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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.

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:

Like most educators, I’ve watched with interest the unfolding political drama in Wisconsin regarding possible statutory changes that would impact the ability of public employees to collectively bargain. As if watching any state legislature on it’s own isn’t enough drama, the spectacle of 30,000 (or more) citizens massed on the Madison capital grounds in protest of Republican Governor Walker’s proposal is classic unstoppable force meeting immovable object. This is a metaphorical train wreck getting ready to happen from which no one can stand to look away.

I commend Governor Walker for taking on the real and the tough issues of getting the state budget in order. State governments across the country teeter on the edge of bankruptcy while our national debt piles higher and higher. This recession was brought on by unscrupulous bank practices and private citizens who leveraged too much of their lives on debt and lived paycheck to paycheck before the system of borrow and spend finally imploded on itself.

Today, our government faces a similar reckoning. Public services and government organizations must reshape to be more efficient and smaller for the future. Like it or not, this is a reality we must confront.

With that said, it is one thing to take the tough and direct steps necessary to get government spending in line. It is another to disenfranchise workers from that discussion through statute. For every inane and overly complicated bureaucratic process, undeserved job protection, or lock-step spending increase unions have put in place, there was also representation from management who agreed to the deal. We are all culpable for the creation of this grand mess.

Unions are about one purpose: re-balancing power from those with formal authority to those without. One sure-fire way to whip up support and create a need for stronger unions is to try and disenfranchise workers. If you really want to get rid of unions, start with eliminating the causes for why they exist (i.e. abuses of formal power).

On the other side of this argument are the union protesters and the Wisconsin Democratic legislators. While I would never disparage or seek to limit anyone’s right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate (and to the credit of those involved so far, these demonstrations remain relatively civil and peaceful to this point), choices have been made in response to the Governor’s actions that are undemocratic and that aren’t in the best interest of kids.

Select Democratic legislators chose to flee the state in an attempt to hijack the democratic process. This is an irresponsible and undemocratic act. These legislators should honor their state constitution, uphold the oaths they took, and do their jobs. Fleeing the state to avoid having the tough conversation and avoid the will of people (the Republican majority was rightfully elected) is an irresponsible neglect of their duty in our democracy.

On the teachers’ union side, they decided to have a “sick out,” where, all at once, teachers use the sick days provided to them under their master agreements to force schools to close. This practice reinforces everything the general public thinks is wrong with unions. To advance a political end centered (mainly) on pay and benefits, this act deprived students of instructional opportunities that we can never get back. There is nothing about a “sick out” that puts kids first.

Going forward, both sides of this fight have to confront the realities of the situation. Unions are not going away anytime soon and attempts to disenfranchise them will only make them that much stronger and reinforce their reason to exist. Both the short and long term budget struggles we face as a nation are not going away either, and they won’t be solved by industrial-age and bare-knuckle union tactics and political stunts that do nothing to confront the underlying reality that the money is simply no longer there.

Every generation of leaders before us faced their challenges and struggles. Getting our government spending on a sustainable path and shedding unworkable industrial age approaches may well be the most significant and vexing challenges our generation of leaders will confront.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

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