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):


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):


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:



Photo courtesy of US Presswire

Let me first say that I generally abhor sports analogies.  Using them only creates a connection with people who either participated in (or have an appreciation for) sports while making you look like a simpleton with everyone else.  With that said…

I love watching Peyton Manning play football.

He has a command of the game that just sets him on another level from everyone else on the field.  A powerful combination of talent, experience, careful preparation, and being surrounded by a great team make Manning and the Broncos an opponent to be feared on any given Sunday.

One of the things I enjoy most about watching Manning play is his ability to adapt his play (and the play of those around him) based on changing circumstances and conditions.  One play might be called in the huddle, but on the line of scrimmage Manning reads the defense for early warning signs of where the opponents intend to attack.  He calmly and efficiently adjusts formations, blocking schemes, pass routes, or changes the play altogether depending on the circumstances.

More than once I’ve seen Manning step under center, then see that strong safety creep up toward the line of scrimmage with eyes intently focused on the gap he intends to blitz.  This safety intends to do Manning bodily harm, but the savvy quarterback steps back, adjusts, and then reengages with an adapted plan.

As if anyone needed any evidence that I am a confirmed “edu-geek,” read this next statement closely…

I think the way Peyton Manning plays football can teach us a lot about great instruction.

Great teaching is built on a combination of talent, experience, preparation, and surrounding one’s self with a great team.  It also results from going in with an engaging plan that has been carefully tailored to student needs, but also from being able and willing to adjust on the fly in the face of changing circumstances and situations.

The effective educator reads the situation from available formative information and a qualitative understanding of the students.  When the carefully laid plan isn’t working for some students, the effective educator quickly adapts and, at the very first warning signs, changes the approach and tactics to find a way to reach each student.  The effective educator also calls on and directs the talented team of supporting educators to make sure every student is provided an instructional approach that works for them.

I visit schools and classrooms in my district (Eagle County Schools) regularly.  In every school, I look for “data walls,” where the educators are mapping out the early warning signs of struggling students.  I speak individually with teachers and principals, asking the question 101 ways, “How are we adapting instruction and interventions to meet every student?”

In our district, we are working to build schools full of instructional Peyton Mannings – who bring talent, experience, preparation, teamwork – and then put it together with an adaptive instructional approach that shifts tactics and interventions to meet where every student needs us to be.  We need to build a system that makes these adaptations with incredibly high reliability – where no student falls through the cracks and isn’t provided customized instruction.

For the blue and orange faithful of “Bronco Nation,” not reaching the Super Bowl (especially with this talented team) would be a catastrophe.

For us, the educators, the stakes associated with failure are supremely higher.

Photo courtesy of Drake Goodman via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Drake Goodman via Flickr.

I’ve become a great student of “high reliability systems” over the past couple of years.  That is, systems that are designed to minimize the probability of failure to the absolute lowest possible level and that feature repeatable procedures so that success can be replicated.  The commercial airline system is a great example of a high reliability system.  In spite of incredible complexity, large volume of traffic, fallible flying machines, and the ever present specter of human error – commercial flights are, statistically, an incredibly safe way to travel.

In the wake of the terrible recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, where remarkably most passengers survived, I’ve observed another aspect of this high reliability system at work.  Whenever a crash or an “incident” occurs, the FAA and the NTSB step in and do a detailed analysis of the accident to determine the cause or error, publish those results, and consider what changes to the entire system might be implemented to prevent such instances from occurring in the future.

Recently, my leadership team with Eagle County Schools conducted a similar exercise, considering both recent and historical organizational failures. Also considered were the possible causes of these organizational “crashes.”  In many cases, the causes were multiple, fed and built off each other, or cascaded when early warning signs weren’t noticed or were ignored.

Going forward, we will work to develop some organizational and behavioral protocols for our leadership team to prevent such occurrences in the future.  The following are an early list of where we are headed:

  • Make complex decisions in teams.
  • Always consult available empirical data before making a key decision.
  • Consider micro and macro political considerations to actions.  What coalitions will form in favor, and against, what we are trying to do?
  • Understand adaptive versus technical change and treat them accordingly (see Heifetz & Linsky).
  • The way actions look and are perceived matters.
  • In adversarial situations, act with productive paranoia (see Collins and Hansen).

This was a valuable frame to consider our organization through.  We easily could have spent hours vetting recent and historical “crashes,” determining possible causes, and prescribing organizational solutions.  I’d encourage giving it a try in your school, district, or organization.  Let me know how things turn out!

Old School vs New School

I recently was asked to present some ideas to a group of aspiring educators on what the teaching profession held in store as they embarked on their professional lives.  Since that talk, the topic has continued to germinate new thinking for me.  What would the teaching profession look like over the next 30 years and what changes should we expect? Presented below are some juxtapositions and generalizations on that question – drawn in part from thinking about the Center for Teaching Quality’s (CTQ) excellent work, Teaching 2030.  Many of these are, of course, already underway to a degree. However, in looking ahead I imagine these “new school” trends will be the norm, and not the exception.  I look forward to your responses and reactions.

Teaching is telling versus learning is doing.  There is indeed a revolution underway in how teaching and learning intersect.  Past and present it was acceptable to “stand and deliver” and covering content meant that the teacher said it.  On the other side of the looking glass, it won’t be considered “taught” unless the learner experiences, understands, and can apply the knowledge.

Teaching is the new law.  When we compare teaching to professions like medicine and law, stark differences emerge in terms of selectivity, expectations for preparation, degrees of professional autonomy, and levels of compensation.  Over the next 30 years, I expect all of these factors to change course.  It will be more difficult to get into and out of teacher education programs and competitiveness for initial teaching jobs will increase.  Starting pay levels will rise as we work to attract top talent into the field and professional autonomy will grow as we leave a form of education where fact/recall preparation sufficed.

“Teacherpreneurs.”  A term coined by the folks at CTQ, this idea posits that teachers of the future will have a great diversity of career options, or pathways, available to them.  Teachers, using their individual talents infused with the spirit of entrepreneurship, will reject the limited career options currently available and will instead develop individualized and specialized roles including mentoring, student supports, leadership, curriculum design, and policy.

Personalization will rule.  Like practically everything else about our world, students and parents will demand an education specifically tailored to individual needs, interests, and talents.  Students will exercise greater autonomy over curriculum pace and content as well greater autonomy in the manner by which knowledge is gained.  In exchange for this autonomy, evidence of competence or mastery will be expected of students and the educators will coordinate and facilitate this personalized learning experience.

The new labor/management paradigm.  We already see this shift occurring in the world’s highest performing school systems.  Unions evolve to function more as professional guilds, meaning they are standard-bearers in insuring quality of the profession and take on an advocacy role less related to worker rights and pay and more related to the institution of public education.  Management approaches will also be different and on a large scale.  Top-down and autocratic management approaches will be viewed the same way workplace smoking and harassment once were.  Instead, the norm will be inclusive and distributed leadership and the role of the people with formal leadership titles will be focused on getting the conditions right where their education professionals can do their best work.

Accountability and diminishing returns.  We will see that ever increasing attempts to raise performance through accountability-based mechanisms result in small to no improvements in results.  Instead, the focus on accountability will be replaced with a focus on collaborative inquiry.  Genius and high performance takes root in the team setting and our thinking and innovations will increasingly center on ways to structure and enhance team-based sharing and learning and translating that into actions.

Many pathways into the profession – all of high quality.  The current landscape of traditional versus alternative preparation pathways are both soon-to-be dinosaurs.  Blended models and shared ideas will emerge between universities, non-profits, and education employers to create a variety of on-ramps into education.  Each of these on-ramps will be very selective, emphasize strength in content, pedagogy (especially the ability to personalize learning), and clinical (or field-based) experience.

Sharing expertise is the solution.  Identifying high quality educators and replicating those skills will become the norm.  Isolated professional work in education will be considered heresy and models of co-teaching, continuous mentoring throughout one’s career, and meaningful involvement with professional learning communities will all be professional expectations.  Learning environments will be transparent, where multiple educators will move through and within them for the purposes of sharing, critiquing, supporting, and learning.

*Thanks to the Iowa State University Education Association for the beginning ideas in this post and for reacting to my original presentation.

Earlier this month, I had the tremendous experience of being part of the Summit for Innovative Education, hosted by McREL.  The event featured two dueling keynote speakers (Stanford’s Eric Hanushek and Oregon’s Yong Zhao), who offered dramatically different visions of what American education should be.  While the contrast in messages and suggested strategies from Hanushek and Zhao is worthy of significant discussion on its own, what struck me most was the tension between the concepts of reliability and innovation in building better school systems.

McREL’s own “Network for Innovative Education” seems to be the embodiment of this tension.  Much of the work of the group focuses on the thinking around  High Reliability Organizations, or systems that are designed to mitigate the possibility of failure to smaller and smaller probabilities through the use of clear procedures and intentional adaptations to changing circumstances.

At a surface review, the core concepts in the high reliability frame are somewhat antithetical to innovation.  The goal with a high reliability approach is to make sure that something works with high quality and low variability. When rigidly applied, there is little room in this high reliability frame for leaps of faith toward untested notions based on possible theories of action.

Innovation, on the other hand, requires such leaps of faith and a willing embrace of failure as an option.  For innovations to take off, organizations and the people in them take risks with no guarantee that things will work as anticipated or work at all.  Innovation calls on us to cast aside convention and the safety of reliability in exchange for the possibility of a breakthrough that can possibly change everything.

Frequently, we talk about “innovation” as the cure-all for our problems in education.  But what does that really mean and how would we go about it? Not all innovative ideas are good ideas and I would argue that it is educationally irresponsible to abandon evidence-based practices in favor of an untested “innovation” when the future of our children is the price of the wager.

As a comparison, do we really want “innovative” surgical procedures when we go under the knife?  How about stepping on an “innovative” aircraft piloted using “unconventional” techniques?  As the costs of failure grow, the choice of an innovative route must be made prudently and thoughtfully with a risk/reward mindset.

But, we also know innovation is so crucially important for continued system growth.   The spirit of innovation fuels our passion and curiosity.  Highly reliable or not, what a joyless existence it would be to spend a lifetime pulling the same handle on the assembly line.  Either in search of a better way or tapping into a very real human need for creativity, innovation is important.

So the answer must be in some kind of balance between these two important concepts of reliability and innovation.  Particularly when the stakes are high, we need established procedures and protocols so that we deliver high quality instruction with low variability and the probability of our system failing students is as low as we can possibly get it.  At the same time, we must intentionally foster  innovation.  We do this by supporting with resources, creating controlled environments where iteration and failure are tolerated so learning occurs, and by protecting the innovation from what can be the crushing and stifling weight of convention.  We also need processes where the new learning is incorporated into the standard operating procedures so that a cycle of learning and improvement takes shape within the context of a high reliability system.

Then there is also the special case of the disruptive innovation – the one that comes out of seemingly nowhere that people ignore, dismiss, or are just too busy running in the gerbil treadmill that they don’t even see it coming at all.  The disruptive innovation is going to take things over all on its own, creating a new paradigm and way of doing things.   On the other side of the disruptive innovation, high reliability concepts will again emerge to put in place standard procedures and protocols to make the new paradigm more stable and deliver with even higher quality and low variability.

So when it comes to the notions of reliability and innovation, it is so important that we not see these concepts as either/or but instead as a balanced set – where both are necessary in an ever progressing evolution toward a better education system.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Bogeyman Is Coming (Los Caprichos, no. 3), 1799

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Bogeyman Is Coming (Los Caprichos, no. 3), 1799

In the midst of the tragic and horrific murders that occurred in Newtown, I am overwhelmed by two very distinct feelings.

The first, and thankfully the more powerful, is a feeling of awe at the overflowing human courage, kindness and decency that was clearly present in those terrible and unimaginable moments during the shooting.  I am also in awe at the outpouring those same qualities in the aftermath of this tragedy. There is nothing any of us can do that will heal the wound or make right the terrible wrong done to Newtown, its families, and its children.  But we can let them know that our tears fall and our hearts break with theirs – and they are not alone in their grief.

The other feeling I am overwhelmed with is one of disgust.  I am absolutely disgusted at the political opportunism displayed by individuals and groups from practically every dark corner of the ideological spectrum.  The formula is really quite simple:  Take whatever ideologically-based view the opportunist held before the shooting and then use the tragedy as an accelerant to justify government imposed policies that further that ideological view.

Gun control and gun-ownership advocates were the first raft of these to land with calls to remove the second amendment on one hand versus efforts to turn teachers into pistol-toting guards on the other.  While both over-reactions, to the credit of these arguments there is at least some logical connection to issues of school safety and how they might be addressed.

In other cases, the opportunism just goes off the deep end.

I’ve read from anti-public school advocates that the shooting is further proof of the failure of the American education system and its educators.  The clear answer, for them, is a further deconstruction and dismantling of our system of public schools.  I’ve also seen anti-testing and accountability advocates try and make the case that assessments and efforts at improving educator effectiveness are culpable.  Somehow, bubble sheets and evaluations led this murderer into Sandy Hook Elementary.   And then there are the arguments that a vengeful God wrought this destruction on six and seven year-olds and their teachers because of some lack of absolutist moral purity in our society. Where do we even begin with that one?

The only positive outcome of the Newtown tragedy from a public policy standpoint would be for schools to be safer places in the future.  Our only hope of making our schools safer is through a reasoned and rational discourse followed by decisions that are in the best interests of our school children and the education professionals who serve them.

In the days to come, beware the opportunists and their bogeymen.


Last year, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen published the fantastic book Great by Choice, which looked at companies that not only persevered, but actually thrived in eras of uncertainty, chaos, and competition.

There are certainly lots of great lessons in the book (as there always are in a Collins work) but one component Collins and Hansen found among the organizations they studied was the development of what they called a “SMaC” list.  “SMaC” is an acronym that stands for “Specific, Methodical, and Consistent” and its purpose is to help guide decisions back toward a core set of operational principles.

Collins and Hansen go to lengths to explain that a “SMaC” list isn’t a value or mission statement, nor some amorphous set of ideals – rather, its intent is to be very action oriented and to help guide those in an organization to make good decisions … and also to avoid bad ones.

Over the last three months we’ve been heavy into the work of redesigning and refocusing the Iowa Department of Education and I’m so proud of the effort and tremendous progress of my colleagues at the DE.  The ideas that have been driving us come from a variety of sources including Richard Elmore’s Instructional Core, Marc Tucker and McKinsey & Company’s work on international educational benchmarking, McREL’s work on “High Reliability Organizations,” … and of course Great by Choice.

Part of this effort was the development of a “SMaC” list for the DE.  My time at the helm of the DE is coming up on two years very soon.  When I reflect on where we’ve been successful and where things haven’t gone as we’d hoped, I can usually point back to one of these “SMaC” principles and there is a lesson we learned … sometimes the hard way.

Presented below is the “SMaC” list for the Iowa Department of Education.  I share it with you in hopes it may be of some value for similar efforts aimed at improvement within your own organizations.

SMaC Principles for the Iowa Department of Education

The following SMaC principles were designed for the Iowa Department of Education based on our ongoing Open Leadership forums.

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Use state statute as a guidepost.
  3. Be able and willing to follow through or don’t start.
  4. Make small, manageable changes focused on the goal – then multiply with time.
  5. Develop and stick to a do-able project plan.
  6. Anticipate how it will impact the field.
  7. Use an informed team to make tough and complicated decisions.
  8. Always treat people with respect and dignity – whether they deserve it or not.
  9. Attend to proofing, branding, and style.
  10. Think politically – know which coalitions will stand with (and against) you.

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.

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