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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

Opposing Forces

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.

bellwether

 

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

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

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

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

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

But,  I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL AGREEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AREAS of SUBSTANTIAL DISAGREEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CLOSING

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

Grass in Motion by Robbie via Flickr

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

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

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.

Photo courtesy of Ville Miettinen

Most school organizations are set up in traditional hierarchy power models of superintendent, central office staff, principals, and then teachers and other instructional staff.

In general, power is conveyed by school boards to superintendents, who delegate it to central office and principal levels … but only in rare cases to the teacher level.

The result is that important curricular, staffing, and resource allocation decisions happen after discussions of those at the top and the decisions are also made by those at the top. It’s a closed circuit system.

Sometimes, teacher unions are involved in parts of these decisions – but the involvement is frequently restricted to traditionally bargained topic areas and the decisions are nearly always imbued with self-interest. Note that I’m not being critical of unions in this arrangement, an important role for them is to pressure for better wages, benefits, and working conditions for their members – but there are a host of other critical decisions that relate to building good schools teachers are left out of completely.

While some argue for flatter schools to put budget targets on those higher in the fiscal food chain, there is a more compelling reason to flatten school organizations that is unrelated to budgetary issues.

Flattening traditional power arrangements and bringing teaching staff into discussions about the strategic direction of schools makes sense when you consider that those with the best information about students should be centrally involved in the decision making processes that affect them.

Issues of trust and accountability frequently stand in the way of flatter school organizations. Many just don’t believe that rank and file teachers have “what it takes” to stand in leadership roles, or don’t believe that classroom teachers are strong enough to stand behind tough decisions that often have to be made in schools. Another important impediment is capacity – or the ability of teachers to actually engage in leadership roles. A union leader said to me recently that “even when teachers are given formal power roles through statute, they rarely are able to use those to drive meaningful improvements.”

To me, this is a capacity issue among teachers. They have rarely been challenged or trusted to assume leadership roles so it should be of no surprise to us when they struggle when presented with opportunities to lead.

Going forward, it will be critical that we simultaneously flatten organizational power structures so that we get those on the front line more involved in decision making. At the same time, we need to provide support and coaching to help teachers engage in these new leadership roles.

We need teachers to assert primary ownership over this profession, and the larger endeavor of education for that matter. This is a central challenge we must put before our teachers in the United States if we really want to emulate the practices of the highest performing systems in the world.

Make no mistake, assuming the role of leadership involves responsibility. No longer will it be a luxury to sit back, be reactive, and criticize decisions as they come down the pike. Flattening organizations and putting teachers into formal leadership roles for curricular, personnel, and resource decisions demands a higher level of involvement and a willingness to step up and take responsibility for the decisions reached.

For our schools to make the kinds of dramatic improvements we need, flatter school power configurations that put faith in, as well as demand leadership from, teachers will be a necessary component.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, Iowa

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