Vail Daily column: Reforms yield flat scores
September 2, 2014
The recently released Transitional Colorado Assessment Program results landed across the state with a soft thud. While there were occasional bright spots, overall scores were flat or down in most subjects and grades. Even among charter schools, the ballyhooed darlings of the reform movement, results leaned toward disappointing, accented by wild fluctuation.
Reactions from pundits, state leaders and the Denver Post ranged from somber to puzzled, but ideas about next steps quickly emerged: Stay the course or even accelerate the hyper-accountability (more tests and punishments) and market-based reforms (more privatization) that have brought national attention to Colorado's reform efforts.
What is most troubling is how completely disconnected these reactions and proposed solutions are from what is really happening in schools across our state.
How quickly we have forgotten the billion dollar annual cuts to Colorado schools, with resources going in reverse nearly 20 percent in some places. The result: massive layoffs, pay freezes, cuts to curricular materials and other essential student supports. Overlooked was the fact our teachers and principals are working to achieve more with less.
In spite of this historic gutting of public education, our educators — for the most part — held the line on statewide student achievement results. If the self-proclaimed experts had thought to descend from on high and ask a classroom teacher, answers to flat TCAP scores would have been plainly clear.
While contending with massive budget cuts, schools are also struggling to implement a blizzard of disconnected, often unfunded, and frequently nonsensical state reforms.
Yet our state's "no excuses" leaders turn on their reality distortion fields and wonder why scores are flat. Why aren't our heralded reforms working as planned?
The answer, quite simply, is that they've never worked anywhere at scale. There are no high performing education systems anywhere in the world that have achieved systemic and sustained greatness through the means Colorado now aggressively pursues.
Colorado's approach to educator quality is to let practically anyone become a teacher and then evaluate out the bad ones. By contrast, high performing systems have worked to make education a high status and very selective profession at the point of entry. There are no stories of low professional standards and mass firings among the world's best systems.
The best systems on earth aren't having discussions about opening more charter schools because they don't have any. This is not to say we should abandon Colorado's charter schools — many of them do a fine job. It is to say that the work of genuine greatness requires extraordinary effort put behind proven practices. Handing over the management of public education to a nonprofit entity and calling it a charter school does not, by this action alone, make the education better.
The best education systems on earth also aren't discussing the privatization of their schools through voucher schemes. This is because they are focused on supporting and continuing to make their public schools even greater and not intentionally dismantling them.
The best education systems are also judicious in their use of assessments. They test only at key transition points, relying on practitioner-developed assessments that measure high-level skills. Here, we heap on dozens of tests on students to feed our "test-rank-punish" approach.
The reason for TCAP staleness starts and ends with the state's foisting of disconnected reforms with a scientifically anemic and ideologically biased evidence base.
The Denver Post's editorial on TCAP scores ended with a plea to continue the path our state is already on in terms of accountability and market-based reforms — urging that we need to give these policies time to work.
In the end, I expect the editorial board at the Post will get their wish. Colorado probably has too much ego, political capital and careerism invested in these policies to change course now. But we should also expect many years of future editorials — all with an eerily familiar lament — wondering why, systemically, things just aren't working out as planned.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.