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:

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.