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Colorado’s pick for education commissioner on Common Core, teacher evaluations and turnaround

Richard Crandall (left) makes a cameo appearance before the state's joint education committee (Todd Engdahl/Chalkbeat).
Richard Crandall (left) makes a cameo appearance before the state's joint education committee (Todd Engdahl/Chalkbeat).

The man in line to become Colorado’s next education commissioner made the rounds Monday on a welcome tour.

Richard Crandall checked in with the legislature’s joint education committee after the State Board of Education revealed that the businessman, former Arizona lawmaker and (for a short while) Wyoming schools chief was announced as sole finalist for the position. He picked up a Colorado flag lapel pin and updated his Twitter bio.

Crandall also spoke with Chalkbeat Colorado about his experience, vision and plans for tackling the job. He described the importance of having thick skin and listening to a range of voices.

He described three core philosophies that influence his decision-making: that quality of classroom instruction and great teachers make all the difference, that parents need to be able to send their children to schools where they can thrive (“School choice matters,” he said) and that adapting education to the personal needs of each student represents the future of education.

Here are excerpts from our conversation with Crandall, edited for length and clarity:

On the power shifted to states through the Every Student Succeeds Act, the rewrite of the nation’s primary education law:

What makes right now so cool is that the feds have given us permission to do some great things. I call it permission because we’ve been battling them for the right to control our own destiny.

We’re all waiting to see what the fine print looks like on that, especially when it comes to the fact that we need to submit our state plan to the federal government. That right there causes some concern for a lot of people, including myself. Does that mean we just submit it to you so you keep it on file, or do you read it then say, ‘Well, we disagree with Part A, Part B, Part D. We need you to change that?’ That is going to be a dynamic conversation for all 50 states, not just Colorado.

On what this greater flexibility might mean in Colorado — and how he views turnaround strategies for schools and districts in chronic need of improvement:

Where the flexibility comes into play is we now control our own destiny on assessments, teacher evaluation, accountability … Fortunately, there’s been a lot of work done but also unfortunately there’s been a lot of work done. We don’t want to, based on this new-found freedom, go and undo some very hard work that has been done by a lot of stakeholders here in Colorado. A big example is teacher evaluations. The feds now say, ‘Hey, push that down to the school and district level if you want to change that.’ Well, what does that mean for Colorado that spent so much time, really, on one of the teacher evaluations that’s had some good press around the country?

We are in charge of our own turnaround strategies now, without having to answer to a lot of people. That can be a good and bad thing: Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. … Now we can use strategies that are specific to our rural communities, to our urban communities. That is exciting stuff. As we look at underperforming schools, or those just at the margin — school districts that are in the bottom 25 percent, year after year … They’re not at the 5 percent that gets triggered by the law, but they’re between that 5 and 25, 5 and 35 percent. How can the department be a support for them? We don’t want to take over anything. We don’t want to run anything. That’s not our role. But can we go to that school district, that principal, that teacher, and say, ‘Here are some supports we can provide for you as you are trying to move the needle on your academic achievement.’

Richard Crandall
Richard Crandall

On schools and districts where the accountability clock is close to running out, possibly triggering state intervention:

One of the things you are finding doesn’t work is to parachute in with a team and take over a school. We have decades of experience of that not working … Everyone points to New Orleans, says, hey, look at how it’s working there. Totally different. You don’t get the opportunity to wipe the slate of the entire K-12 system, including buildings, and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to start from scratch.’ That’s a very different conversation … If there is ever a need for collaborations and partnerships, it’s going to be with (schools and districts in turnaround). So you let the locals drive the turnaround.

That is one piece I really like about the new legislation. The locals have to propose a strategy to turn things around. It’s going to be our role at the department to hold folks accountable to the plan they put in place, and to provide significant supports … There are training opportunities. We’ve got to engage the school boards, parent grassroots organizations. My big answer is collaboration, but not a top-down approach.

On high academic standards, the Common Core and Colorado’s place in the PARCC testing consortium:

If we want to compete with the best, we’re going to have to hold ourselves to high standards. There’s not a lot of opposition to that. It has to be something that is the right thing for Colorado. If the legislature and the state board feels that is Common Core and PARCC, the department is going to be very supportive of that. If the state board, the legislature and the governor’s office says, ‘Hey, we’d like to look at some things other states are doing,’ we will support that also.

The one key advantage to PARCC is the ability to compare yourself against others … In Arizona, we had Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, the AIMS exam. We were the only state in the nation that used that. We benchmarked ourselves against ourselves. If we improved 1 percent over last year, we celebrated, not knowing that the rest of the country had improved 3 percent over last year, or 4 percent. So we ended up having one of the weakest state assessments on record, and almost everybody passed it.

On the role of student growth and achievement should play in teacher evaluations:

That’s a big question here in Colorado. If it were easy to measure student growth and achievement, you would want that to be a significant component. As you start looking at competency based model, blended models, personalized instruction, that challenge is you no longer have a clear, ‘Here is your teacher from 8 a.m to 3 p.m. every single day and that is the only teacher you’re going to interact with, therefore it’s easy to do a teacher evaluation.’ The future doesn’t look like that. The future is collaborative. You have multiple teachers. It’s almost as if you have a team that is focused on kids’ success. So who do you give the credit there for growth over that period? There are ways to do it. They are complicated. If we can make sure that it’s fair to teachers, you’d definitely want outcomes to be part of the teacher evaluation. But it has to be fair, and it has to be definable and defensible.

On whether Senate Bill 191 — Colorado’s educator effectiveness law approved in 2010 — meets that definition:

The question is, with the new flexibility, do we go back at SB 191, because SB 191 was crafted back when there were certain parameters that had to be in place: ‘You must have this, this and this in your teacher evaluation system.’ Now that those requirements aren’t there and you have all the experts in the room, would they have come up with the same bill?

On Colorado’s flat performance in recent years on standardized tests and what can be done to turn that around:

You have to go back and say what are our strategies right now? What are we doing and why are we not seeing that growth? You are going to find successful models across Colorado of people who are breaking out of the norm, the statistical average. So we’ve got to ask, is their model scalable?

In Arizona, we’ve got some high, high performing charter schools but they’ve got some very strict parent volunteer times, massive quantities of homework each night … In the end, their group of students doesn’t represent the state of Arizona as a whole — free and reduced percentages, demographics, things like that. That’s not necessarily a scaleable model. … The legislature is going to have to be engaged because incentives for performance for school districts help. Innovation grants have proven to be successful. It’s a multifaceted approach.

On his nontraditional background as a business owner and former lawmaker who lacks experience as a teacher or principal:

That question comes up a lot. If you were hiring someone to teach third grade, eighth grade, 10th grade, I would be the wrong person. But if you are hiring someone to oversee a very complex finance and accounting system, an IT system that manages significant data, to do strategic planning, things like that, my background fits very well with what the job requires.

Here is Crandall’s application to the Colorado Department of Education, including his curriculum vitae and information compiled by the department’s search firm:

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