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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

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.

Colorado

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

Context

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.

 

I’ve been working with the Eagle County Schools Board of Education to design an evaluation system for myself (as Superintendent) that is clear, fair, professionally rigorous, and that provides the foundation of many conversations about improvement and growth.

I know others might be looking for resources in their own work in this area.  So, I’m posting the system we designed so that it may inform other similar efforts elsewhere.

A couple of notes.  First, this is intended to be a work in progress.  The Board and I have regularly scheduled opportunities to revise and improve this system through a collaborative approach.  Second, Eagle County Schools and my contract may be a little unique in that the compensation uses a performance-based framework.  So, if you see elements related to performance-bonuses or annual raises based on performance – that’s where it is coming from.  In any case, the standards and rubric should be applicable to any Superintendent.

Please consider this a resource in your own personal and professional growth and feel free to provide me any feedback or comments you may have.

Superintendent Evaluation Rubric Performance Criteria

Ferris Wheel by John Spade

As I’ve worked to get up to speed on education politics in Colorado, which is certainly at the “bleeding edge” of education reform nationally, I’ve become very aware of the presence of cyclical elements that feed off each other and create a sort of symbiosis when it comes to education policy.

Currently, the state is in a classic “vicious cycle,” or a chain of events that feed off each other and spiral into increasingly disastrous results.  As a very simplified model, I think the current vicious cycle looks something like this (click to see a larger image):

vicious

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of international benchmarking, or studying the best performing systems for patterns and connected strategies and then considering how those might be adapted to one’s current context, as a way of looking for systemic solutions and ideas for how we might build a great education system.   This thinking certainly forms the basis of our work in Eagle County Schools at becoming a genuinely great education system, as I’ve outlined in our Unparalleled Altitude report.

From my observations, it appears that the high performing systems are in quite a different cycle than the one we are in.  As opposed to our “vicious cycle,” spiraling ever downward, high performing systems are in a “virtuous cycle,” where a chain of events feeds off each other in creating ever higher levels of support, respect, and performance.

Again, an over-simplified model might look something like this (click to see a larger image):

Virtue

One key question to consider is “How do we get from here to there?”  How does one reverse the seemingly never-ending current in a vicious cycle and turn things around?  Part of that answer, I think, lies in a courageous leader being willing to stand up and go against the conventional wisdom of blame, shame, gloom, and (ultimately) doom associated with the vicious cycle.  But one courageous leader isn’t enough.  We are basically trying to change the direction of a vicious system that has a great deal of momentum and one part of that moving in the opposite direction is both dangerous to the opposing element and unlikely to reverse the course of the entire cycle.  For the cycle to reverse direction, what is needed is for multiple elements to change direction at once.

This might not necessarily need to be in a coordinated or unified manner.  One might imagine elements of the larger system taking cue from the courageous leader and reversing direction as well.

My thinking on this is still evolving.  However, in my studies of high performing education systems, I see virtuous cycles working in all of them.   From this, I infer the following: If we are to become a high performing education system … then we are going to have to create a virtuous cycle when it comes to education policy.

New York Mountain in Eagle County, CO

New York Mountain in Eagle County, CO

I spent the past 100 (or so) days in Eagle County building a possible new direction for the organization.  This new direction was forged from countless interviews with education professionals and community members in Eagle County as well as from my own personal and professional journey in learning how to build a great education system.

I post it here for your review and consideration and welcome any thoughtful discussion it might bring about.  The full document can be accessed here and it can also be downloaded as a pdf from the same site:

http://issuu.com/eagleschools/docs/altitudereport3

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