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Dear Senators Bennet and Gardner,
I am writing to urge you to reject the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education.
Ms. DeVos is entirely unqualified for the role, having few real accomplishments of her own besides those brought about by the wealth of her husband’s family and their purchased political influence.
Ms. DeVos also has no substantive background in education besides serving in an advocacy role for school vouchers and other privatization schemes. These approaches are designed to deconstruct public education, a foundational institution for our democratic republic supported by the founding fathers.
Even in the area of school choice, ostensibly the reason for her nomination, Ms. DeVos’ approach misses the mark.
Her record of unregulated, low quality school choices in Michigan has not only decimated that state’s public education system, but left in its wake a mish-mash of low performing and profiteering educational operations.
Finally, a core tenet of education policy is that such decisions are best governed at the local and state levels. With this nomination, it is clear President-Elect Trump intends to move forward on a campaign promise to push a $20 billion school choice plan on states, though it is less clear how this would be funded.
Moving this effort forward in any form would be a gigantic interference with state and local control for those states willing to jump through the hoops in order to get the federal dollars in this “Race to the Bank” model.
Concomitantly, it would mean those states refusing to participate in such a plan would effectively be sending their federal education dollars to private schools in other states.
There is certainly a place for school choice and private schools in our nation’s education system, but we should resist ideologically driven efforts to dismantle public schools in pursuit of a politically motivated goals.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.
Jason E. Glass, Ed.D.
Superintendent & Chief Learner
Eagle County Schools
Last week, a policy fight related to how struggling students should be counted and used in rating schools broke out at the state level, pitting education professionals on one side against education reform and civil rights groups on the other.
The heart of the argument was technical and wonky in nature, but provides some insight and a preview of fights ahead as Colorado (and other states) decides how it will navigate a new federal landscape which allows much more state level flexibility.
In this particular case, the issue involved the state accountability system – which is used to keep track of how students are doing and then acknowledge or punish schools and districts according to the results. The old federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required fairly detailed reporting on different student “sub-groups,” such as race, disability, and language status.
The politics on NCLB always made for strange bedfellows. Republicans liked the testing and accountability provisions, and civil rights groups liked the detailed reporting for minorities and types of students who have traditionally struggled on exams.
The problem, at least according to education professionals (like teachers and school administrators) was that the NCLB system required schools which serve the most diverse and at-risk students were to be held to a much higher level of accountability than those whose student body is less diverse, and that a single student who failed to meet the “proficiency” designation (or failing to make growth) on the test could be counted multiple times against a school.
For example, let’s say a school has a student who is Hispanic, has a disability, is learning English, and qualifies for Free/Reduced Lunch (a measure of student poverty) and this student failed to reach proficiency and growth targets. Rather than just being counted against the school once, this student would be counted against the school four times – once for each of the subgroups they fell into.
Former Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond convened a statewide workgroup to study the state’s accountability system and this group recommended changes where the hypothetical student described above would only be counted against a school once, though data on all the different subgroupings would still be made publicly available.
Education professionals have long cried foul about the state’s accountability system, and how it unfairly targets and shames schools serving the most at-risk student populations and this multiple counting issue is part of that problem.
The coalition of education reform and civil rights groups protested strongly against the proposal to only count these students once and successfully lobbied the state board of education into backing away from it.
The heart of the disagreement stems from how strongly these reform and civil rights groups feel about test-based accountability. Their argument might be summarized as follows: If we test all students against high academic expectations, publicly report those results, and then establish firm consequences for schools failing to succeed – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.
This theory underlies the entire testing and ranking approach that was baked into NCLB and that the country has been following for almost 15 years.
Education professionals have long pushed back against the NCLB accountability-driven approach, countering with a different theory. To summarize that thinking: If we provide high quality instruction, engage the learner, support the educator, and mitigate the damaging effects of poverty – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.
While I’m admittedly oversimplifying, note that the desired ends between these groups are (basically) aligned, but the approaches to achieving this result differ dramatically.
How this argument has played out is important because it portends an even greater conflict looming for the state. In late 2015, NCLB was replaced with a new federal education law called the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.
ESSA provides states much wider latitude to determine things like testing, accountability, and what punishments would be handed down to struggling schools. The question now is whether or not our state will actually use any of that latitude.
Looking ahead, I expect we’ll see a strong push from education professionals to significantly revise the NCLB-era accountability system under which the state currently operates. I expect we’ll also see a similar strong push from education reform and civil rights groups to make sure nothing changes.
Of course, what is needed is a reasonable and fair compromise. We do need to make adjustments to the state accountability system which unfairly blames and shames schools serving high concentrations of diverse and impoverished students. We also should maintain a transparent system of accountability that both pressures and supports underperforming school systems to get better.
I’d like to say I’m optimistic – but I’m not. In an all-too-familiar-refrain, years of bitter argument on this issue divides and polarizes both sides, making a compromise path difficult to find. In addition, the state agency naturally poised to lead this discussion (the Colorado Department of Education) is a wounded and understaffed bureaucracy, now with its fourth Commissioner in a year and still in the wake of several high level resignations.
At this point, no one is quite sure what will happen. However, everyone is certain we’ve got our work cut out for us as a state.
Note: A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on 6.15.16.
There are number of testing bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature this year. Some of these take significant steps to roll back the testing system in the state while others exist merely to create the appearance of doing so.
At the same time, another bill (SB 223) clarifies that parents have the right to refuse to have their students take the test, commonly referred to as “opting out.”
Anti-testing advocates and groups argue that testing in Colorado has gone far beyond reasonable levels and that parents need legislation to both roll back the tests and to protect families who refuse to take the exams. This side is made up of a strange mix of parent advocates, teachers’ unions, and individuals on the far right who are opposed to government over-reach.
The other side of the chessboard lines up testing proponents and a slew of well-funded “ed reform” groups. Supporters of the tests argue that evaluating teachers based on tests scores, and ranking schools using these results are “innovations.” They claim that without these measures, the accountability and choice reforms the state has worked to put in place over the past few years will come abruptly undone.
It’s amazing how quickly the rhetoric changes. Just a few years ago, many of those on the anti-testing side of this debate were labelled “defenders of the status quo” by education reformers. Now, the shoe is on the other foot with the ed reform camp scrambling to protect the laws and tests they put in place since 2010.
Without making any judgments, the arguments advanced by both sides are essentially correct. Colorado testing has gone off the deep end in terms of the number of tests students are required to take and there does need to be some kind of mechanism for legally handling the exponential growth in the “opt out” movement we are seeing in some schools this year. On the other side, removing the assessments would mean a roll back and sort of repudiation of the teacher and school ranking systems many of our current ed reform laws were designed to create. Additionally, a fundamental theory of the school choice movement is creating a school “marketplace” where parents can make educational decisions informed by data – test data specifically – this reform loses some steam without test data to drive it.
In my professional opinion, the right policy (at least at this point) is to move back the testing levels as close to “federal minimum” requirements under No Child Left Behind. This is really as far as the state can go without putting federal education dollars in jeopardy, or at least minimally forcing the state into a gigantic game of chicken with Secretary Duncan. Changing those federal minimums is something we, as a country, need to take a critical look at as well – but that’s a whole other subject!
The “opt out” movement is merely a symptom of a larger root cause: over-testing. Putting in place some kind of legalized opt-out mechanism just puts a Band-Aid on the larger problem and will not allow the state to move past this issue. Unless the legislature reduces the number of tests in a meaningful way, the “opt out” movement is going to persist and ultimately undermine the usefulness of all state testing data.
If we put aside the table-pounding voices from the anti-testing side, as well as the “big” money-fueled-coordinated-slick public relations campaigns from testing proponents, the challenge remaining for the legislature is finding a tolerable equilibrium in testing implementation. Given the “all or nothing” rhetoric individuals and groups involved seem to be taking, this is no easy task.
Fundamentally, the legislature has got to reduce the number of tests to a point where “opt out” numbers fall to their historically low numbers. But they can’t go too far in that direction, or they risk the education reform groups continuing to push for more testing and measurement.
At the end of the legislative session, I expect the legislature to find that equilibrium position that most people in the state will accept . . . but that neither the anti-testing nor education reform groups will find completely satisfying. While that is likely to be the ultimate outcome, don’t hold your breath or turn away not expecting this to be a spectacle. Whatever happens, this is going to be fun to watch.
*A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on April 15, 2015.
Denver Post writer Eric Gorski wrote up a story on the best performing (alleged) schools according to Colorado School Grades when their latest rankings came out in December.
As I looked over the (supposed) best performing schools, I suspected a systemic bias to be present related to the kinds of students these schools served.
Acknowledging this bias is important, as we have literally decades of evidence telling us that overwhelmingly the largest determinants of the variance in student achievement outcomes (as measured on standardized tests) are related to out-of-school factors.
As a quick analysis, I looked up the percentage of students on Free/Reduced lunch at the top rated schools according to Colorado School Grades and then compared those percentages to the Free/Reduced lunch percentages in the district that school was located within.
Because of the propensity for Free/Reduced lunch reporting to be under-represented at high school, I restricted my analysis to just those (allegedly) top performing elementary and middle schools.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the difference between top schools according to Colorado School Grades and those communities in which they are located is quite large.
The top schools, according to Colorado School Grades, average 13.1% students who are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch.
By contrast, the average for their communities is 32.6%.
Apparently, one major secret to being a high scoring school (using the Colorado School Grades methodology) is to systemically exclude disadvantaged students from your student population.
*Note* – this is not a personal vendetta against the folks at Colorado School Grades, or the slew of edu-non-profits that support them.
In fact, as Superintendent of Eagle County Schools, I’m particularly proud (although a little confused) of the 2014 “B+” grade given to Minturn Middle School, which has been closed since 2011 (D’oh!).
*Edit* Ben Degrow, with the Independence Institute, noted that MMS hadn’t had a “grade” since 2010. That is accurate – however, they still appear in the search when you look up our district. You can see the results of the search I did here, which clearly shows the now closed Minturn school still showing up, with a B+. Mea culpa – I made the mistake in assuming they received a current “grade” when I searched on this year’s results. However, I would humbly suggest that Colorado School Grades revise their search system to avoid such confusion in the future.
The point is this: we should be asking some critical questions about this data, how it is being used, and what it means.
We might also consider how we can really identify the real pockets of excellence; instead of just identifying pockets of affluence.
In a previous post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to visit with the HB 1202 committee to discuss assessment. I followed Grant Guyer, Denver’s Executive Director of Assessment, as well as representatives from Harrison District 2.
So I could get a feel for the HB 1202 group, I arrived early to listen in on the conversation. I was impressed with the learning and reflective stance I heard the committee members take. Rather than asserting or defending positions, the committee members were (for the most part) asking really good questions and thinking together.
The contrast of the thoughtful and open approach that the committee had in comparison with advocacy oriented approach Denver took was jarring, at least to me. DPS came in with a clear agenda: influence the committee to (basically) preserve the status quo when it came to state accountability testing.
Because DPS chose to take such a forceful position, I feel it is appropriate that position be critiqued and vetted in public format so that their thinking can be considered and fully vetted. Clearly, DPS’s intent was to influence public policy in a strong way. As this policy impacts every public and charter school in Colorado, examining their claims and thinking is important.
The overarching DPS position is that they (the administration at least) do not support “specific aspects of the shift to minimum federal (assessment) requirements, primarily due to the impact on high schools.”
I’ve attached the report that Grant gave here (DPS Assessment) so readers can review it for themselves (apologies for my scribbles on the scan). However, here are some of their claims and my critique:
Claim #1 – “Standards implementation could be jeopardized as there would not be a consistent, well-constructed assessment to measure of (sic) student performance at the end of a given grade/course.”
What evidence exists to support the claim that standards implementation would be jeopardized if there were no standardized, summative assessments at the end of each grade? Some of the best performing education systems in the world do not test core subjects at the end of each grade, yet they seem to be able to consistently teach to high standards. Further, what evidence or assurances do we have that a machine scored, large-scale, summative assessment is necessary in order for a classroom teacher to teach to high standards? If we are to subject literally hundreds of thousands of Colorado students to an assessment (spending millions in taxpayer dollars to do so), should not the purpose and impact of that assessment be well understood and proven?
Claim #2 – “This would reduce the amount of formal data available to accurately identify where shifts in instruction are needed.”
Large scale, machine scored summative tests are woefully inadequate for the purpose of “shifting” instruction. Primarily, these tests are for accountability purposes and not for guiding formative instructional practices. This is not to criticize the tests themselves – but they were not primarily designed for this purpose. The thinking that summative TCAP, CMAS or PARCC test results will result in effective and responsive classroom level shifts in instruction is hopeful theory with a vacuous evidence base.
Claims #3 & #4 – “Less information available to track student progress toward college and career readiness,” & “Less information available for families to make informed decisions about which high schools are the best options for their children.”
The DPS position assumes (wrongly) that an assessment system at federal minimums (or even fewer assessments) would be devoid of student assessment information in those areas where there is no mandated accountability exam. Clearly, DPS’s approach to improvement is founded on test-based accountability and school choice. In theory, for those two approaches to work you need assessments to shame and punish and big data to create a more perfect school choice “market.” Nothing would preclude DPS from heaping all the assessments they want on students to feed their theory of change. However, if we did not mandate such measures we would not be forcing every other school district in the state to follow DPS’s logic model.
Claim #5 – “Eliminating these data points at the high school level could shift the accountability system to focus too much on status. This distinctly disadvantages urban districts that have students with low levels of preparedness.”
DPS assumes (wrongly) that whatever growth, accountability, and accreditation system we currently have in place would just continue but without some high school assessments. The current accountability framework was designed with one set of assumptions about available test data. In a world with fewer accountability tests, a different model would need to be designed. This different model could conceptualize growth in a number of different ways and could also recognize student poverty demographics and “preparedness” in different ways and it should. Here, DPS just wrongly assumes we would continue the same system we’ve been operating. Further, the report states that “DPS strongly values growth data.” That’s great! But, if this is indeed true, there is no basis to believe DPS could not continue to assess and measure growth without having a mandated state test in place. In fact, dollars currently used for large scale assessments could be provided directly to districts for the very purpose of locally determined measures and analysis.
Claim #6 – “Less external data available to assess student growth for teacher evaluation.”
Besides there being no credible, peer-reviewed evidence that using student testing data to evaluate teachers actually improves instruction and the fact that no high performing system on earth uses this approach, the DPS claim is also flawed. As has been previously discussed, if DPS wishes to have machine scored, large scale assessment data to evaluate its teachers there is no prohibition from them doing just that. The DPS claim seems to infer that without this standardized testing data, our state-wide effort to evaluate teachers using assessment data is in peril – but we already have some 70% of teachers in untested subjects and grades. It is not clear (at least to me) that the presence or absence of summative statewide assessment data does much in helping us solve the significant technical questions related to using testing data to evaluate teachers.
Claim #7 – “…districts would have to take on the additional burden of creating/purchasing products to ensure that schools are meeting student learning expectations (and) the development of local growth measures to assess the performance of schools and teachers.”
As has been previously discussed, dollars currently appropriated for state level accountability assessments could, at some level, be re-purposed to districts for locally determined and more formative measures so its not clear that there would be an additional burden. Further, there are a number of growth measures available for districts to use (student growth percentiles, value-added measures, catch-up/keep-up systems) so it also not clear that a district would need to “develop” these measures.
Again, DPS is following a theory of change for improving their organization built on test-based accountability and school choice. While refraining from a critique of these two approaches to school improvement, I will just say that these are not the only two methods by which a system might build great schools. In fact, the best performing school systems (based on PISA results or equating studies) were not built using these models.
Regardless, it is up to the community of Denver to decide which model is most appropriate for their community and then hold their school leaders accountable for the results.
The larger problem with DPS’s jarring advocacy stance with the HB 1202 committee is that it effectively forces that theory of change on every other school organization in the state – whether we want it, or if there is any evidence to support it, or not.
Of note, in the course of these discussions I have heard no one arguing for the complete abolition of testing and accountability. The better question is how we can have an accountability system that is as efficient and balanced as possible, without over-burdening students and schools with testing. A review the testing approaches in high performing global systems reveals that such a system can be effectively implemented with far fewer tests than we currently use in Colorado.
I encourage further dialogue and discussion on this issue and welcome a response from Grant Guyer (a very nice person, based on my brief interaction with him) or others from DPS. For convenience, I have also posted my presentation materials to the HB 1202 committee for a similar critique, if anyone feels so inclined.
I was recently honored with the brief opportunity to speak to Colorado’s HB1202 Task Force, which is studying the state’s assessment system and responsible for suggesting changes to the Colorado Legislature for consideration in the upcoming legislative session.
I focused my remarks on the importance, process, and evidence on formative measures. I also spoke to the differences between accountability assessments in the United States (and Colorado) versus other high performing nations or municipalities.
The memo I prepared for the group can be accessed here: HB1202 ECS Flyover
The entire text is also provided below. I welcome observations, comments, questions, or critique.
From: Jason E. Glass, Superintendent & Chief Learner
To: HB 14-1202 Task Force
Re: Formative Assessment & a Flyover of Assessment in Eagle County
The purpose of this memorandum is to briefly orient the members of the HB14-1202 Task Force to the large-scale theory of change, an instructionally focused approach to assessment, and some of the formative measures employed in Eagle County Schools. For clarity, this memo will focus on measures whose chief purpose is for improving instruction, as opposed to measures whose chief purpose is accountability.
The Instructional Core
Eagle County Schools uses an “international benchmarking” approach to school improvement. That is, practices are drawn from comparative studies of high performing education systems, both within the United States and abroad. In addition, the organization focuses on practices which have the support of a peer-reviewed body of evidence.
As such, the “in-school” theory of change rests on three major and interrelated tenets which feature prominently in every high-performing educational system. Liz City and Richard Elmore (2009) capture these three elements in their discussions of the “instructional core,” or the relationship between the teacher and student in the presence of content.
Important to City and Elmore’s framework, there is an emphasis on the relationship between the three components. One element cannot change without impacting the other two. For example, we cannot effectively raise the quality or “rigor” of the content (or standards) without also adapting the instructional approach of the teacher and the engagement level of the student.
Assessment through the Lens of Instruction
Formative measurement is an essential part of bringing the instructional core to life. For the teacher to effectively reach and engage every student in learning, that teacher must understand the level of current content performance or knowledge of their students. The teacher must deliver high quality instruction and then determine if that instruction had the desired impact on students (i.e. improved content knowledge or skills). Almost invariably, some students will require additional supports or a differentiated approach to reach the content or skill standard. So, the teacher must apply some intervention, customized to the student, and then check again to see if that intervention had the effect of raising the student to the performance standard.
The “response to intervention” or “response to instruction” (RtI) model provides a useful framework for understanding this process.
Well designed and employed formative assessments are ‘part and parcel’ to the RtI process. All students should receive a universal screen or benchmark assessment as part of the general education curriculum. As there may be some time (days, weeks, or months) between the administrations of these assessments, they can be referred to as long cycle.
These long cycle results will reveal some students who struggle to meet the standard in the general education environment, who should then receive some intervention customized to that student’s needs. Determining the appropriate intervention often requires the use of a diagnostic test to determine the precise area where the student is struggling (ex. phonics vs. phonemic awareness). Then, once an intervention is applied, the determination as to if the intervention is working should be made through a progress monitoring assessment. As the time between these assessments is less than at the universal level, they are sometimes called medium cycle assessments and may be administered every few learning sessions or weeks (or longer, as the team of practitioners determine).
Even after a targeted intervention, some students will require an intensive support. These students will receive diagnostic and progress monitoring even more frequently – perhaps multiple times over the course of the lesson as the teacher iterates to determine what is the barrier to learning and if it is being mitigated through supports or other interventions.
The RtI approach is based on the principles of a “high reliability system” (see Eck et al., 2011), meaning generally that as the probability of failure increases then supports/interventions and monitoring also increases. The goal is to determine which students are struggling and why as quickly as possible and to intervene so that the student meets the performance standard.
Notably, formative assessments may be more standardized and formal or they may be individualized and informal. A powerful mode of formative assessment is a teacher walking through a room as students work, asking questions and checking for understanding. Alternatively, formative assessment may involve sophisticated and computer-based standardized measures. Variations in formative assessments may stem from variations in the elements of the instructional core (different teachers, different students, and different content) or from constraints related to things like time and technology. This entire process may happen in a very structured and mechanical way, or it may happen much more naturally and intuitively. What is most important is that it is, in fact, happening.
It should also be noted that the formative assessment process is not exclusive to the teacher. Perhaps the most powerful mode of formative assessment is for the student to self-monitor and assess their own progress.
Evidence and Formative Assessments
The body of both comparative and peer-reviewed scientific evidence for the effectiveness of formative assessment is (in my professional opinion) strong.
Black and William (1998), in a meta-analysis, found that student achievement gains associated with formative instructional practices were “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”
Similarly, Hattie (2011), also in a meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies, identified strategies related to formative assessment and RtI among the largest effect sizes calculated.
From a comparative system perspective, formative assessment and responsive teaching form the instructional basis of practically every high performing education system. Finland, a system perhaps more averse to summative accountability testing than any other in the world, uses formative assessment extensively. In Schwartz & Mehta’s chapter on Finland in Tucker’s comparative study Surpassing Shanghai, it is noted that “While the Finns do not assess for accountability purposes, they do an enormous amount of diagnostic or formative assessment at the classroom level.”
Notably, when a Finnish principal was asked (in Schwartz & Mehta) how well she knew students were performing, she answered that there was so much formative assessment data at her disposal it was impossible not to know.
Formative Assessments in Eagle County Schools
Eagle County Schools relies on a number of formative measures to guide instruction. Choice over the appropriate use of these formative measures is left to the building practitioners, including the building principal, teacher leaders, and classroom teachers.
Depending on grade/developmental level, student characteristics, staff preferences, content area, or specific purpose – the following is an incomplete list of formative assessments used in Eagle County.
- Early Childhood & Elementary
- GOLD Assessment
- mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
- AIMS Web
- Core Knowledge Language Arts
- Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades (standards based)
- Middle School
- mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
- Renaissance STAR
- NWEA MAPS
- Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades
- High School
- NWEA MAPS
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades
Eagle County Schools is, admittedly, not yet a globally high performing system. But, we are in our first year of building an instructionally focused assessment system patterned after global high performers. As such, formative assessment is central part of that effort.
Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-148.
City, E., Elmore, R., Fierman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Eck, J., Bellamy, G., Schaffer, E., Stringfield, S., Reynolds, D. (2011). High Reliability Organizations in Education. Noteworthy Perspectives, 1-48.
Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Tucker, M. (2011). Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading School Systems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Info-graphic from the National Center on Education & the Economy
Colorado’s recently released TCAP results landed across the state with a soft thud. Overall, scores were flat or down in most subjects and grades. Even among charter schools, the ballyhooed darlings of the reform movement, results leaned toward the disappointing accented by wild fluctuation.
Reactions from pundits, state education leaders and the state’s largest newspaper, the Denver Post, ranged from somber to puzzled, but ideas about next steps quickly emerged: stay the course or even accelerate the reforms Colorado has been aggressively pursuing. Namely, that the state should continue with the hyper-accountability (more tests and consequences, even considering extending some form of accountability to the children) or market-based approaches (more charter schools or even expanding to private school voucher schemes).
What is most troubling about the reactions of our state leaders and resident non-profit policy wonks is how completely disconnected their reactions and proposed solutions are from what is really happening in schools across our state.
How quickly we have forgotten that Colorado has cut education funding by over a billion dollars annually for the past four years. In many schools, resources went in reverse nearly 20%, resulting in massive layoffs, pay freezes, and the loss of essential school resources like curricular materials and instructional supports for the state’s neediest kids.
All across the Centennial state, our teachers and principals were and are working to achieve more with less. If any of the so-called or self-proclaimed experts had thought to descend from on high and ask a classroom teacher, then the answers to flat TCAP scores would have been plainly clear.
In spite of this historic gutting of public education in Colorado, our educators – for the most part – held the line on statewide student achievement results. But instead of standing up for those who stood in the breach for our kids, Colorado’s educators received more blame and shame, more disruption and disparagement.
As our schools struggle to piece together and implement the blizzard of disconnected, often unfunded, and frequently nonsensical state reforms, we should ask: is it rational to expect any endeavor to become more complex and to produce better outcomes while the means of production are financially devastated?
Yet our state’s “no-excuses” leaders turn on their reality distortion fields and wonder why statewide scores are flat. Why aren’t our testing, evaluation, and market reforms – that brought such national attention and recognition to Colorado – working as planned?
The answer, quite simply, is that they’ve never worked anywhere at scale and the body of evidence to support these approaches is scientifically anemic and ideologically biased.
There are no high performing education systems in the United States, or anywhere in the world for that matter, that have achieved systemic and sustained greatness through the means Colorado now aggressively pursues.
Instead of working to de-professionalize education by cutting teacher wages, vilifying unions, and allowing practically anyone who isn’t a felon to become a teacher – the high performing systems have worked to make education a high status and very selective profession. There are no stories of mass shaming, firing, and disenfranchisement among those systems that have actually achieved sustainable greatness.
The best performing education systems on earth aren’t having discussions about opening more charter schools because they don’t have any. This is not to say we should eliminate Colorado’s charter schools -many of them do a fine job. It is to say that the work of genuine greatness requires extraordinary effort and execution put behind proven practices. Handing over the management of public education to some non-profit entity and calling it a charter school does not, by this action alone, make the education better and does not further the goal of system-wide genuine quality.
The best education systems on earth also aren’t discussing the privatization of their schools through voucher schemes. This is because they are focused on supporting and continuing to make their public schools even greater – instead of intentionally dismantling and disrupting them.
The best education systems are also judicious in their use of assessments. They test only at key transition points, relying on practitioner developed assessments that measure high level skills and concepts. Here in Colorado, our kids must take literally dozens of standardized tests over the course of their academic careers. Yet we can’t seem to let go of a single test because the theory of test-rank-punish as a means of improvement is far too ingrained.
Parents ask, “Why are we testing my child from February to May instead of teaching them?” Assessments are important; especially those that help educators tailor instruction to help kids learn. But the parents and the kids know – standardized testing is not the same thing as learning.
The problem with years of TCAP staleness starts and ends with the foisting of disconnected state-level reforms that have no basis in evidence. State-level policies that ignore and supersede the intricate art and science of instruction are too broad and generic to work, resulting in the unintended consequences of overloading schools with rules and regulations handed down without any funding to offset their administrative costs.
The Denver Post’s editorial about Colorado’s TCAP scores ended with a plea to continue the path our state is already on in terms of accountability and market-based approaches. According to the Post, we need to get these reforms fully implemented and give them time to work.
In the end, I expect the editorial board at the Post will get their wish. Colorado probably has too much ego, political capital, and careerism invested in these policies to change course now. But we should also expect many years of future editorials – all with an eerily familiar lament – wondering why, systemically, things just aren’t working out as planned.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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