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AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

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.

Kind regards,

Jason E. Glass, Ed.D.

Superintendent & Chief Learner

Eagle County Schools

 

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 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

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

Iowa is currently engaged in a contentious, but healthy, debate about how to improve its education system.  One central part of this debate is the appropriate balance of state control versus local control in decision making when it comes to our schools.  Some argue that the doctrine of local control, or having educational authority vested primarily or completely in the hands of local officials, is the best path forward for improving Iowa’s education system.

One hyper-active version of this philosophy even argues for the abolishment of the Iowa Department of Education so that a state presence is eliminated entirely.  This ideological trip-fantasia is being built on a constructed narrative that the relative decline of Iowa’s school system was actually caused by the creation of the Iowa Department of Education.  However, the facts simply do not support this assertion.  The Department was created in 1913 and was present during much of the expansion and years of success of Iowa’s education system.

Some might argue that my sticking up for the Department of Education is a self interested position.  Not so – if there was any evidence supporting the elimination of a state agency (or ministry of education in the case of an international system) was effective at improving student performance, I’d be advocating for that approach.  But there simply are no examples of high performing education systems that have used this approach and risen to greatness.  In every single case there is the presence of a strong state-wide vision and direction.

It’s not about me either because, put directly, I can find another job.  This should be about what policies we should pursue that will result in a better education for our students.

Our collective goal is for Iowa to have a school system on par with the highest performing education systems in the world.  Strong local control advocates would have us believe that we should take a sort of “laissez-faire” approach to educational decisions, where we should count on every one of our 348 school districts in the state to make the decisions and have the capacity to miraculously arrive at greatness.

Perhaps, at a surface level, this philosophy has some merit.   The local control approach relies on the notion that local school decision makers will make the best decisions on behalf of students and that the local district will internally have all the capacity necessary to deliver a world-class education.  Sometimes and on some issues, good decision making happens and sufficient organizational capacity does exist at the local level.  But, the evidence does not support a pure local control approach in practice.  An over-reliance on local control also leaves a lot of important aspects to chance at the local level.  Anyone who has actually been in some of those 348 school districts in Iowa can tell you the capacity for good decision making and for delivering uniformly high quality educational services is all across the board in terms of consistency.

Over-relying on a local control doctrine yields exactly what Iowa doesn’t need more of – variation and uneven results in terms of quality and student results.  Let me be more direct.  If Iowa designs its education policy featuring an over-emphasis on local control then the state has no chance of becoming a world-class school system and will instead have of pockets of both academic excellence and anemia … with a heavy dose of continued mediocrity.

To reinforce the point, there simply are no examples of high performing or fast accelerating education systems that rely on a pure local control approach in their ascent.

In fairness to this philosophy of local control, it would be equally foolish to put in place a system of tightly centralized and bureaucratically-driven state control.  This approach would squelch local innovation, overly standardize decisions that need to be customized to local contexts, and create responsiveness issues in addressing local problems.

Instead of setting up this false dichotomy of local control versus state control, what we should be trying to find is the right balance.

The state has an important role to play in setting high expectations for all students and making sure these standards are being met.  The state also serves an important role in making sure that all students are being provided equitable access to a quality education.  Finally, the state has a role to play in making sure this important goal of educating its citizens is appropriately resourced and that our schools are fair and honest stewards of tax dollars.  With that said, we should have a great deal of deference to the local level in making customized implementation decisions and operational decisions.

Our work must be to find the right mix and balance of state and local control in our schools that sets universally high expectations and universally bold strategies, but also allows for intelligent and flexible customization and problem solving to local contexts.  The 2010 McKinsey and Company study How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better  got it right when talking about this balance.  Those authors said the responsibility of the state was to “prescribe adequacy, and unleash greatness.”

State and local leadership is necessary for our schools to improve at the pace and scale necessary for Iowa’s education system to reach its goal of being one of the best systems globally.  We need big changes and investments in education on the scale of the problems we face and that require a strategic, intentional, and purposeful direction for every school in Iowa.

The future of Iowa’s children is simply too important to be left to chance.

The critical question, at least for me, is clear: How do we raise an entire state to be one of the highest performing school systems in the world?  This question takes up nearly every moment of my being, to the point of near fixation.  I consume volumes of books, journal articles, news stories, reports, editorials, opinions, conversations, charts, tables, and diagrams.  I visit schools and talk to educators, looking and listening for parts of the  answer to the question.  I spend hours and days in airports and airplanes to attend meetings where educational strategies and tactics are espoused and debated, all in pursuit of bettering our schools.

I believe we can take it as granted that everyone (or at least most everyone) wants our schools to be better, much better, than they are now.  Where we come unraveled is in getting agreement on the specific actions we will undertake, as a system, to improve. In looking to the lessons of the world’s highest performing education systems, getting to some level of agreement on the tactics we will collectively take clearly matters.  It matters in that whatever approach we undertake we will need to sustain it through the swings of the political pendulum and we will need to adequately resource the effort to give it the chance to succeed.  A fractured approach does not lead us to that end and is also unlikely to lead us toward having one of the world’s best education systems.

So what tactics and strategies should we undertake?  Where should we place our efforts?  In my studies on how one might raise an entire education system (not a few schools or districts, but the entire system), I am increasingly convinced that both a continuation of past reform efforts (lower class size, incremental annual spending increases, and accountability) or the relatively new breed of American reform strategies (elimination of job protections, individual level evaluations linked to test scores, and school choice) are unlikely to work if our goal really is building an American school system that stands alongside the world’s highest performers.

So we face some choices.  One is to continue the (often) politically motivated infighting and factionalism that dominates the current debate and see who ultimately bludgeons the other side into (temporary) submission.  Another is to do nothing; paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake.  Perhaps the right path is to reject these two options and converge on a set of strategies that is most likely to deliver us at that goal of a world-class education system.

I’d like to propose four lenses to frame that debate.  If the strategy or approach passes through all four lenses, then it fits in the discussion.  If it doesn’t, then it’s out.  Note that being “in” shouldn’t mean it’s in forever – just that the approach makes sense in the current context.  Similarly, being “out” doesn’t mean it’s out forever – it just means that either the timing isn’t right or we need more testing and empirical validation of the approach before we take it to scale across the entire education system.  So, “what are these four lenses that SHOULD frame our education reform agenda,” you ask?

1.  Is it related to the instructional core?  Harvard professor Richard Elmore rightly points out that if you aren’t doing things that have an impact on the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content, you aren’t doing anything that’s going to positively change performance.  Using this first question as a lens is incredibly constructive in helping us sort the wheat from the chaff in where we should place our efforts.  The danger in using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things that affect this relationship between teachers and students in the presence of content; especially if you allow yourself to birdwalk out on a few limbs.  We can’t just rely on this lens alone.

2.  Is it strongly supported by the evidence?  This lens can be a bit tricky as one can find some evidence to support just about anything.  But we stand a much better chance of being “right” with whatever approach we take if are aligned with evidence that reaches the caliber of being peer-reviewed, journal quality work.  Further, we should pursue approaches that have a preponderance of evidence that supports it.  This helps prevent us from chasing the latest thing or being led astray by a singular research finding that contradicts the larger body of evidence on any particular strategy.  The danger of using this lens in isolation is being paralyzed by analysis, wanting more and more empirical validation before actually doing anything.  Good implementation begins with using evidence to calibrate your shot, but ultimately taking action.

3.  Is it scale-able?  If our goal is really to get a whole education system to improve, we must reject efforts that do not scale as the primary drivers for improvement.  Efforts that do not scale show up dressed in one of two outfits. One is in the form of small-scale pilots and projects, where we have a few schools or districts undertake some effort.  Pilots and projects are incredibly important for experimentation and empirical validation but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these are going to do anything that will make the whole system move; especially if, at the end of the pilot or program, we never do anything to grow the validated approach.  The second form of efforts that do not scale comes in the guise of attempts at small scale excellence.  Suspects here include many school choice efforts and alternative educator licensure pathways.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of charter schools as a mechanism for innovation and a fan of approaches like Teach for America in their efforts to bring top talent into education.  But we are badly fooling ourselves if we think either of these efforts has the capacity to raise the quality of our entire education system.  Don’t believe me?  Refer to question #2 above.  The danger of using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things we could take to scale.  But if it’s not related to the instructional core or if it isn’t supported by evidence we run the risk of creating big, expensive, and ineffective distractions that don’t result in a world-class education system.

4.  Is it supported by international benchmarking?  A great place to start for information on how we might grow our education system into one of the world’s best is by asking questions of what the world’s best education systems actually do.  A comparative analysis of these systems, looking for common approaches and strategies in their rise to greatness, is perhaps our best evidence of what’s going to work to raise our education system to top performing status.  As a contrast, the discussions about pure local control, or the even more rabid version of this which advocates the complete elimination of state authority and state departments of education, is completely absent as a strategy of improvement in studies on the rise of the world’s best education systems.  More directly, there are no examples of world-class education systems that have used this approach and achieved greatness.  The key here is balance, a topic I’ve explored before.  So, using the lens of international benchmarking, seeing what approaches the best performing school systems actually use, can be an incredibly constructive lens in helping us decide which approaches to take.  The danger in using this lens in isolation is that you can fail to take into account that each school system has history, culture, and context – and all of these must strongly be taken into account in choosing a strategy that makes sense.

It’s never too late for us to change tracks and choose approaches and efforts that are much more likely to actually work in pursuit of a better education reform agenda.  In fact, I’d argue it’s too late not to make this change.  No one of these four lenses gets us there completely, but I’m arguing that using all four together gives us a powerful framework from which to make decisions about where we should put our efforts and which approaches to avoid.

Shane Vander Hart recently wrote a piece for his very entertaining and thought provoking blog, Caffeinated Thoughts responding to my remarks at the 2011 SAI Annual Conference.

After gently letting left-leaning Jennifer Hemmingsen have it over her coverage of education policy in Iowa, I would stand to lose my “I don’t give a damn about politics, let’s improve schools” credentials if I didn’t give right-leaning Shane Vander Hart the same treatment.

Let’s first set the record straight about the Iowa Core and the Common Core. I don’t expect Shane and I to ever see eye to eye on this and that’s ok – in this country we are free to disagree and are better from an open exchange of ideas. As I understand it, Shane’s position is that the Iowa Core/Common Core is some sort of Obama-driven-federal-takeover-plot aimed at indoctrinating your children to love Chairman Mao and slowly transform this country into North Korea. OK, I may have embellished that last statement … slightly (apologies Shane – just having some fun at your expense!).

Where does this conspiracy theory drivel come from? The fact is that the National Common Core was and remains a STATE led (not a federal government) initiative. The Common Core represents student expectations in reading and math that are on par with the highest performing systems in the world and also represent the kinds of skills our students are going to need to be competitive in a global context. The fact is that a common thread among the highest performing school systems in the world is the adoption of clear and rigorous standards for all students (see example after example in Michael Fullan’s latest work and in Marc Tucker’s analysis of high performing school systems).

Shane goes on to (falsely) state the the Iowa Department of Education and the State Board had no authority from the legislature to establish the Iowa Core or merge it with the Common Core. This is just silliness about the authority to enact the Iowa Core (which contains the Common Core as its Math and English/Language Arts elements). The fact is that the Iowa legislature gave the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa State Board the directive to establish the Core. To the point that this wan’t an open process, all of the State Board’s steps to include the Common Core in the Iowa Core were public proceedings, as is every action taken by the Board. Sorry Shane, this is within the lines.

Shane goes on to make the dreadfully predictable case that I am pushing for some sort of hyper-centralized school system. Actually, as I’ve stated many times before and stated in my remarks to the SAI Administrators, I’m calling for a reasonable balance of all the players in the education system. Each part has an important role to play, and Iowa’s schools will be best served if all the parts are working together and in symphony.

Governor Branstad was clear to me about my role in Iowa: Make these schools among the best in the world. That happens by building capacity at ALL levels and focusing the whole system on carefully selected strategies tailored to this context. It will not happen by closing your eyes and hoping all 350 districts in the state of Iowa spontaneously pull off becoming a world-class system on their own through some miraculous convergence.

Improvement to put Iowa on par with the highest performing systems in the world takes an intentional and focused effort. Raising useless and worn out rhetoric about government takeovers, “indoctrination,” and “educrats” just regurgitates political soundbites and does little to move Iowa forward to being a great school system.

We do need to build up and support local capacity – but we also need to focus our efforts in a way that makes this fractured patchwork of schools start to move as a system.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

Three Dancing Figures - Photo by Phil Roeder
Three Dancing Figures. Sculpture by Keith Haring. Photo by Phil Roeder.

Of all the policy debates going on with the American education system, certainly one of the most intriguing is defining the “appropriate” role of the federal, state, and local actors and agencies. For me, it’s difficult to argue any of these levels are unimportant when it comes to education policy in the United States – the rub comes in trying to define what the best role for each of them should be.

Perhaps rather than engaging in what will be an endless debate over the “appropriate” role of the federal government in education, or at the state level reigniting the cyclical debate over Dylan’s Rule versus Home Rule as the best policy approach, we should consider how we can engage each of these important levels in their strength areas and find the right balance across them.

The national perspective is critical in establishing high level goals and connecting ideas. One wonders if students with disabilities or minorities would have the same kind of access to education they do today if not for the leadership of the federal government. Or, if the knowledge base for something like Response to Intervention would have grown at the pace it has without national support. States play an absolutely critical role as well. It is important for states to set high expectations, fairly monitor progress toward those expectations, provide adequate funding and accounting oversight, and continually build educational system capacity within each state. Finally, districts (and I would include everyone working at the local level here, right down to that crucial classroom teacher) have a role to make the critical day to day and tactical decisions about how teaching and learning happens.

Rather than spending energy trying to push one group out of the picture (and this is a fantasy, in my opinion), or try and imagine a world where one group stands completely alone in making all the educational policy decisions (this is also a fantasy), we should consider what are the strengths each has and how to play to those – and find the right balance among the three to move the whole system forward.

It’s got to be about balance and playing to strengths.

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