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Hot Air Balloon Festival Buena Vista from ColoradoGuy.com

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.

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

WhichWay

One of the ways we’ve started working to create better outreach to our community with Eagle County Schools is to create an “Insider’s Academy,” where community members attend a series of courses on how public education works.

At the first meeting, I gave a presentation that outlined the (many) purposes of public education and a brief look into it’s history in the United States.

My PowerPoint from that presentation is linked below.  I hope it is of some value to anyone interested in the topic or in a similar effort in your community.

PowerPoint: Purpose of Public Education

I’ve been working with the Eagle County Schools Board of Education to design an evaluation system for myself (as Superintendent) that is clear, fair, professionally rigorous, and that provides the foundation of many conversations about improvement and growth.

I know others might be looking for resources in their own work in this area.  So, I’m posting the system we designed so that it may inform other similar efforts elsewhere.

A couple of notes.  First, this is intended to be a work in progress.  The Board and I have regularly scheduled opportunities to revise and improve this system through a collaborative approach.  Second, Eagle County Schools and my contract may be a little unique in that the compensation uses a performance-based framework.  So, if you see elements related to performance-bonuses or annual raises based on performance – that’s where it is coming from.  In any case, the standards and rubric should be applicable to any Superintendent.

Please consider this a resource in your own personal and professional growth and feel free to provide me any feedback or comments you may have.

Superintendent Evaluation Rubric Performance Criteria

Ferris Wheel by John Spade

As I’ve worked to get up to speed on education politics in Colorado, which is certainly at the “bleeding edge” of education reform nationally, I’ve become very aware of the presence of cyclical elements that feed off each other and create a sort of symbiosis when it comes to education policy.

Currently, the state is in a classic “vicious cycle,” or a chain of events that feed off each other and spiral into increasingly disastrous results.  As a very simplified model, I think the current vicious cycle looks something like this (click to see a larger image):

vicious

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of international benchmarking, or studying the best performing systems for patterns and connected strategies and then considering how those might be adapted to one’s current context, as a way of looking for systemic solutions and ideas for how we might build a great education system.   This thinking certainly forms the basis of our work in Eagle County Schools at becoming a genuinely great education system, as I’ve outlined in our Unparalleled Altitude report.

From my observations, it appears that the high performing systems are in quite a different cycle than the one we are in.  As opposed to our “vicious cycle,” spiraling ever downward, high performing systems are in a “virtuous cycle,” where a chain of events feeds off each other in creating ever higher levels of support, respect, and performance.

Again, an over-simplified model might look something like this (click to see a larger image):

Virtue

One key question to consider is “How do we get from here to there?”  How does one reverse the seemingly never-ending current in a vicious cycle and turn things around?  Part of that answer, I think, lies in a courageous leader being willing to stand up and go against the conventional wisdom of blame, shame, gloom, and (ultimately) doom associated with the vicious cycle.  But one courageous leader isn’t enough.  We are basically trying to change the direction of a vicious system that has a great deal of momentum and one part of that moving in the opposite direction is both dangerous to the opposing element and unlikely to reverse the course of the entire cycle.  For the cycle to reverse direction, what is needed is for multiple elements to change direction at once.

This might not necessarily need to be in a coordinated or unified manner.  One might imagine elements of the larger system taking cue from the courageous leader and reversing direction as well.

My thinking on this is still evolving.  However, in my studies of high performing education systems, I see virtuous cycles working in all of them.   From this, I infer the following: If we are to become a high performing education system … then we are going to have to create a virtuous cycle when it comes to education policy.

New York Mountain in Eagle County, CO

New York Mountain in Eagle County, CO

I spent the past 100 (or so) days in Eagle County building a possible new direction for the organization.  This new direction was forged from countless interviews with education professionals and community members in Eagle County as well as from my own personal and professional journey in learning how to build a great education system.

I post it here for your review and consideration and welcome any thoughtful discussion it might bring about.  The full document can be accessed here and it can also be downloaded as a pdf from the same site:

http://issuu.com/eagleschools/docs/altitudereport3

Image

Photo courtesy of US Presswire

Let me first say that I generally abhor sports analogies.  Using them only creates a connection with people who either participated in (or have an appreciation for) sports while making you look like a simpleton with everyone else.  With that said…

I love watching Peyton Manning play football.

He has a command of the game that just sets him on another level from everyone else on the field.  A powerful combination of talent, experience, careful preparation, and being surrounded by a great team make Manning and the Broncos an opponent to be feared on any given Sunday.

One of the things I enjoy most about watching Manning play is his ability to adapt his play (and the play of those around him) based on changing circumstances and conditions.  One play might be called in the huddle, but on the line of scrimmage Manning reads the defense for early warning signs of where the opponents intend to attack.  He calmly and efficiently adjusts formations, blocking schemes, pass routes, or changes the play altogether depending on the circumstances.

More than once I’ve seen Manning step under center, then see that strong safety creep up toward the line of scrimmage with eyes intently focused on the gap he intends to blitz.  This safety intends to do Manning bodily harm, but the savvy quarterback steps back, adjusts, and then reengages with an adapted plan.

As if anyone needed any evidence that I am a confirmed “edu-geek,” read this next statement closely…

I think the way Peyton Manning plays football can teach us a lot about great instruction.

Great teaching is built on a combination of talent, experience, preparation, and surrounding one’s self with a great team.  It also results from going in with an engaging plan that has been carefully tailored to student needs, but also from being able and willing to adjust on the fly in the face of changing circumstances and situations.

The effective educator reads the situation from available formative information and a qualitative understanding of the students.  When the carefully laid plan isn’t working for some students, the effective educator quickly adapts and, at the very first warning signs, changes the approach and tactics to find a way to reach each student.  The effective educator also calls on and directs the talented team of supporting educators to make sure every student is provided an instructional approach that works for them.

I visit schools and classrooms in my district (Eagle County Schools) regularly.  In every school, I look for “data walls,” where the educators are mapping out the early warning signs of struggling students.  I speak individually with teachers and principals, asking the question 101 ways, “How are we adapting instruction and interventions to meet every student?”

In our district, we are working to build schools full of instructional Peyton Mannings – who bring talent, experience, preparation, teamwork – and then put it together with an adaptive instructional approach that shifts tactics and interventions to meet where every student needs us to be.  We need to build a system that makes these adaptations with incredibly high reliability – where no student falls through the cracks and isn’t provided customized instruction.

For the blue and orange faithful of “Bronco Nation,” not reaching the Super Bowl (especially with this talented team) would be a catastrophe.

For us, the educators, the stakes associated with failure are supremely higher.

Photo courtesy of Drake Goodman via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Drake Goodman via Flickr.

I’ve become a great student of “high reliability systems” over the past couple of years.  That is, systems that are designed to minimize the probability of failure to the absolute lowest possible level and that feature repeatable procedures so that success can be replicated.  The commercial airline system is a great example of a high reliability system.  In spite of incredible complexity, large volume of traffic, fallible flying machines, and the ever present specter of human error – commercial flights are, statistically, an incredibly safe way to travel.

In the wake of the terrible recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, where remarkably most passengers survived, I’ve observed another aspect of this high reliability system at work.  Whenever a crash or an “incident” occurs, the FAA and the NTSB step in and do a detailed analysis of the accident to determine the cause or error, publish those results, and consider what changes to the entire system might be implemented to prevent such instances from occurring in the future.

Recently, my leadership team with Eagle County Schools conducted a similar exercise, considering both recent and historical organizational failures. Also considered were the possible causes of these organizational “crashes.”  In many cases, the causes were multiple, fed and built off each other, or cascaded when early warning signs weren’t noticed or were ignored.

Going forward, we will work to develop some organizational and behavioral protocols for our leadership team to prevent such occurrences in the future.  The following are an early list of where we are headed:

  • Make complex decisions in teams.
  • Always consult available empirical data before making a key decision.
  • Consider micro and macro political considerations to actions.  What coalitions will form in favor, and against, what we are trying to do?
  • Understand adaptive versus technical change and treat them accordingly (see Heifetz & Linsky).
  • The way actions look and are perceived matters.
  • In adversarial situations, act with productive paranoia (see Collins and Hansen).

This was a valuable frame to consider our organization through.  We easily could have spent hours vetting recent and historical “crashes,” determining possible causes, and prescribing organizational solutions.  I’d encourage giving it a try in your school, district, or organization.  Let me know how things turn out!

Old School vs New School

I recently was asked to present some ideas to a group of aspiring educators on what the teaching profession held in store as they embarked on their professional lives.  Since that talk, the topic has continued to germinate new thinking for me.  What would the teaching profession look like over the next 30 years and what changes should we expect? Presented below are some juxtapositions and generalizations on that question – drawn in part from thinking about the Center for Teaching Quality’s (CTQ) excellent work, Teaching 2030.  Many of these are, of course, already underway to a degree. However, in looking ahead I imagine these “new school” trends will be the norm, and not the exception.  I look forward to your responses and reactions.

Teaching is telling versus learning is doing.  There is indeed a revolution underway in how teaching and learning intersect.  Past and present it was acceptable to “stand and deliver” and covering content meant that the teacher said it.  On the other side of the looking glass, it won’t be considered “taught” unless the learner experiences, understands, and can apply the knowledge.

Teaching is the new law.  When we compare teaching to professions like medicine and law, stark differences emerge in terms of selectivity, expectations for preparation, degrees of professional autonomy, and levels of compensation.  Over the next 30 years, I expect all of these factors to change course.  It will be more difficult to get into and out of teacher education programs and competitiveness for initial teaching jobs will increase.  Starting pay levels will rise as we work to attract top talent into the field and professional autonomy will grow as we leave a form of education where fact/recall preparation sufficed.

“Teacherpreneurs.”  A term coined by the folks at CTQ, this idea posits that teachers of the future will have a great diversity of career options, or pathways, available to them.  Teachers, using their individual talents infused with the spirit of entrepreneurship, will reject the limited career options currently available and will instead develop individualized and specialized roles including mentoring, student supports, leadership, curriculum design, and policy.

Personalization will rule.  Like practically everything else about our world, students and parents will demand an education specifically tailored to individual needs, interests, and talents.  Students will exercise greater autonomy over curriculum pace and content as well greater autonomy in the manner by which knowledge is gained.  In exchange for this autonomy, evidence of competence or mastery will be expected of students and the educators will coordinate and facilitate this personalized learning experience.

The new labor/management paradigm.  We already see this shift occurring in the world’s highest performing school systems.  Unions evolve to function more as professional guilds, meaning they are standard-bearers in insuring quality of the profession and take on an advocacy role less related to worker rights and pay and more related to the institution of public education.  Management approaches will also be different and on a large scale.  Top-down and autocratic management approaches will be viewed the same way workplace smoking and harassment once were.  Instead, the norm will be inclusive and distributed leadership and the role of the people with formal leadership titles will be focused on getting the conditions right where their education professionals can do their best work.

Accountability and diminishing returns.  We will see that ever increasing attempts to raise performance through accountability-based mechanisms result in small to no improvements in results.  Instead, the focus on accountability will be replaced with a focus on collaborative inquiry.  Genius and high performance takes root in the team setting and our thinking and innovations will increasingly center on ways to structure and enhance team-based sharing and learning and translating that into actions.

Many pathways into the profession – all of high quality.  The current landscape of traditional versus alternative preparation pathways are both soon-to-be dinosaurs.  Blended models and shared ideas will emerge between universities, non-profits, and education employers to create a variety of on-ramps into education.  Each of these on-ramps will be very selective, emphasize strength in content, pedagogy (especially the ability to personalize learning), and clinical (or field-based) experience.

Sharing expertise is the solution.  Identifying high quality educators and replicating those skills will become the norm.  Isolated professional work in education will be considered heresy and models of co-teaching, continuous mentoring throughout one’s career, and meaningful involvement with professional learning communities will all be professional expectations.  Learning environments will be transparent, where multiple educators will move through and within them for the purposes of sharing, critiquing, supporting, and learning.

*Thanks to the Iowa State University Education Association for the beginning ideas in this post and for reacting to my original presentation.

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