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Move off the dime or get pushed

Posted by Oct 6th, 2010.

Editor’s note: Amy Slothower is executive director of Get Smart Schools, a charter school development and management non-profit.

I’ve been working in education reform for 10 years now, and I’ve come to accept that this business is full of frustrations and battles over divergent interests and an achingly slow pace of change.  However, the A-Plus Denver committee meeting I attended this morning has me so aggravated that I am moved to do something I’ve never done before: blog about it!

A-Plus Denver is a group of concerned citizens working to push Denver Public Schools to pursue school reform that benefits all students.  The topic of this morning’s meeting was the Educator Performance Assessment System that is being collaboratively developed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and DPS.

Basically, they are trying to come up with a system of evaluating teachers that everyone will sign-off on.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded this project and apparently work has been underway for at least 10 months now.  I say apparently because there is little evidence that any progress at all has been made during that time.

And, as A-Plus committee member Bennie Milliner, a former DPS board member who now works for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, pointed out, this work has actually been under way in one form or another for more than 12 years with no measurable results.

Add to that Pro Comp, which passed five years ago and is costing Denver taxpayers $25 million, also with no clear impact, and the new CDE Colorado Educator Effectiveness Project, which is going to cost $1 million, and its hard to even fathom the energy and money that has gone into circling around and around this critical issue.

The presenter this morning was Henry Roman, president of the DCTA.  He was asked to speak about the progress that the joint DCTA/DPS committee has made to date, but instead he essentially talked for the full 90 minutes about all the “challenges” of creating an effective teacher evaluation system.  I’m sure a lot of those challenges are real, and I personally have no expertise in teacher evaluations, so my exasperation is not about the details of the work that is or is not happening.

I am annoyed with the attitude!  I was reminded of a favorite African proverb: “A leopard is chasing us, and you are asking me, is it a male or a female?”

The bureaucratic headwinds that are bogging down this particular process are just one example of why I am such an ardent believer in autonomous schools.  While 900 Grant Street is spending years upon years and millions upon millions of dollars trying to decide on minutiae like, “do classroom assignments have to be randomized for evaluations to be legitimate?” autonomous schools are actually getting the work done.

Granted, some are having much better success than others, but at least they are trying.  They are using multiple measures for teacher evaluations, they are giving teachers more meaningful ratings than “satisfactory or unsatisfactory,” and they provide teachers with regular feedback from multiple sources – all of the things that the DCTA/DPS committee says it wants to achieve.  Perhaps even more importantly, they are actually using this information to decide who gets to keep their job.

When I posed the question this morning, “has anyone on the Educator Performance Assessment System committee looked at what is happening around teacher evaluation at, say, West Denver Prep,” the answer I got was yet another list of “challenges” in comparing what a highly effectively school like WDP is doing to what happens in traditional schools.  Well, isn’t that the point?  Wouldn’t we like to take some of the lessons learned in great schools and apply them in the rest of our schools? Apparently, that is just too “challenging!”

I would rather see 100 creative new approaches to teacher evaluation being tested, even if some of them fail, than sit through one more meeting listening to what cannot be done.  I have the privilege of working day-in and day-out with talented, passionate educational entrepreneurs who are starting new autonomous schools.  These are people who dream big and who act boldly.  And yes, they sometimes fail.

I have had some epic failures in my own efforts to start new schools including the far-from-successful Denver Venture School.  But at least I, and others like me, take action.  We understand that doing nothing is a guarantee that nothing will change.

I predict that if the DCTA and DPS don’t start to act more nimbly and don’t understand the urgency that the community feels about the sorry state of our public schools, two things will happen.  First, autonomous schools will continue to gain momentum and the most talented teachers and leaders will flock to these environments where they have the freedom to take whatever aggressive action is needed to meet the needs of their students.

And second, the state will create more and more mandates like SB10-191 that will dictate how things get done rather than allowing local districts to languish for years mired in academic debates about how to move forward.  Either way, the union and the district will have lost out on the chance to set their own direction.

And at least I won’t have to sit through any more meetings like the one this morning.

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6 Responses to “Move off the dime or get pushed”

  1. jj says:

    I am gratified you support the notion of autonomy. As a DPS teacher, I welcome it.

    However, you make this assertion: “..the sorry state of our public schools…” I’m sure many people feel this is a reality. If you believe that, I challenge you to provide evidence as well as the standards by which you measure success or failure. I’m not saying you are wrong but that is such a general statement of affairs it is difficult for those of us in the field to know what to do with that sentiment. Therein, lay many of the real issues: there is no substantive consensus on what is actually going on in schools, what it means, and what to do about it, if anything.

    And, as much as I would like to also blame DPS management and the DCTA, they are really only responding to pressures of the political/media environment over which they have only so much control. Want to feel less exasperated? Use your energy and talents to get politics out of education–it is fine to have oversight and regulation but please, help stop making children the political pawns of special interests and political windbags.

  2. Donnell says:


    The “evidence” is in the 70,000 students who are currently enrolled in Colorado charter schools and the tens of thousands more on wait lists (1.6 million are in charter schools nationally). The only “measurement” that matters to me is this one, demonstrating what parents are choosing. I am a mom, not an educator. And while I have no doubt you are an exceptional educator, you do NOT know my children. If I am not satisfied (for whatever reason) with my traditional public school, then what more “evidence” do you require?

    You ask a question that Amy answered….”there is no substantive consensus on what is actually going on in schools, what it means, and what to do about it, if anything.” Amy made the point beautifully…WDP is very successful so why can’t the traditional system take a look and see what is working there. Further I would add, talk to the parents of students at WDP (and beyond). Find out why those parents are there, why are they not satisfied with the traditional system, and what would it take to bring them back. Enough from the “experts”! Let’s ask the REAL experts…the parents!

    • jj says:

      Sorry, but that is not evidence of poor schools or teaching. It’s hard to know if the charter movement produces better educated children (and later, adults) or if it produces parents who have bought into a manufactured crisis, hyped by politicians and media outlets. I likely do not “know” your children but you know what? I am supposed to. It’s part of my job: teach the child, not the curriculum. No?

      I would rather not base any more reforms on the behavior of the herd. We’ve had decades of parents being hoodwinked by one supposed crisis after another in education and every time, the educational system actually did respond. And so did politicians, consultants, parent groups and even educators themselves–there have always been plenty of chefs in the kitchen to save or reform or change schools. If you believe history, we’ve had about one hundred years of essentially, well, failure. The success rate of modern charters is little different from other attempts to reform education–a mixed bag.

      And speaking of history, it’s funny how every single, blessed generation of parents thinks they had it better when they were in school; that the best days are behind us; the golden age is a relic of a simpler time. But you know what? It was simpler back thenwheneverthatwas. Schools are responsible for more things now because society has changed and we have come to expect more from all social institutions. If you give me a vision of what a great society (ahem) looks like to you then, you can begin to work on education reform. If you don’t have real goals and just vague wishes, and if you live in a competitive, diverse, stratified, political culture where even news and personal identity is commodified, the changes of any kind of “reform” are nil.

      WDP is a nice success story. But you still run into a research buzz saw when you try to tease out how much influence a motivated parent is on a child and how much is produced in a study of simply pulling random children out of their regular schools and placing them in a school with motivated staff and relatively high political and media profiles. Is it really the school? Is it really a motivated parent to whom the child is responding with improved performance? It is very easy to generate a hoped-for conclusion in social science research. And even randomized tests can succumb to errors of interpretation or lack of data statistically related to the research hypotheses.

      Is there really a crisis in education? For my money, the current “crisis” has its roots in the 1983 Governor’s Report, at first ignored because it did not contain Reagan’s own prescriptions, it later became a convenient tool for reelection–blame the economic decline and various social woes on liberals and mushy-headed intellectuals who were responsible for teaching children. Worked like a charm. Still is. But now, even liberals believe schools are failing. Are there some really bad schools? Sure. Should we live in utopia where every child is above average? You betcha.

      Perhaps the crisis, such as it is, comes from asking poor questions and assuming there are easy answers: a crisis of perception.

  3. Ben says:

    Hear, hear, Amy! I applaud your efforts to take well-informed reform action and to support other entrepreneurial-minded people & groups doing the same sort of thing. For me, the tremendous challenge that needs to be faced is taking head on the burgeoning district and union bureaucratic beasts that — through no individual fault — slow and stymie such obvious steps toward needed change.

    Donnell produces one very key piece of evidence to highlight the problems plaguing the current system: thousands of students and parents voting with their feet. Thank goodness for the public school choice we do have that has created some pressure for change, but clearly not enough.

    jj suggests we use our “energy and talents to get politics out of education.” I know a sure way to do it. Roll back the top-down regulations and trade them for true consumer-based empowerment and accountability. Give students the full share of weighted funding and enable them to choose any education option (public or private) — given some basic safety requirements — that suits them best.

    Are vouchers the magic bullet? Of course not. But they would drastically rearrange the political & power equation so that entrepreneurs and innovators could expand the availability of high-quality options (public or private) much more rapidly than we see now. Perhaps it’s time for some drastic transformation?

    In lieu of vouchers, what might some other profitable deregulation strategies be? I recommend a great new essay by Rick Hess to prompt some thinking:

    In the end, we have to ask ourselves who public education is supposed to serve primarily: the student? the parent? the teacher? the bureaucrat? the elected official? Whom we grant the power to in the system tells us a lot about existing priorities.

  4. Mark Sass says:

    I am not ready to embrace a system that guarantees winners AND losers like our market economic system. While I realize we have work to do in education, I am not ready to throw in the towel on the goal of educating ALL of our children.

    Donnell: As for evidence of the failure of our current system as based on the number of students in charter schools, this is a failure of logic. Choice does not equate to quality–you can choose a lousy school just as easily as choosing a “good” school. Choice is not always motivated by a lack of quality, it can just as easily be based on a whim.

    If you are not pleased with the education of your children you do have options: private school if you can afford it, home schooling if you have the ability to do it, and working through the current public school system by chosing charter schools or working through the democratic process of voting for board members, both at the local and state level, who make decisions about education.

    Parents do need to be involved in education reform. However, I do not agree that they/we are the experts any more than an educator is an expert on your specific child . Should our education system be set up to handle any and every idiosyncratic notion expressed by parents?

  5. Kevin Crosby says:

    “Wouldn’t we like to take some of the lessons learned in great schools and apply them in the rest of our schools? Apparently, that is just too “challenging!” – Amy Slothower

    This is a good point, and there are reasons it is not just “challenging” but sometimes impossible. “Regular” public schools are subject to legislation from which charter and private schools are often exempt. They are also often exempt from union bargaining agreements.

    Autonomy means a bit more freedom from bureaucracy and freedom from laws and rules that apply to that bureaucracy. Autonomy also means inequity, but inequity already exists even within bureaucracies.

    We must continue to pursue the ideal of equal educational opportunity, but “opportunity” is the key word here. I don’t believe autonomy necessarily means lack of opportunity, but there is a risk that our least advantaged students will continue to lack opportunities if there are not systems to help them navigate a fractured system when a parent/guardian cannot or will not do it for them (disadvantaged in my book is more about the quality or capability of parenting than SES).

    Consider this, though: Many federal and state laws have been passed to try to force local districts to improve, yet at the same time people are recognizing that some of those laws have become burdens with a variety of (unintended?) consequences. Now, people want autonomy from the bureaucracies that have to comply with those laws.

    And who made those laws? The left, the right, and in between. People call for more charters or even vouchers, but who is arguing that “the rest of our schools” – our “regular” public schools – need more autonomy? When it comes to charters the idea is to give them the freedom to improve, but when it comes to “regular” public schools the conventional wisdom is to try to force them to improve via legislative mandate.

    But that doesn’t often work, as history has shown. What public school administrator doesn’t dream about what they could do with their schools if they weren’t swamped just trying to comply with a flood of mandates coming from governments on the one hand and limitations from unions on the other? What public school administrator doesn’t feel trapped between a rock and a hard place? Principals don’t run schools; they don’t have the luxury or the liberty.

    Ironically, Amy and A-Plus Denver are experiencing similar frustrations.

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