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Over the past couple of weeks (1/22 and 1/29, specifically), the Centennial state’s largest newspaper, the Denver Post has run guest editorials written by paid hacks funded by billionaire ed-reformers with a clear and ideologically driven agenda.

In Kelsey Moskitis’ story from 1/22, she argues that Colorado needs to provide greater access to charter schools.  While resisting the temptation to carve up Kelsey’s arguments (some of which are built using data from Colorado School Grades, which I offered a critique of yesterday), the main issue for the Denver Post is that they allow her to bill herself as “a graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.”

Yet, the Walton Family Foundation, who have a not-so-hidden agenda of expanding charter schools, clearly identifies Kelsey as a member of their staff.

Similarly, Chad Adelman and Leslie Kan, in their story published on 1/29, argue for expanding social security to Colorado teachers.  Again, refraining from a critique of their arguments, at issue is the larger agenda Adelman and Kan are hocking and who is really behind their efforts.

The Denver Post story identifies Adelman and Kan as “authors of “Uncovered: Social Security, Retirement Uncertainty, and 1 Million Teachers.”  Actually, they are paid staff at Bellweather Education Partners, a group funded (in part) by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  The Arnold Foundation is (among other activities) a financial player in the Colorado effort to dismantle public employee pensions.  John Arnold is a former Enron exec and hedge fund billionaire, using his wealth to influence the media and public policy.

Again, this isn’t so much about Moskitis or Adelman and Kan as it is about the Denver Post.  In this era of people like the Koch Brothers seeking to take over the country via election marketing and public relations spending, news organizations like the Denver Post are supposed to protect the public from these kinds of biased shams.

The Post, as a professional journalistic organization, has a public responsibility to us, the people, to identify these kinds of hidden agendas and call them out for the shams they are.

So please, please Denver Post, do your #$&! job and have enough professional integrity to ask some basic questions about the information you are printing. Otherwise, you become just a pawn for big money to use in pulling the wool over the eyes of the Coloradans who depend on you for an honest story.

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.

I know some things about teachers. You see, the people I love most in this world are teachers. My parents were both teachers and inspired me to enter this profession. My wife is a teacher. Some years ago, in the small Appalachian town of Hazard, Kentucky even I was a teacher. So when we talk about the teaching profession, keep in mind … this is personal to me.

In what’s unfortunately turning into a bona-fide “blog feud” between Jennifer Hemmingsen and I on educator compensation, Hemmingsen asks the important question of “what motivates teachers” and openly asks me for a response.

First, I have to say how disappointed I was in Hemmingsen for citing parts of an unpublished draft of my dissertation. I provided a draft version to the media with the caveat that it was still in the final proofing phase before being sent for binding and inclusion with the Seton Hall library. It is disappointing that Hemmingsen violated the trust I had when making the document available for media review. Sadly, I guess I’ve learned a lesson.

Even more disappointing is the fact that Hemmingsen cherry picks some of my findings to bolster her own predisposition while leaving the other half of my conclusions out of her discussion. However, in keeping with the “card game” metaphor we seem to be developing in our back and forth, it’s clear to me that academic scholarship trumps ‘gotcha’ editorials. You see, I have a responsibility in academic writing to provide a balanced and honest point of view and to critique the weaknesses of my own arguments. It would appear some editorial writers do not operate under the same ethos.

But let’s get past the personal level of this discussion and get to the policy question, which is ultimately the more important component.

The question of “what motivates teachers” was the subject of my dissertation. In a nutshell, I asked the question of whether teachers were motivated for money and economics or motivated to help kids and to be part of something greater than themselves. The answer … “yes.”

In studying the Eagle County School district (which arguably has one of the longest running and most interesting stories on performance based compensation) I found, overwhelmingly and not surprisingly, that teachers were primarily motivated to help kids. Teachers were also heavily motivated by the concept of being part of something greater than themselves, a concept noted in the literature as “public service motivation theory.”

However, I also found that although the altruistic motivators were clearly strongest, teachers also paid more attention to those things compensation was attached to (evaluation and assessment results in Eagle County’s case).

So, it’s not one or the other, but both. Teachers are motivated to help kids. Teachers are also rational people who pay attention to economic incentives.

I’ve used my findings as a possible explanation for why simple “cash for test scores” or “merit pay” schemes fail to raise student achievement. These approaches, by themselves, they don’t pull at the major levers in what motivates teachers and they usually don’t come with any real supports to help teachers improve their craft and learn from each other.

My conclusions were that we should avoid simplistic approaches advanced by many on the “performance pay” side of the argument, but we should also avoid a defense of the status quo “step and lane” system.

Deci and Ryan’s work was made popular by writer Daniel Pink, who said that compensation systems must be “adequate and fair.” I would argue the industrial “step and lane” pay system is neither and we have a great deal of evidence that educators are responding to its incentives in ways that lead us to perverse outcomes. For example, nearly 50% of educators nationally obtain advanced degrees that have an incredibly poor research track record of success in improving teaching. Compare this with the estimated 10% of Americans who have advanced degrees overall.

Think that has something to do with the ongoing compensation incentives provided with a “lane” change? I certainly do.

Frederick Herzberg also wrote about this nearly 40 years ago and told us that while compensation wasn’t necessarily a “motivator” for improvement, it did have the capacity to “demotivate” if it weren’t well attended to. I’d hold up the evidence around attrition for teachers early in their careers and labor market shortages for special education teachers as examples that we don’t have this “right” yet. Certainly working conditions and supports are part of this conversation, but so is compensation.

So, Hemmingsen is improving in her sophistication in being able to engage in this discussion – but she still doesn’t get it as she continues to try and paint me as some kind of merit-pay hawk.

To again clarify, I’m not talking about using compensation as a motivator for teachers, I’m talking about changing compensation structures to align with things that would actually be good for schools, educators, and kids. Things like creating and paying for teacher leader roles, creating time for teachers to work together collaboratively, incenting the pursuit advanced degrees or other PD options that are aligned with what their kids need, paying more to get and keep our best teachers in front of our neediest kids, front loading pay structures to get better candidates into teaching and keep them, extending the school day/year for kids that need it, and addressing teacher labor market shortage areas. And yes, performance based elements – so long as they are coupled with support systems to help teachers improve.

The possibilities are fascinating to consider – but part of the change is that we have to stop using the cash we have in such non-strategic ways and start using it smarter.

Hemmingsen also selectively takes her shots at the school organization I was proud to be part of in Eagle County, noting the high attrition rates at the inception of human capital system change in 2001 and the leadership turnover in 2007. But again, she only tells you part of the story. When I left Eagle County, the teacher attrition rate (for those not being non-renewed for performance related reasons) was in the single digits, we had solid leadership which remains in place today, and we had the highest paying salary system in the state. Further, the district has been closing the achievement gap at an amazing pace, has been recognized by the state legislature for its innovation, has had 4 Colorado Principals of the Year in as many years, and has value added results that are just startlingly good. This in a district with a 51% Hispanic student population, along with the language learner and poverty issues that accompany that demographic statistic.

The improvements with Eagle County’s results did not occur just because of a change in compensation system. Rather, leaving the step and lane system allowed the district to better move finite resources to solve problems and achieve strategic outcomes. I don’t think anyone there would say the pay was the driver. The change primarily happened because all the pieces in the organization were pulling in the same direction and toward the same goals and the district had the flexibility in its resources to address student needs.

So, what motivates teachers? Helping kids and being part of changing the world motivates teachers. But teachers are also rational people who respond to financial incentives. Our work shouldn’t be to blindly protect a near 100 year old industrial era compensation structure, but instead to think about how we build a compensation structure that takes into account teachers’ altruistic motivations and that incents them toward things that help kids and communities. Then, we would be moving toward a system that emphasizes the real underlying motivations for educators, and that uses money strategically.

Jennifer Hemmingsen recently penned two articles for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on education policy. One focused on what she called “merit pay” and a second focused more broadly on increased education spending. I welcome Hemmingsen (and others) entering the discussion on how we might improve education in Iowa. A central goal of the Governor’s recent Iowa Education Summit was to elevate improving education as a statewide policy issue. Based on the dramatic increase in media coverage and interactions occurring all across Iowa, I’d say the summit achieved this goal.

I applaud Hemmingsen for tackling these two contentious and complex policy issues. Having the courage to engage in meaningful and honest conversation is one of our first steps toward the improvement we need. However, in education we have an old maxim Hemmingsen should heed as she wades into these thorny discussions: “Do your homework.”

Educator compensation and school funding are complex issues that deserve more than a drive-by and myopic analysis. It would serve us all well to step up our game in how we discuss these important topics. As a state level public servant, I absolutely welcome an open critique of my positions and policy directions – but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that critics at least take the time to genuinely understand the issues and policy positions.

We have to raise our debate beyond pitifully unsophisticated advocacy for status quo “step and lane” pay systems or simple “cash-for-test-scores” schemes that have a poor track record of success. I’ve written on this topic previously and have called for a more sophisticated discussion on educator compensation in practically every public appearance I’ve made. Clearly my message isn’t getting through to the media who continue to frame the debate in an overly-simplistic (and generally non-productive) manner around “merit pay.”

Being more strategic about how we compensate educators must be part of the discussion when we talk about any meaningful and lasting policy change. The simple reason: it’s where the money is. Of the over $4 billion dollars we spend on public education in Iowa, the vast majority of that goes into salary and benefits and most of this money is spent in ways that are either poorly aligned with, or outright counter to, the goals we’d like to see schools achieve.

One small example: Imagine if we were more strategic in how we used the estimated $75,000,000 Iowa spends annually on incentivizing educators to chase and obtain advanced degrees. These advanced degrees have a terrible empirical record of correlation with improved teaching, yet we dump more cash into them year after year and have done so for nearly a century. What an incredible waste.

We have near universal agreement that we need to be increasing teacher collaboration time, creating meaningful teacher leadership roles, creating extended day and year programs for students who need it, and paying more for hard to fill areas like math, science and special education. We should be thinking about how we get these approaches to be part of our base funding model. Instead we use one time money, create pilots that eventually dry up and go away, or fund them with stand-alone appropriations that become easy targets as soon as budgets get tight. We have to start thinking about how we can better use the money that’s already in the system in smarter ways.

We need a “Dr. Phil” moment on this issue. We have a history of starting some of these innovative approaches in compensating educators in strategic ways but then fund them with one time money. When the cash dries up or funding gets tight, the innovation folds and becomes something “we tried once.” As Dr. Phil asks, “How’s that working for you?”

Framing the debate around “merit pay” (as a term that instantly inflames) and surfacing all the same old tired arguments gets us nowhere. We should be talking about the much more sophisticated (and useful) idea of “strategic compensation” which asks schools to align their resources with the goals they would like to accomplish. This is bigger than a “cash-for-test-scores” discussion.

Hemmingsen also makes the case that no real education reform will happen without an infusion of cash. But I’d argue that beating the drum of “give us more money and leave us alone” hasn’t produced results and is now falling on deaf ears. I’ll stand up and advocate for more cash for schools with anyone, but we must come with a better plan on how new money will move the system toward better results. Asking for more money to continue to do things that are ineffective is an irresponsible waste of finite public resources.

The fact is we have increased PreK-12 spending dramatically across this country over the past 30 years and have little to show for it in terms of increased student learning. We can make “the ask” for increased education spending, but let’s also come forward with a plan for how those resources will be used in smarter ways than they have been.

We just make the same problems we currently have in education more expensive with a “dump more cash on it” approach. So while “show me the money” may be fun to say, “show me the plan and I’ll show you the money” is a more pragmatic approach that might actually lead to improved schools. Building this plan is exactly the work we are engaged in as a state right now.

Again, I commend Hemmingsen taking on these important issues and appreciate her coverage of education. These are absolutely the things we should be talking about in the larger context of education reform. But repeating the same tired arguments about “merit pay” or yelling for more cash to do more of the same doesn’t move our discussion forward. Both discussions on compensation and on education spending are fast ways to get reactions from people – but we need to stop trying to inflame meaningless and worn-out debates and start trying to build pragmatic solutions.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time…But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lila Watson

Jennifer Hemmingsen recently wrote a piece on her impressions of my views for “education reform.” While I’d first say that I appreciate Hemmingsen’s putting a discussion on education in her publication, I’d like to use this space to reflect on Hemmingsen’s article and offer my own conclusions.

The title of Hemmingsen’s piece is “Reform doesn’t end with teachers.” To this I would say, “of course it doesn’t!” The fact that there are a number of other critically important people involved in our nation’s education system is certainly not lost on me. For the record, I have never said that education reform starts, or ends, with teachers. Editorialized headlines have said both of these things in association with my name, but I have never said either.

The truth is that it will take us all to truly transform public education toward the system we believe it can be. But let’s not underestimate the importance of the classroom teacher. I will stand with the evidence telling us that the classroom teacher is the single most important person in changing a student’s academic trajectory. On this blog, I’ve clearly stated that the entire system must be configured to improve and support the classroom teacher. They cannot do it alone and it will take all of us, working in concert, to lift and improve our system of public education to be what we believe it can be.

While as much as I appreciate Hemmingsen’s kind words toward me in the piece (I believe the term was “rock-star” – thanks for that!!!), I must respectfully disagree with some of her conclusions. She states that teachers are “exhausted” and “ground down” by reforms. In the course of my career I have interacted with thousands of educators. Never once have I heard one say that they are too exhausted or ground down to improve what they do for kids.

Are educators wary of the latest fads and are tired of being a political punching bag? Absolutely. Further, I would say that they have cause to be skeptical and to be defensive. But never, never have I sensed that educators don’t want to improve.

I did not come to Iowa to defend the status quo and to “manage” the current model. Nor did I come here to deconstruct and destroy educators and our system of public education. Simply, I know this system has to evolve and change. I would go on to argue that we all know this is true, we are just afraid or don’t know the way.

“Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity. To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves.” Heifetz and Linsky

I am part of a growing movement of “tempered radicals” who fundamentally believe in the importance and moral purpose of public education and who know it must transform in order survive and to best serve children. Our movement is fueled, at its core, by respect, honesty, and love: may we never become exhausted in service of these.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

Thanks much to KCRG and Beth Malicki for giving me the chance to speak with my own voice. As many in the public eye know, you give the media 10 minutes on a topic and sometimes they take 5 seconds of that out of context and turn it into the story they want, instead of the message that’s really there.

Beth was just a pro, asking the tough questions that need to be asked, and I appreciate the opportunity to give my answers.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

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