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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.
Jason E. Glass, Ed.D.
Superintendent & Chief Learner
Eagle County Schools
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.
There are number of testing bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature this year. Some of these take significant steps to roll back the testing system in the state while others exist merely to create the appearance of doing so.
At the same time, another bill (SB 223) clarifies that parents have the right to refuse to have their students take the test, commonly referred to as “opting out.”
Anti-testing advocates and groups argue that testing in Colorado has gone far beyond reasonable levels and that parents need legislation to both roll back the tests and to protect families who refuse to take the exams. This side is made up of a strange mix of parent advocates, teachers’ unions, and individuals on the far right who are opposed to government over-reach.
The other side of the chessboard lines up testing proponents and a slew of well-funded “ed reform” groups. Supporters of the tests argue that evaluating teachers based on tests scores, and ranking schools using these results are “innovations.” They claim that without these measures, the accountability and choice reforms the state has worked to put in place over the past few years will come abruptly undone.
It’s amazing how quickly the rhetoric changes. Just a few years ago, many of those on the anti-testing side of this debate were labelled “defenders of the status quo” by education reformers. Now, the shoe is on the other foot with the ed reform camp scrambling to protect the laws and tests they put in place since 2010.
Without making any judgments, the arguments advanced by both sides are essentially correct. Colorado testing has gone off the deep end in terms of the number of tests students are required to take and there does need to be some kind of mechanism for legally handling the exponential growth in the “opt out” movement we are seeing in some schools this year. On the other side, removing the assessments would mean a roll back and sort of repudiation of the teacher and school ranking systems many of our current ed reform laws were designed to create. Additionally, a fundamental theory of the school choice movement is creating a school “marketplace” where parents can make educational decisions informed by data – test data specifically – this reform loses some steam without test data to drive it.
In my professional opinion, the right policy (at least at this point) is to move back the testing levels as close to “federal minimum” requirements under No Child Left Behind. This is really as far as the state can go without putting federal education dollars in jeopardy, or at least minimally forcing the state into a gigantic game of chicken with Secretary Duncan. Changing those federal minimums is something we, as a country, need to take a critical look at as well – but that’s a whole other subject!
The “opt out” movement is merely a symptom of a larger root cause: over-testing. Putting in place some kind of legalized opt-out mechanism just puts a Band-Aid on the larger problem and will not allow the state to move past this issue. Unless the legislature reduces the number of tests in a meaningful way, the “opt out” movement is going to persist and ultimately undermine the usefulness of all state testing data.
If we put aside the table-pounding voices from the anti-testing side, as well as the “big” money-fueled-coordinated-slick public relations campaigns from testing proponents, the challenge remaining for the legislature is finding a tolerable equilibrium in testing implementation. Given the “all or nothing” rhetoric individuals and groups involved seem to be taking, this is no easy task.
Fundamentally, the legislature has got to reduce the number of tests to a point where “opt out” numbers fall to their historically low numbers. But they can’t go too far in that direction, or they risk the education reform groups continuing to push for more testing and measurement.
At the end of the legislative session, I expect the legislature to find that equilibrium position that most people in the state will accept . . . but that neither the anti-testing nor education reform groups will find completely satisfying. While that is likely to be the ultimate outcome, don’t hold your breath or turn away not expecting this to be a spectacle. Whatever happens, this is going to be fun to watch.
*A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on April 15, 2015.
Denver Post writer Eric Gorski wrote up a story on the best performing (alleged) schools according to Colorado School Grades when their latest rankings came out in December.
As I looked over the (supposed) best performing schools, I suspected a systemic bias to be present related to the kinds of students these schools served.
Acknowledging this bias is important, as we have literally decades of evidence telling us that overwhelmingly the largest determinants of the variance in student achievement outcomes (as measured on standardized tests) are related to out-of-school factors.
As a quick analysis, I looked up the percentage of students on Free/Reduced lunch at the top rated schools according to Colorado School Grades and then compared those percentages to the Free/Reduced lunch percentages in the district that school was located within.
Because of the propensity for Free/Reduced lunch reporting to be under-represented at high school, I restricted my analysis to just those (allegedly) top performing elementary and middle schools.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the difference between top schools according to Colorado School Grades and those communities in which they are located is quite large.
The top schools, according to Colorado School Grades, average 13.1% students who are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch.
By contrast, the average for their communities is 32.6%.
Apparently, one major secret to being a high scoring school (using the Colorado School Grades methodology) is to systemically exclude disadvantaged students from your student population.
*Note* – this is not a personal vendetta against the folks at Colorado School Grades, or the slew of edu-non-profits that support them.
In fact, as Superintendent of Eagle County Schools, I’m particularly proud (although a little confused) of the 2014 “B+” grade given to Minturn Middle School, which has been closed since 2011 (D’oh!).
*Edit* Ben Degrow, with the Independence Institute, noted that MMS hadn’t had a “grade” since 2010. That is accurate – however, they still appear in the search when you look up our district. You can see the results of the search I did here, which clearly shows the now closed Minturn school still showing up, with a B+. Mea culpa – I made the mistake in assuming they received a current “grade” when I searched on this year’s results. However, I would humbly suggest that Colorado School Grades revise their search system to avoid such confusion in the future.
The point is this: we should be asking some critical questions about this data, how it is being used, and what it means.
We might also consider how we can really identify the real pockets of excellence; instead of just identifying pockets of affluence.
In a previous post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to visit with the HB 1202 committee to discuss assessment. I followed Grant Guyer, Denver’s Executive Director of Assessment, as well as representatives from Harrison District 2.
So I could get a feel for the HB 1202 group, I arrived early to listen in on the conversation. I was impressed with the learning and reflective stance I heard the committee members take. Rather than asserting or defending positions, the committee members were (for the most part) asking really good questions and thinking together.
The contrast of the thoughtful and open approach that the committee had in comparison with advocacy oriented approach Denver took was jarring, at least to me. DPS came in with a clear agenda: influence the committee to (basically) preserve the status quo when it came to state accountability testing.
Because DPS chose to take such a forceful position, I feel it is appropriate that position be critiqued and vetted in public format so that their thinking can be considered and fully vetted. Clearly, DPS’s intent was to influence public policy in a strong way. As this policy impacts every public and charter school in Colorado, examining their claims and thinking is important.
The overarching DPS position is that they (the administration at least) do not support “specific aspects of the shift to minimum federal (assessment) requirements, primarily due to the impact on high schools.”
I’ve attached the report that Grant gave here (DPS Assessment) so readers can review it for themselves (apologies for my scribbles on the scan). However, here are some of their claims and my critique:
Claim #1 – “Standards implementation could be jeopardized as there would not be a consistent, well-constructed assessment to measure of (sic) student performance at the end of a given grade/course.”
What evidence exists to support the claim that standards implementation would be jeopardized if there were no standardized, summative assessments at the end of each grade? Some of the best performing education systems in the world do not test core subjects at the end of each grade, yet they seem to be able to consistently teach to high standards. Further, what evidence or assurances do we have that a machine scored, large-scale, summative assessment is necessary in order for a classroom teacher to teach to high standards? If we are to subject literally hundreds of thousands of Colorado students to an assessment (spending millions in taxpayer dollars to do so), should not the purpose and impact of that assessment be well understood and proven?
Claim #2 – “This would reduce the amount of formal data available to accurately identify where shifts in instruction are needed.”
Large scale, machine scored summative tests are woefully inadequate for the purpose of “shifting” instruction. Primarily, these tests are for accountability purposes and not for guiding formative instructional practices. This is not to criticize the tests themselves – but they were not primarily designed for this purpose. The thinking that summative TCAP, CMAS or PARCC test results will result in effective and responsive classroom level shifts in instruction is hopeful theory with a vacuous evidence base.
Claims #3 & #4 – “Less information available to track student progress toward college and career readiness,” & “Less information available for families to make informed decisions about which high schools are the best options for their children.”
The DPS position assumes (wrongly) that an assessment system at federal minimums (or even fewer assessments) would be devoid of student assessment information in those areas where there is no mandated accountability exam. Clearly, DPS’s approach to improvement is founded on test-based accountability and school choice. In theory, for those two approaches to work you need assessments to shame and punish and big data to create a more perfect school choice “market.” Nothing would preclude DPS from heaping all the assessments they want on students to feed their theory of change. However, if we did not mandate such measures we would not be forcing every other school district in the state to follow DPS’s logic model.
Claim #5 – “Eliminating these data points at the high school level could shift the accountability system to focus too much on status. This distinctly disadvantages urban districts that have students with low levels of preparedness.”
DPS assumes (wrongly) that whatever growth, accountability, and accreditation system we currently have in place would just continue but without some high school assessments. The current accountability framework was designed with one set of assumptions about available test data. In a world with fewer accountability tests, a different model would need to be designed. This different model could conceptualize growth in a number of different ways and could also recognize student poverty demographics and “preparedness” in different ways and it should. Here, DPS just wrongly assumes we would continue the same system we’ve been operating. Further, the report states that “DPS strongly values growth data.” That’s great! But, if this is indeed true, there is no basis to believe DPS could not continue to assess and measure growth without having a mandated state test in place. In fact, dollars currently used for large scale assessments could be provided directly to districts for the very purpose of locally determined measures and analysis.
Claim #6 – “Less external data available to assess student growth for teacher evaluation.”
Besides there being no credible, peer-reviewed evidence that using student testing data to evaluate teachers actually improves instruction and the fact that no high performing system on earth uses this approach, the DPS claim is also flawed. As has been previously discussed, if DPS wishes to have machine scored, large scale assessment data to evaluate its teachers there is no prohibition from them doing just that. The DPS claim seems to infer that without this standardized testing data, our state-wide effort to evaluate teachers using assessment data is in peril – but we already have some 70% of teachers in untested subjects and grades. It is not clear (at least to me) that the presence or absence of summative statewide assessment data does much in helping us solve the significant technical questions related to using testing data to evaluate teachers.
Claim #7 – “…districts would have to take on the additional burden of creating/purchasing products to ensure that schools are meeting student learning expectations (and) the development of local growth measures to assess the performance of schools and teachers.”
As has been previously discussed, dollars currently appropriated for state level accountability assessments could, at some level, be re-purposed to districts for locally determined and more formative measures so its not clear that there would be an additional burden. Further, there are a number of growth measures available for districts to use (student growth percentiles, value-added measures, catch-up/keep-up systems) so it also not clear that a district would need to “develop” these measures.
Again, DPS is following a theory of change for improving their organization built on test-based accountability and school choice. While refraining from a critique of these two approaches to school improvement, I will just say that these are not the only two methods by which a system might build great schools. In fact, the best performing school systems (based on PISA results or equating studies) were not built using these models.
Regardless, it is up to the community of Denver to decide which model is most appropriate for their community and then hold their school leaders accountable for the results.
The larger problem with DPS’s jarring advocacy stance with the HB 1202 committee is that it effectively forces that theory of change on every other school organization in the state – whether we want it, or if there is any evidence to support it, or not.
Of note, in the course of these discussions I have heard no one arguing for the complete abolition of testing and accountability. The better question is how we can have an accountability system that is as efficient and balanced as possible, without over-burdening students and schools with testing. A review the testing approaches in high performing global systems reveals that such a system can be effectively implemented with far fewer tests than we currently use in Colorado.
I encourage further dialogue and discussion on this issue and welcome a response from Grant Guyer (a very nice person, based on my brief interaction with him) or others from DPS. For convenience, I have also posted my presentation materials to the HB 1202 committee for a similar critique, if anyone feels so inclined.
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 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
Today, on Twitter, I asked some critical questions about opinion piece the Honorable Rep. Jared Polis wrote for the Denver Post. You can read the article yourself, but the central claim of Rep. Polis’ argument is that “public school choice is an asset to improve all schools.”
I’ve written before that I’m not an opponent of school choice. However, I do question whether school choice policies have the capacity to actually lead us to system-wide improvement and, if school choice isn’t carefully overseen, that it can lead to a re-segregation of our schools – effectively returning us to an era of “separate but equal.”
I asked Rep. Polis (and a non-profit called “A+ Denver” which claims to “advocate for the changes necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in public education”) some questions about school choice and its ability to really “improve all schools.” I’ll put these questions here, and also provide some answers based on the evidence.
Question 1 – Which high performing global systems have used choice and competition as drivers for greatness? Answer – no education system that leads the world’s performance league tables has used school choice and competition as a driver for greatness.
Question 2 – Does school choice improve all public schools? Answer – there is no peer reviewed, journal quality evidence to support this claim.
Question 3 – Are we overselling school choice as a policy for large scale improvement? Answer – given that no high performing system has used this approach, and we have no quality evidence to support this claim, I’d deduce that we are overselling this policy, if the goal is that all schools improve.
From Rep. Polis, I got the typical imperious silence one should expect from a Member of Congress. “A+ Denver” did respond with another statement/claim, saying “school choice combined with performance management will have an impact on the largest school systems.” To which I again say: evidence, please.
Enter Rich Wenning
Rich Wenning is the current Executive Director at BeFoundation, a nonprofit purportedly working to bring about “sustained and dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students and the vitality of their communities.”
Let me say that I make no personal criticisms of Rich or his organization. While I admit I don’t know a lot about them or the strategies they use, BeFoundation has a wonderful purpose statement and I applaud any group that champions better services for students in poverty. Also, Rich and I both spent some time at the Colorado Department of Education, though our tenures did not overlap. State agencies are incredibly tough place to work, and I commend him for the work he did with the Colorado Growth Model website – although the Growth Model doesn’t take into account the error present in all student assessment data, which is a serious methodological flaw, in my professional opinion.
Rather than address any of the questions I raised, Rich chose to attack my school district, Eagle County Schools using the Colorado Growth Model.
In my experience, I’ve noticed that when someone goes on the attack when a critical question is asked, it is an indication that they recognize that there is some truth or a painful point in the question that they are trying to deflect. But since Rich and I didn’t fully explore this notion (and Twitter certainly has its limitations!), we’ll let that issue go without further examination.
In his attack, Rich also used data from before I was even the Superintendent in Eagle County, but that is another matter as well.
For the sake of discussion, let’s explore Rich’s attack and the point (I think) he was trying to make.
Rich compared Eagle County’s growth results to those of Denver Public Schools. According to the way-cool bubbles on the growth model, DPS’s results generally outperform Eagle County. To this, I’d say “congratulations” to DPS! It’s great they are making progress and it’s additionally great news because they are such a large district.
I think Rich was trying to make the point that DPS’s results were higher because they have school choice. However, there are a great variety of school choice options in Eagle County as well. According to a CDE report on charter schools, about 12% of students in Denver are in charter schools. In Eagle County, about 20% of all students are in either charter or private school options. Since Eagle County and DPS both have school choice options, can we really make the inference that school choice is driving the results? I think Rich is generally a smart guy, based on his successful career and many accomplishments – but this seems like a pretty basic logical error.
Also of note, Chalkbeat Colorado did a great job covering the heartbreaking story of Denver’s Manual High School and how, despite years of “no excuses” and other disconnected/disjointed education reforms, little real improvement had been made.
I wonder, Rich, how can this possibly happen given Denver’s myriad of school choice options? Aren’t all schools supposed to improve as a result of school choice? Shouldn’t choice and competition and the supposed open market for schooling have pressured Manual to get better? Could it be that school choice facilitated “white-flight” that may have actually exacerbated the poverty-based problems Manual continues to struggle with? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping you do, Rich.
Rich, Eagle County is not a perfect school system. But we did have one of our two comprehensive high schools recognized by U.S. News and World report as one of the top 10% in the United States. And our other high school produces Boetcher Scholars and puts a number of kids into top colleges (including Ivy League Schools) every year. We even have a ski and snowboard academy that is a public school and which put four current or former students in the Olympics. But we don’t have a story like that of Manual High School, Rich. Somehow, despite all our shortcomings, we’ve been able to keep that kind of failure from our community and our kids.
Rich, like all schools, we have students who struggle. But we are working very hard, Rich, to build not just a good system – but a great system, a world-class system. We have a great plan, Rich and we are proud of it, we are excited about it, and we are executing it. I’d love to have you read our plan and think about it too, Rich – we’d love to have your feedback in helping us become a great school district!
So, Rich, please do resist the urge to make unfounded claims about school choice being yet another “silver bullet” that will be the cure-all for schools. Such claims are misleading to the public and to families. I know you are a data guy, Rich, and the evidence just doesn’t support that claim. No matter how much you (and others) may say it, believe it, and want it to be true – that just doesn’t make it so.
What is true is that the work of building a great school is really, really hard work and it doesn’t matter if you are a public, charter, or private school. Genuine greatness requires a focus on instruction, it takes being supportive and respectful of great teachers, it takes working hard to customize instruction to fit students, and it takes intensive efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty as early and as aggressively as we possibly can.
Rich, though you might feel defensive, try hard not to take shots at us. The people in our schools are giving it all they’ve got in a genuine effort to be great. We will get tired, so we need people like you cheering us on and supporting us.
So, Rich, we at Eagle County Schools aren’t perfect. But, we are trying really, really hard to be better – because we love our children and we love our community and we want wonderful outcomes for both of them.
This exchange was probably more than you expected! I do appreciate your engaging with me and I look forward to your reactions and thoughts, Rich.
As part of a growing, grassroots effort to take back the agenda on education policy in Colorado, I created some talking points for our community to share with elected officials. The document can be accessed here (Talking Points on Education Policy) and the full text is also presented below. I hope this contributes to the growing movement in our state about the direction of our schools.
Talking Points on Colorado Education Policy for 2014
Today, it is incredibly important that the voices of educators, parents, students, and community supporters of public education are heard in policy deliberations by our legislators and elected officials.
For too long, the education policy agenda in our state has been driven by out-of-state groups, out-of-state money, mandates from Washington D.C., and individuals with little to no practical knowledge of what happens in our schools.
As a result, public schools are under siege with a barrage of disconnected laws and unfunded mandates which have questionable (at best) evidence to support them. In many cases, these policies are distractions and disruptions that are actually detrimental to efforts within schools to improve outcomes for students.
At the same time, Colorado schools have experienced devastating budget cuts. From pre-recession levels, revenues for schools have fallen nearly 20%. At this time, there appears to be no plan or commitment from the statehouse to confront this issue, which has had the practical effect of massive layoffs, larger classes, cutting important services like counseling, the elimination of art, music, and physical education, and pay cuts for school employees.
During the recession, the state gutted education spending as a cost-saving measure to get spending in line with lower state revenue. State officials used a controversial mechanism called the “negative factor” to effectively give, and then take away, money from schools which was supposed to be guaranteed under Amendment 23 to the Colorado state constitution.
Today, the legislature sits on an “education fund” totaling over $1,000,000,000. Bills already introduced this session are aimed at draining this for pet and pork projects, rather than addressing the negative factor.
As a community of people who love our schools and our children, we have a responsibility to stand up. It is immoral to allow this go unchecked.
What Our Elected Officials Need
Our legislators and elected officials need to hear from the people deeply connected and dedicated to our schools that the decisions made in the statehouse have an impact on our community and our children. They need to understand that the only “experts” they need to listen to when it comes to education policy are the people who live in their communities; not those from a policy think-tank or political careerists.
Our elected officials need to understand that the best decisions for kids happen locally, determined by those who know and care most about students; not from a big government and “Washington D.C. style” top-down mandates.
Our elected officials also need to understand that our schools are starved for resources and that the restoration of adequate education funding is the most urgent education policy priority.
Now that the state’s budget has improved, our elected officials need to understand that continuation of the “negative factor” also represents the continuation of a failed promise and broken commitment to the state’s children.
General Pointers for Interactions with Elected Officials
Our legislators, governor, and other elected officials deserve our respect for their service. All of them went through the difficult process of getting elected because they want to do good for their communities and our state.
It is also important that we are respectful in interactions with these individuals. Elected officials are people just like us – and we should always strive to treat them with dignity and kindness.
With that said, it is equally important that we are direct and clear with our elected officials about what our schools need, what educational priorities we need them to be focused on, and that we (as the people) intend to hold them accountable for their decisions and votes. Remember, they work for us.
General Education Policy Priorities
- We will no longer tolerate unfunded mandates being piled on our schools. If there is not a sufficient appropriation to pay for any policy, it must not be passed.
- Top-down, Washington D.C. style, big government policies have no place in our schools. The best decisions for schools are made in communities and closest to the students. We respect our legislators and CDE, but committee rooms and state bureaucracies are far removed from what happens in classrooms.
- We must be suspicious of outside groups, outside money, political careerists, and their ideologically-driven political agendas. The education “experts” that elected officials need to pay the most attention to are the people in their own communities.
- An abundance of quality, peer-reviewed, scientific evidence must back all education policy. Making a mistake with education policy means (over time) hundreds of thousands of educators and millions of children can be negatively affected.
- Public schools are vital to our country’s commitment to equity and the American Dream – where everyone has the chance to succeed. Damage and disruption to public schools is damage and disruption to the American dream.
- Public schools are vital to our economy and are the hearts of our communities. We need our elected officials to work to build schools up and be of support to the people in them.
Specific Education Policy Matters
- Restoration of the negative factor is the most urgent education priority. Our state needs to make good on its promise in Amendment 23 to adequately fund schools.
- A key education policy being considered this session is increased financial reporting to the state in the interests of financial “transparency” for schools. Our schools already publish some 200 pages of budget documentation annually. Further burdening schools with reporting requirements to satisfy curiosity (or to feed the interests of those who seek to destroy public education by twisting data) will not lead us to being a high-performing education system.
- Another key policy being considered is a changing the student “count date” from October 1st to instead count students every day of the school year. Yet, there is absolutely no evidence that this either improves attendance or achievement. In fact, some of the best performing states in the country have single-day counts. This proposal is built on the belief that educators need an “incentive” to serve students after October 1st. This is professionally insulting and wrong-headed.
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