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Are the education reform fault lines shifting?

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

I enjoy reading the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess on education issues, not mainly because we tend to agree more often than not. Rather, I appreciate his challenging insights that so often lie outside conventional wisdom and/or ahead of the curve. One of his latest blog pieces — “Common Core: Giving Happy Lie to the ‘Reform Consensus” — caused me both to smile and puzzle.

What prompted his assessment is none other than the new anti-Common Core/national curriculum “Closing the Door on Innovation” manifesto (which I have signed). The issue had been simmering for awhile on the Right, with occasional debates between Jay Greene’s posse and the Fordham Foundation crew, but this month has come bursting to the surface.

While his main focus is on the consequences for the Common Core standards, Hess also points out some potentially gaping disagreements among the broader bipartisan education reform community over public-sector collective bargaining, the federal government’s role in education generally, and (to a lesser extent) school vouchers. Personally, I’m glad to see the “conservative” voices on many of these issues emerge stronger after the NCLB consensus. Hess writes:

Conservative pushback is giving lie to the vacuous notion that left-leaning and right-leaning reformers are interchangeable when it comes to education.

I happen to think that such clarity can be healthy, but I’m also in search of further clarity.

Hess captures well the fallout inside the Beltway, where budgets and bureaucracies are huge and politics is bloodsport. The closer to D.C. the more truth his statement that “reform-minded progressives often honestly just don’t get small-government conservatism” holds, and it reflects on both Democrats and Republicans. But what about politics in Colorado, a state big enough to matter on the national stage but small enough to feel sometimes like a (extended) family reunion?

I think of the local education reform community in much the same way. It includes members of both parties (or neither party) with some differences in philosophy, experience and allegiance but a leading shared goal to improve student learning. I’m glad to know very few people who insist on near-complete ideological alignment before working together on issues on which we agree. Recognizing the many and varied points of cooperation can only help to expand influence without the need to compromise important principles. The more my understanding has matured and certain relationships have grown, the easier I find it at times to disagree forcefully yet respectfully.

I’m curious, though, especially about what some of my Colorado Democratic education reform friends think of Hess’s argument, when he notes a couple examples of odd bedfellows and states:

This reflects not so much the “splintering” of a reform consensus as the reality that these debates are more complicated than The New York Times or Education Week have often suggested.

Typically, journalists (as the nature of the business goes) portray education reform debates as bilateral. But as a product of such outlets as this blog — which welcomes someone of my persuasion to contribute alongside a variety of progressives and pragmatists — there seems to be a more widely shared appreciation in Colorado that that’s not the case. Maybe you disagree with me on Common Core or vouchers, but you also can work with me on performance pay and charter schools. I’ll just try to keep persuading you along the way.

Or maybe the education reform fault lines truly have started to shift already, and we just haven’t felt it yet.

Popularity: 20% [?]

Tough budget decisions demand context

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

I admit that math was never my favorite class in school, though I did well enough on various tests. But the recent reporting around budget cuts in Denver Public Schools positively has me scratching my head. Sunday’s Denver Post featured an article about a Greenwood Elementary teacher whose class size allegedly is expected to jump from 20 to 28 as a result of current budget cuts:

[Teacher AJ] Staniszewski says he doesn’t mind a larger class, so long as his support systems, such as paraprofessionals, intervention teachers and the technology that helps keep children focused, aren’t cut.

Greenwood principal Devin Dillon is not planning to cut those support systems but plans to cut classroom supplies, field trips and two teachers.

I get that cuts are being made… but a 40 percent increase in class size? This morning an email message went out from Superintendent Tom Boasberg explaining that of the $35 million in anticipated budget cuts facing DPS:

  • $15 million will be realized in savings from the 2008 pension refinance; and
  • $10 million will be cut from the central office;
  • leaving (by my lights) about $10 million in school-level cuts.

The current year DPS budget shows a total of $886 million in operational expenses, including almost exactly half given directly to district schools. Combining charter and contract schools, along with school support, brings the total to 94 percent ($837 million). Ten million represents a roughly 1.25 percent cut against projected 2.2 percent enrollment (nearly 1,700 more students), about $350 less per pupil.

How does this all add up to class size growth of 40 percent (along with fewer field trips and requiring parents to buy copy paper)? The answer is it doesn’t come close, at least not on a district-wide scale. What’s happening in one Greenwood classroom then appears to be an extreme outlier (a less plausible explanation would be evidence of widespread misappropriation of funds). In another Sunday story, the Post‘s Kevin Simpson gives us a clue:

Denver Public Schools will trim administration, transportation and support services and use that and other savings to fend off cuts to individual schools. Most buildings will have a budget almost equal to last year’s, with slight variations based on enrollment.

Still, schools that project lower enrollment are bracing for reductions….

Is Greenwood defying the district’s trend of anticipated enrollment growth? Are the school’s demographics expected to change in a way that would additionally reduce funds to be received through student-based budgeting? How many classes at Greenwood are expected to get smaller next year? What impact do negotiated employee compensation schedules and formulas have on the projections? What does research have to say about the strategy of smaller class sizes as a factor in improving student learning (ranks 40th out of 46 options in effectiveness)?

Tough decisions are being made, but they cry out for context. And Stretching the School Dollar rather than scratching our heads.

Popularity: 18% [?]

Hyperbolic rhetoric distorts Wisconsin facts

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

Plenty of pixels have been expended in the past five days to report and discuss the momentous happenings in Madison, Wisc. Whoever thought the Badger State would receive even more national spotlight so soon after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers secured Super Bowl champion prestige? But it’s worth all the coverage. The significance of unfolding events in Wisconsin’s capital is hard to overestimate.

Start with the fact that Wisconsin was the first state to grant government workers collective bargaining rights (in 1959). Just over half a century later, and the unsustainable trend unleashed is about to get seriously reined in. Ignored was the wisdom of reliably pro-labor Democratic Party icon Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his presidency FDR strenuously resisted the notion of public-sector unionism, famously asserting:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service….The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.

Government worker unions are a different breed than their private-sector counterparts. Commenting on the affair, Time Magazine editor and liberal stalwart Joe Klein ably catches the vital distinction:

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public?

The events unfolding in Wisconsin are highly relevant to these pages because teachers unions are among the largest and strongest labor organizations in America. The degree of unions’ political influence can be exaggerated (slightly), but their collective ability to block unwanted policy changes is almost unrivaled.

If you don’t believe me, what other group could get an entire party caucus to flee their legislative duties and hide across state lines in order to forestall a vote that would weaken its legally-protected privileges? As for the unions themselves, they aren’t winning political sympathies from staging sick-outs (“by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience”) or getting fake doctors’ notes to cover for them.

But so it goes in Wisconsin. What is it about Senate Bill 11′s attempt to fix a looming $3.6 billion budget hole that drives the protests and the political posturing of opponents? It didn’t take long for Democratic legislators in exile to offer capitulation on the modest and eminently reasonable proposals to increase government workers’ retirement and health insurance contributions.

What else is at stake? A lot of hyperbolic rhetoric has flown around, including some National Education Association talking points that have floated into many Colorado teachers’ email inboxes (e.g., the claim that “educators will have no say in school quality issues,” an irresponsible and self-serving distortion of reality). Amid all the confusion, the other key points of the budget-repair legislation are not precisely understood:

  1. Limiting the scope of collective bargaining to worker salaries, with total negotiated increases above the inflation rate subject to local voter referendum, which would enhance public accountability to one of the largest drivers of government cost and neutralizing the power of arbitrators to reward unions for lavish proposals;
  2. Requiring an annual affirmative opt-in to continue a union’s status as exclusive bargaining representative through a simple majority vote of affected workers, which simply would ensure greater accountability in unions’ claims that they operate democratically; and
  3. Prohibiting government agencies from collecting union dues through member payroll deductions, which would end the cycle of using government resources to raise funds that are used to reward political candidates and perpetuate union power.

Since last week I’ve already been asked more than once: Could or should something like Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 11 be done in Colorado? First of all, apart from the lack of symbolism here, a smaller and less militant government union sector would make such a legislative dispute less dramatic. But more fundamentally, it wouldn’t all work in the Colorado context.

Wisconsin has a long-established and recognized body of public-sector labor law that simply does not exist here. For Colorado state legislators to have some mandated public school (or other) collective bargaining procedures to alter or remove, there would have to be something enshrined in state statute in the first place. Since there isn’t, agenda items 1 and 2 would make very little sense for a Colorado lawmaker to introduce. The third item, on the other hand, is not inextricably linked to the union negotiating process. A repeat of 2008′s citizen-initiated Amendment 49 (sponsored by the Independence Institute where I work) doubtless still would draw more dues funds spent on outrageous and misleading advertising.

The proposals championed by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans would not wash away workers’ rights. Rather, they would open the door to fiscal sustainability by providing greater flexibility to elected government officials and restoring some power and accountability to taxpaying citizens. Wisconsin is receiving a large share of attention for good reason: A few states are following suit, and others soon may jump in.

Driven by the overwhelming fiscal crisis facing most state governments, what’s taking place in the Badger State looks to be a watershed. The Tea Parties are flexing their muscles, while politically-reinforced government employee unions are making a Waterloo-like stand. An identical repeat in Colorado is off the table, but local school boards may be impelled to take a closer look at negotiated policies that empower union interests over the public interest.

Popularity: 26% [?]

A step back for CEA customer service

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that the state’s largest teachers union has overhauled its online digs. Kudos for a new web design that’s both attractive and functional. (It can’t be said that I never write anything nice about CEA.) But customer service has taken a step backward.

I’ve written here before about the Colorado Education Association (CEA)’s opt-out political contribution scheme, known as the Every Member Option (EMO), so I won’t rehash the details. In fact, I once noted that CEA did a somewhat better job of notification than did their building-mates at the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA). CEA at least put up a webpage explaining the EMO and an online form for members who wanted to exercise the right to opt out.

Somewhere along CEA’s bridge to Web 2.0, however, both the page and the form vanished. Presumably, some sort of oversight occurred. The deadline for asking back the 2010-11 school year’s automatic $39 political contribution passed in December. Any teacher or other member who doesn’t want their funds collected along with dues to influence elections will have to ask all over again in 2011-12.

So maybe union officials just are waiting for August or September to roll around to put up the EMO information and refund request form. Even better if CEA were planning to implement an opt-in political system, but there’s no evidence to give that notion a second thought. Whatever the case, I’d like to think the disappearance did not occur because the EMO refund has become too popular and too convenient for union members.

Because posting the political refund info online is just one small part of needed union transparency — a topic I wrote about in depth a couple years ago. Take my advice for what it’s worth: Transparency is a cornerstone of good 21st century customer service. Especially for organizations with roughly 35,000 member employees, growing competition, and a deck that’s grown slightly less stacked in its favor.

A blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account are nice features. Yet if CEA uses neither these tools nor its new and improved website to make known basic important information, they less resemble customer service than corporate-style PR. While that approach may be more functional for union leaders, it’s not more attractive to the broader base of potential members.

Popularity: 18% [?]

Jason Glass takes Colorado innovation to Iowa

Monday, January 10th, 2011

The new year brings a fresh opportunity to share a key example of Colorado education reform innovation spreading its wings and landing on a high perch beyond our borders. Former CDE consultant and Eagle County human resources director Jason E. Glass was recently named by Iowa’s incoming Gov. Terry Branstad to head up the state’s education department.

I first met and interacted with Jason in his role at Eagle County. There he played an instrumental role as an innovator. The district not only had adopted the Teacher Advancement Program but also had taken a clean break from the old, unworkable salary schedule. Along the way, Eagle County encountered a number of problems based on how the program was implemented. He helped move the district into its second generation of performance pay, retaining its innovative quality while building broader support.

The local Colorado transformation gave Jason somewhat of a national platform to share lessons learned, and apparently that proved to be quite a stepping stone up. After a few months in a senior position at Battelle for Kids, a group dedicated to “transformation in education…through focusing on human capital development” as well as value added data and formative instructional practices, he got a surprising invitation from Branstad’s staff to interview.

“I was of course honored but thought little of my chances! I went to Des Moines and spoke with the Governor and his staff for a couple of hours and we really found we shared a very similar vision or education,” Jason wrote in an email. “It was a fantastic experience for me. I was really surprised when they called a few days later after checking my references to make the offer!”

Unlike in Colorado, the head of Iowa’s education department is appointed by the governor rather than the state board. But the legacy of Colorado’s recently departed commissioner sure looks to have an influence in the Hawkeye State. “I had a great role model in watching Commissioner Jones. I have tremendous respect for him and what he did for Colorado,” Jason said.

A lot of what he gleaned during his time in Colorado figures to play out in Iowa, a state with different institutions and demographics. “The rest of the country should look to Colorado and think ‘innovation.’ This spirit of innovation and trying different approaches is something I hope to take from my time in Colorado and share. Iowa has tremendous educators and a great tradition of quality public schools. My role will be to serve those educators in making a really good state even better.”

On a personal note, Jason acknowledged his new position is a “big leap” but added: “I was as surprised by the selection as anyone else and this is a tremendous opportunity for me. However, I’ve lived my whole life beating the odds, taking calculated risks, and facing things others feared. The most powerful professional skill I’ve learned is putting my fear in check. It’s always there, but it doesn’t have to rule us.”

No pressure, either. A couple days after officially being named to the position, he headed up the Christian Science Monitor‘s list of “eight school chiefs to watch in 2011″ in the area of education reform.

While Jason and I certainly don’t agree on all things related to education reform, he brings some great ideas and leadership qualities to the table. For the sake of Iowa’s students, here’s wishing him well in his new job. And let’s hope that Colorado innovation earns at least a footnote of acclaim for any success he achieves.

Popularity: 14% [?]

Arne Duncan said what? Good…

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech yesterday at an American Enterprise Institute panel event. Like Rick Hess, my socks were knocked off. You mean, the same Obama official who oversaw billions upon billions in stimulus and Edujobs (not to mention Race to the Top) spending now says:

I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K‐12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less.

My message is that this challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system
lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.

It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat‐your‐broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.

An acknowledgment of new political realities in Washington? An admission of prolonged economic malaise? Perhaps. But all five pages of the transcript must be read. Challenging words for union leaders, administrators and school boards alike that amounts to a strong statement from Secretary Duncan. Is Colorado ready to embrace the challenge? My experience at two recent panel events gives me pause.

Ten days ago I accepted an invitation to drop in on a CU-Denver-hosted panel discussion on how Colorado K-12 agencies can weather the fiscal storm. The panelists — outgoing state treasurer Cary Kennedy, the School Finance Project’s Tracy Rainey, new DPS CFO David Hart and Michael Griffith from Education Commission of the States — offered a bleak picture.

Kennedy herself made the statement that Colorado’s per-pupil funding is at the same inflation-adjusted level in 1989. I’d really, really like to know where that info comes from. A look at NCES data (adjusted by the Denver-Boulder CPI) shows Colorado increased current per pupil spending by 21 percent and total per pupil spending by 28 percent between 1989-90 and 2007-08. Looking just at the primary School Finance Act portion of K-12 budgets, one will find that total program spending grew about 2 percent less than inflation. So while Colorado K-12 per-pupil real operational expenditures may have grown somewhere less than 20 percent, someone will have to explain the correctness of the statement I heard from Treasurer Kennedy that spending has been flat. But I digress….

I had a greater disappointment from the CU-Denver event. When confronted by both the moderator and later by a member of the audience (someone beat me to it!) about ways school districts can innovate and adjust to face the fiscal reality, answers from the panel ranged anywhere from thin and vague to evasive. I refuse to believe K-12′s near-term fiscal challenges can only be addressed on the backs of students. We need to hear from other voices on this matter (including district leaders showing some bold outside-the-box thinking), and Arne Duncan’s certainly will do!

At a second panel event this Monday co-sponsored by many groups and inspired by the theme of the new film Waiting for Superman, most of the representatives of established groups repeatedly came back to the need for more “resources” to advance reform. To his credit, CASB’s Ken DeLay proved a notable exception by emphasizing that Colorado taxpayers expect to see real earnest change before again being counted on to provide more funds. Modest reductions in local and state tax dollars due partly to economic stagnation aren’t the only challenge officials and administrators face. Duncan’s announcement makes clear that K-12 school systems can’t expect to lean on federal dollars again any time soon, either.

One thing I want to know is whether groups that have touted Colorado’s slower-than-other-states’ growth in per-pupil spending as a crisis will start rejoicing if future trends reverse and Colorado’s spending declines in real terms but at a significantly slower pace than other states. That’s one way to close the gap with the national average.

Even if he is a little late to the game, I prefer to follow Duncan’s lead, to think how districts and agencies can do things differently, and to focus on productivity and outputs in Colorado public education. Seems like a good prerequisite for the next commissioner, too.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Elections resound from D.C. to…Kit Carson?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

The recent election results and their likely effects on education reform, both at the state and national level, deserve a closer look. In Colorado it seems clear enough that marginal gains were made in favor of school choice and tenure/evaluation reform. Four of the five Democrat incumbents defeated by Republicans en route to their new majority — Dennis Apuan, Debbie Benefield, Sara Gagliardi and Dianne Primavera — were SB 191 opponents and significantly supported by teachers unions.

The state senate picture looks like more of a wash, even as races in two districts appear unresolved with ballots still being counted. Senate Majority Leader John Morse voted against the initial version of SB 191 but was one of a number of Democrats to come on board to accept the final House version. His challenger, Republican Owen Hill, likely would push education reform to the Right. Filling the shoes of pro-SB 191 Democrat Dan Gibbs offers a big divide on that vote for education reform. Conservative Republican Tim Leonard would be a staunch supporter of school choice and other reforms, while liberal Democrat Jeanne Nicholson seems to be more aligned with the unions than the retiring officeholder was. Meanwhile, SB 191 opponent Bruce Whitehead was defeated by supporter Ellen Roberts.

At the national level, with a Tea Party surge bringing a new majority and a new dynamic to the U.S. House, a big issue will be the ESEA reauthorization. I tend to agree with Fordham’s Mike Petrilli that the shift entails “less money, less reform” from D.C., as there will be a strong, new focus on trying to devolve federal power — perhaps halting some of the Obama-Duncan initiatives.

That brings me to an overlooked election result from Colorado’s Eastern Plains, that just may have national significance. On Tuesday, voters in the 100-student Kit Carson School District passed a $45,000 mill levy by a roughly 3-to-2 margin. In conservative Cheyenne County. During the big Tea Party wave. What gives? The money will be used to offset the small district’s position (rogue or avant garde, perhaps, depending on your point of view) to refuse federal Title One dollars.

Superintendent Gerald Keefe said receiving the roughly 2 percent of the general fund budget prevents the district from either having to dip into reserves or consolidate elementary classrooms. Still, it’s no small feat in a fiscally frugal rural area not known for backing many tax increases. Opting out of the federal strings was key. “This one is more on principle than anything,” Keefe said.

A few years ago, Keefe received confirmation that his was the only district nationwide that had taken the bold step of bucking federal dollars. To the best of his knowledge and mine, that still remains the case. Though I did find a northern Wisconsin school district that less boldly refused $45 (not $45,000) in allotted Education Jobs funding.

Next up for Kit Carson? A plan to opt out of Title Two dollars (currently used for professional development through BOCES), which would effectively liberate the district from No Child Left Behind’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements. Through either this approach or its Innovation proposal pending before the State Board of Education, Kit Carson is looking for greater flexibility to suit its local personnel needs.

It will be interesting to see how much of a trend Keefe’s school district propels, given the national mood and the latest election results. And it will be interesting to see how the newly configured Congress and Colorado legislature assume their roles in driving (or in standing back from) the next steps in education reform.

Popularity: 9% [?]

Reformers’ homework?: An unqualified response

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I came across a new Huffington Post column by education professor Gary Stager that got the mental gears grinding. The author was dismayed by a Washington Post piece in which urban reform leaders (including DPS’ own Tom Boasberg) call for specific teacher policy and charter school reforms. The piece has been labeled as a “manifesto.” (You may recall that Kevin Welner wrote a somewhat thoughtful response to Boasberg et al. here at Ed News Colorado — one worthy of honest disagreement that stirred a fair share of controversy.)

While there’s the response from Welner, on another plane came this other response sympathetic to his that I found at the same time more revealing and more confounding. In his column, Stager insists that the co-authors of the manifesto

are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

Stager — whose own website promotes him as an “out-of-the-box” education thinker — then goes on to assign a Progressive reading list of Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol and Gerald Bracey et al. to help the dominant “Reform™” advocates eschew high-stakes accountability and testing, and get beyond the notion “that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning.” Why does that sound like a straw man to me?

Now it may be to my detriment, but I’d never heard of Dr. Stager before reading his column. And I’m nearly certain he’s never heard of me. Given his position as an education school professor, I very well may lack the requisite credentials to hold a contrary opinion. I admit I haven’t read most of the books he highlights, nor in most cases did he give a compelling reason to change that fact. Nonetheless, hopefully I’m not utterly “unqualified” to raise a few pertinent questions:

  • For one who has proclaimed that education is not suitable for students as a one-size-fits-all enterprise, what is so threatening about the existence of: a) Teachers trained outside the established university education system and b) Charter schools that offer different types of programs?
  • If established Progressive educators already “know how to amplify the enormous potential for children,” why have their decades of dominance over the profession yielded little or no discernible progress? Why should they continue to be entrusted with so much power, without so much as an acknowledgment of the stagnant conditions that have given such tremendous life to the “Reform™” movement?
  • Why should parents and other citizens embrace the proclaimed vision “of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child” while simultaneously being preached down to for a lack of expertise? Why should low-income parents satisfied at the results of have chosen to send their children to “charter-based obedience schools” like KIPP or West Denver Prep be motivated to listen?
  • If it is so much better for our educators simply to be “qualified” (aka credentialed by a state-recognized university education program), why are so many “qualified” Colorado educators not equipped to teach younger students the research-based basics of reading? Why are so many “qualified” elementary teachers not properly equipped to teach basic math skills?
  • Would the Big Picture model touted in the column have spread so far to serve so many students if not for public charter school laws and the innovators who worked outside the system to make it happen? What percentage of educators employed by Big Picture are traditionally licensed?
  • If it is the contention that research doesn’t support the dominant “Reform™” paradigm, and that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all, could widespread support be found among Progressive education professors to scrap the high-stakes No Child Left Behind regime in exchange for a system that empowered students and parents with universal choice–since research consistently shows the effectiveness of vouchers in satisfying parents and improving student learning?

Humble questions from an unqualified someone.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Daniels-backed Harrison program one to watch

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

It was with great interest that I read in the Colorado Springs Gazette this morning about Harrison School District receiving a $1.1 million Daniels Fund grant to support its groundbreaking Effectiveness and Results Teacher Pay-for-Performance Plan. Other school leaders in Colorado and around the nation figure to have a lot to learn from the highly innovative program led by Superintendent Mike Miles, a program bolstered in recent months by the passage of SB 191.

What makes today’s story more interesting is the confluence of recent news coverage. First, last week’s big-splash Denver Post story on Vanderbilt’s Nashville merit pay study was eye-opening and potentially instructive, even if another less-touted rigorous research project studying a similar program in Little Rock showed different results. Like most research in the education field, the Vanderbilt findings weren’t as broadly definitive as some would like them to be. They do give good clues about the limits of merit pay in affecting the behavior of many current educators, but tell us little or nothing about the larger potential for transforming the teaching workforce.

The next day, two of Colorado’s largest school districts — Jefferson County and Colorado Springs 11 — celebrated the announcement of multi-million dollar federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants that will enable them to pilot performance-based compensation programs in some of their high-need schools. These programs of course figure to be significantly different than the Nashville (or Little Rock) program so heavily scrutinized in recent media coverage.

But even bolder yet is the long-term strategic effort to remake the teacher evaluation process and compensation system in Harrison. (To get a glimpse of the vision and some nuts & bolts, you can listen to a podcast interview I recorded with Mike Miles earlier this year.) While several Colorado charter schools are innovating in the area of compensation, nothing as dramatic and to the scale of what Harrison is doing is being attempted anywhere else in the nation, at least as far as I know.

Another major news story in the past week — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million reform gift to Newark, N.J., schools (which represents about 10 percent of the district’s annual budget; by comparison, Daniels’ gift represents about 1 percent of Harrison’s annual budget) — got the big splash on Oprah and a wide variety of media outlets nationwide. With the political spine of Governor Chris Christie and the courage and innovation of Mayor Cory Booker, there is tremendous opportunity to hope for great things to come out of Newark.

Not to belittle what’s taking place on the East Coast, but right here in Colorado — with the support of Daniels, not Zuckerberg — we have the opportunity to watch a smaller but potentially monumental laboratory of education transformation. I wish Harrison well, and am keenly interested to learn and observe the positive results in years to come.

Popularity: 7% [?]

A challenge to stretch Colorado school dollars

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

It isn’t uncommon for school districts to hire consultants to implement various programs or initiatives. So why not look outside for insights on how to be more frugal without sacrificing the fundamental mission of educating students?

I’ve written before about the coming fiscal difficulties K-12 public education institutions figure to face after decades of ever-rising per-pupil funding. The current short-term crunch on many Colorado school budgets very well may turn out to be less exceptional than is hoped or believed. While I also believe that Colorado’s more modest and sensible growth in K-12 funding likely shields us from the worst effects, there still are valuable insights to be gleaned concerning how to achieve greater efficiency.

And for much less than the cost of a consultant. I confess to being intrigued by the new Fordham Foundation volume Stretching the School Dollar, co-edited by Rick Hess and Eric Osberg. Chapter contributors include Marguerite Roza and Mike Casserly, and the book comes lauded by Rhode Island reform commissioner Deborah Gist and head of the American Association of School Administrators Dan Domenech.

At this juncture I can’t go any further in endorsing the book, since I haven’t yet obtained a copy. But it seems like a minimal investment and a worthwhile challenge to local Colorado school leaders at least to consider and wrestle with the arguments in this book. If the arguments aren’t serious, explain why. If a proposal doesn’t apply, be up front about it. Yet also be willing to consider cost-cutting alternatives that are presented in the book.

Such acts might gain favor with local taxpaying citizens, many of whom are likewise stung by the current recession.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Colorado Health Foundation Walton Family Foundation Daniels fund Pitton Foundations Donnell-Kay Foundation