sure Stacy will follow through.

For me, the discussion generated a lot more thinking about charter schools.  So, I present those questions here to hopefully spur more discussion and a deeper examination on the larger school reform theory related to school choice.

Disclaimer

Before I begin, a disclaimer to those who may become defensive at my questions.

I am not an opponent of charter schools or of school choice, though I do have some concerns about their ability to raise the performance of an entire system. As state chief in Iowa, I worked with the tremendous staff at the Iowa Department of Education and introduced, through Governor Terry Branstad, arguably the best legislation (my professional opinion!) in the history of the United States on charter schools.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective, this legislation never actually passed!  Our proposed legislation recognized that the founding and principle role of the charter school movement was innovation.

With this in mind, our legislation would have dramatically freed charters from a number of state requirements, but also put in place strong accountability provisions and was quick to close charters that weren’t performing at least as well as their competing schools.  It also had strong provisions to safeguard equity and make sure charters were really open to every student.

Also, Eagle County Schools, where I am currently Superintendent, is the charter school authority over the Eagle County Charter Academy, a K-8 charter school that is part of our district.  They have a tremendous staff, a great principal, a supportive community, and great kids.  I also have a good relationship with the Headmaster of the Charter School Institute school in our community, Stone Creek Charter Academy.  It is run by John Brendza, who at one time was my boss, was actually the former superintendent of Eagle County Schools, and is a quality educator and person.

End Disclaimer

With all that said, I do have a number of questions about charter schools.  For the sake of parsimony, I will focus on a few key ones here.

Question 1:  What is the percentage of students served in charter schools that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  According to the League’s marketing document, Colorado charters serve a population that is 34.8% Free/Reduced Lunch versus about 42.7% across the whole state.  I did note that this statistic presented the charter school percentage against the whole state percentage, and did not separate it to “traditional public schools” as they did with most every other statistic in the document.  Not sure if this was what they meant to do, if it was an oversight, of if it was an intentional distortion.

In any case, that’s about a 7% difference.  From this, we can infer that charter schools tend to serve more affluent students than other “traditional” public schools.  As we know poverty and achievement are highly correlated – take note as this will become an important fact for my next question.

This skimming off of affluent students is highly exacerbated in my community in Eagle County.  In 2011, our “traditional” public school system had a Free/Reduced rate of 42.5%.  That same year, Stone Creek Charter School, authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute, had a Free/Reduced rate of 8.7% and the Eagle County Charter Academy, authorized by the district, served less than 1% Free/Reduced.  I am only presenting data here and I mean no slight to these schools – they are good places where good things are happening for kids.  But, whatever positive effects charter schools and school choice may have, it is also true that it has re-created “separate but equal” in our community.

All of these statistics can be verified here.

Question 2: Does the performance of Colorado charter schools outpace “traditional” public schools?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  Both the League’s marketing document and a report to the State Board of Education by CDE make this claim. Statewide, the League’s document shows an achievement range of between <1% and 6% of charter schools “outperforming traditional public schools” in reading, writing and math.

CDE makes a similar claim, saying “charter schools generally outperformed non-charter schools on state performance measures” and looks at the points earned on the state’s accountability performance framework.  CDE found roughly 4 point differences in achievement and growth with the advantage to charter schools, although their analysis indicates non-charters outperformed charters in post-secondary and workforce readiness by 9 points.  Although CDE states that charters outperform non-charters, their own analysis shows no statistical difference between the two on the overall performance framework.

So, looking at both of these analyses can we really make the inference that charter schools outperform “traditional public schools” or non-charters?  In my professional opinion, this is misleading to say the least.  Remember that charter schools, on average, serve a less impoverished student body than do non-charter schools – some 7% less in this case – and we know from piles of research that achievement and poverty are highly correlated.

Incidentally, charter schools in Colorado are also less likely to serve students with disabilities.  The CDE report indicates a little more than 9% of students in the state have a disability, where a little less than 7% in charter schools have a disability.

Unless the effects of poverty (and other student demographic variables which we know co-vary with achievement) are controlled for in the analysis (which neither the League nor CDE did), it is entirely inappropriate to make any claims related to one system “outperforming” the other.

The larger body of research is also unclear on the claim that charters outperform other schools, even controlling for poverty and other demographic factors.  This is an ongoing and raging national research area where no clear consensus exists. Given the weaker designs used in the League’s marketing report and in CDE’s report to the state board, we should have little confidence in their claims.

Question 3: Charter schools are touted as “public” schools – so how can they achieve this separation when it comes to economic and at-risk factors?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: First, let me say that some charter schools intentionally target at-risk populations.  These students need and deserve a great education so I applaud charter schools who make the education of disadvantaged student groups their moral purpose.  However, this is not the case with all charter schools.

In reality, charter schools use a variety of approaches that effectively screen away more challenging students.  For example, it is not uncommon for charter schools to require parents to sign a “contract” which stipulates numerous hours of volunteer work or parental involvement.  Some charters require families to pledge financial donations to the school, sometimes in the order of thousands of dollars. Some charter schools require families to purchase computers or pay other hefty fees.  Still other charter schools have lottery systems, where families have to navigate an application and selection process.  Many charter schools do not offer lunch or transportation systems for students.  And more subtly, some (though certainly not all) charter schools “counsel” students with disabilities or who are learning English that, due to their special conditions, they would be better served in a “traditional” public school setting.

As underprivileged students are more likely to need these services, all of this creates another de facto sorting system.  All of these combine to form a significant barrier that families of economically disadvantaged or at-risk students are less able to navigate or clear.

As a result we see the systemic “skimming” across the whole system that I mentioned earlier.

Question 4: Even if we agree, for the sake of discussion, that charter schools are indeed “better,” what strategies do they use that we can replicate to improve the performance of the entire education system?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  There exists an incredible variety of instructional philosophies, educational theories of change, strategies, and tactics within charter schools.  You have approaches including college prep schools, “no excuses” test prep schools, classical academics, core knowledge schools, expeditionary/experiential learning, STEM focus schools, Montessori schools, Latin schools, international schools, cyber-schools, KIPP schools, creative learning schools … the list is almost endless.

Because of the great variety of methods employed, it is nearly impossible to definitively say what aspect of the charter approach is working and what is not. Should we be using Montessori approaches or KIPP approaches? Should we have a STEM focus or put more kids into cyber/online schools?

Charter schools present a wondrous array of variability, but do little for us if the larger goal is an entire education system that performs at a consistently high level.

A Few Simple Requests

As I’ve stated previously, I’m not an opponent of charter schools.  There absolutely have been positive changes happen in our education system because of choice and competition.  But, when the charter movement makes claims that are unfounded for the sake of marketing, falters in its moral commitment to equity as a publicly funded institution, and makes the larger goal of systemic improvement for all students more elusive – we have to collectively stand up and say something.  Otherwise, we imperil the fate of our public education system and, by extension, our country as a result.  In sum, a few modest requests:

A.  Stop claiming charter schools “outperform” or are better than other schools as a marketing ploy to increase enrollment.  The evidence does not support this claim and you are intentionally misleading families.

B.  Find the moral commitment to equity which is foundational to all public institutions and aggressively remove barriers which have the de facto effect of excluding impoverished and at-risk students.

C.  Commit to being an important part of a larger system that exists to serve all students.  “Traditional” public schools are not your enemy; ignorance and poverty are our enemy.  We are brethren organizations and should have a shared goal of forming a high quality education system for the children of our communities.

Profession

Colorado has assembled a blue-ribbon council of sorts to review and suggest possible changes to the teaching profession in the state.  Some of the proposed changes would involve removing all barriers to educator licensure except 1) having a Bachelor’s degree 2) not being a felon 3) passing a content test (currently a multiple-choice exam).  The group is also considering using evaluation results to strip educators of licensure if they are rated “ineffective” using the state’s evaluation system, which is hitched to student outcome results.

This group, called the LEAD Compact, is tasked with coming to some level of consensus and recommending legislation for the state General Assembly to consider in the next session.

I am not part of the membership of the LEAD Compact, but as a professional educator and a Superintendent, the decisions that could emerge from that group certainly might have an effect on the schools I am responsible for.  So, I created some guidance for the group to consider in making its determinations.

To the credit of those facilitating the LEAD Compact, my (unsolicited) guidance was accepted and provided to the members of the group.  I present the document here, as I think a larger discussion on the teaching profession is in order, beyond just the membership of this esteemed group.

From:  Jason E. Glass, Superintendent & Chief Learner

To:       Membership of the LEAD Compact

Re:      Redesigning Educator Quality for Genuine and Sustained Greatness

Date:   November 18, 2013

Overview

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” – McKinsey & Co., 2007

 It is, without question, of paramount importance that we focus on raising educator quality in the state of Colorado if we are to become a high performing education system.  The purpose of this memorandum is to brief the members of the LEAD compact some design elements for raising educator quality that are 1) systemic in nature 2) benchmarked against the highest performing education systems in the world and that 3) views teaching as a high status and highly skilled profession, on par with medicine or law.

Internationally Benchmarked Strategies

The recruitment, development, and retention of a highly skilled and talented educator workforce is a bedrock element in every great education system.  Comparative research on high performing global education systems (see McKinsey & Co., 2007 & 2010; Tucker, 2011; Hargreaves & Fullan 2012) point to systemic and focused efforts to raise the quality of educators through a combination of the following strategies:

  • Raising the status and respect of the teaching profession in society.
  • Increasing beginning pay levels to be competitive with other professional options.
  • Using rigorous and selective preparation programs that balance high levels of content knowledge, empirically-driven pedagogical training, and extensive clinical experience.
  • Being highly selective at the point of entry into the profession via licensure and hiring practices.
  • Providing intensive and quality mentoring support for beginning teachers.
  • Building wisdom and effectiveness in the teacher workforce by retaining experienced educators.
  • Providing career options and pathways through the profession which keep educators connected to teaching.
  • Creating intentional structures where educators work together in teams focused on instruction, using formative measures to guide the delivery of instruction.
  • Using (but not hyper or over-relying) on respectful performance-management systems to provide individualized and timely feedback on instruction.

Using international and national benchmarking strategies, where we observe the practices of the best performing systems, the above strategies emerge as the de facto recipe for improvement of educator quality as a system.  Building real educator quality requires an extraordinary expenditure of focused, intentional, and thoughtful effort what may be years.

There simply are no shortcuts to genuine improvement and the establishment and ongoing perpetuation of a high quality education profession.

Design Principles for Educator Quality

The following questions are intended as design principles, which may be helpful to the members of the LEAD Compact in framing their work.  Considering again those touchstones of 1) systemic in nature 2) internationally benchmarked and 3) based on a professional model of teaching – it is hoped that whatever system the LEAD Compact recommends stands up well when considered against these design elements.

  1. Does the new system of licensure serve to raise the status, respect, and credibility of the teaching profession in our society?
  2. Does the new system of licensure serve to set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession; signaling high and quality levels of content preparation, pedagogical knowledge, and clinical experience?
  3. Does the new system of licensure empower the teaching profession to set its own high professional standards through a governance board of practitioners (as is the case with the Colorado Medical Board or the Colorado Bar Association)?
  4. Does the new system of licensure operate as a high reliability system, ensuring that every child in Colorado has a high quality educator in every subject, grade, and specialty area?
  5. Does the new system of licensure recognize genuine professional growth, as demonstrated through comprehensive and peer-based determinations?
  6. Does the new system of licensure consider a teaching license a rigorous and hard-earned professional property right, which is afforded due process in order to be removed?
  7. Does the new system of licensure aggressively safeguard the quality of the profession by removing the property right of licensure (through a fair mechanism with due process) from those who violate professional ethos, standards of professional quality, or who do harm to children?
  8. Does the new system of licensure recognize the presence of error and bias all measures as well as the presence of Campbell’s law[1]?
  9. Does the new system of licensure consider teaching sacred and honorable?  A profession which has important dimensions of moral purpose and (most importantly) calling?

Conclusion

I commend the work of the LEAD Compact for its interest in supporting efforts to systemically raise educator quality across our great state.  It is my sincere hope that the evidence from other high prestige professions and high performing systems informs your work going forward.

Thank you for your time and consideration of these ideas and I look forward to your recommendations on how educator licensure might be re-imagined for genuine and sustained greatness.

With respect & admiration,

Jason E. Glass

Superintendent & Chief Learner


[1] “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” – Campbell, 1979.

The full document can be found here:

LEAD Memorandum

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