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:


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.