Q and A

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).

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:

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.