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Education reform in Colorado – not such a clear result

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Our last post highlighted apparently successful reform efforts in Cincinnati, achieved by making demands of the teachers, giving them the training the need and tracking everything with meaningful data.  Here, from Gary Rubenstein’s blog, is a discussion of the results achieved the other way, by corporate-style education reform.  Gary is a reliable observer.  He compares Bill Gates’ statement in the Wall Street Journal about the achievements in Eagle County, Colorado with what he finds by looking at publicly available data about the school.  Here is an excerpt from Gates’ Wall Street Journal statement.

In October, Melinda and I sat among two dozen 12th-graders at Eagle Valley High School near Vail, Colo. Mary Ann Stavney, a language-arts teacher, was leading a lesson on how to write narrative nonfiction pieces. She engaged her students, walking among them and eliciting great participation. We could see why Mary Ann is a master teacher, a distinction given to the school’s best teachers and an important component of a teacher-evaluation system in Eagle County.

Ms. Stavney’s work as a master teacher is informed by a three-year project our foundation funded to better understand how to build an evaluation and feedback system for educators. Drawing input from 3,000 classroom teachers, the project highlighted several measures that schools should use to assess teacher performance, including test data, student surveys and assessments by trained evaluators. Over the course of a school year, each of Eagle County’s 470 teachers is evaluated three times and is observed in class at least nine times by master teachers, their principal and peers called mentor teachers.

The Eagle County evaluations are used to give a teacher not only a score but also specific feedback on areas to improve and ways to build on their strengths. In addition to one-on-one coaching, mentors and masters lead weekly group meetings in which teachers collaborate to spread their skills. Teachers are eligible for annual salary increases and bonuses based on the classroom observations and student achievement.

The program faces challenges from tightening budgets, but Eagle County so far has been able to keep its evaluation and support system intact—likely one reason why student test scores have improved in Eagle County over the past five years.

In the rest of his post, Rubenstein goes on to review the details of Eagle County’s teacher compensation and educational results.  Be sure to read it here.

Rubenstein tells an interestingly similar story to the one recounted here in the New York Times, a couple of years ago, questioning whether the corporate education reform story holds up:

In the early days of the education-reform movement, a decade or so ago, you’d often hear from reformers a powerful rallying cry: “No excuses.” For too long, they said, poverty had been used as an excuse by complacent educators and bureaucrats who refused to believe that poor students could achieve at high levels. Reform-minded school leaders took the opposite approach, insisting that students in the South Bronx should be held to the same standards as kids in Scarsdale. Amazingly enough, those high expectations often paid off, producing test results at some low-income urban schools that would impress parents in any affluent suburb.


When politicians hold up specific schools in low-income neighborhoods as success stories, Ravitch wrote, those successes often turn out, on closer examination, to be less spectacular than they appear. She mentioned the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, which President Obama singled out in his 2011 State of the Union address as an example of “what good schools can do,” and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which the education secretary, Arne Duncan, praised in a speech in February. Each school graduates a very high percentage of its seniors, but, Ravitch said, test scores at those schools suggested that students were below average in the basic academic skills necessary for success in college and in life.


The Bruce Randolph school, Alter explained, “should not be compared to other Colorado schools in affluent neighborhoods”; to consider Randolph’s scores alongside those of white, middle-class schools was like “comparing apples and oranges.” Instead, he argued, the school should be judged on the “stunning” fact that its ninth-grade writing-proficiency rates had doubled since 2007, improving to 15 percent of the class from 7 percent, and that its ninth-grade math-proficiency rates had risen to 14 percent of the class from 5 percent.

A week later, the founder of Urban Prep, Tim King, took to The Huffington Post to defend his school against Ravitch’s charges. King acknowledged that just 17 percent of his 11th-grade students passed the statewide achievement test last year, while in the Chicago public schools as a whole, the comparable figure was 29 percent. But echoing Alter’s fruit metaphor, he wrote that Ravitch was comparing “apples to grapefruits” by holding the students at Urban Prep, who are almost all black males from low-income families, to the standards of “children from all across Chicago.”

While corporate education reform seems to be long on PR and short on results, professional educators are laboring to figure out how to get it right.  Here is a distillation of a number of successful turn-around projects:

1. Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership. Schools should make a clear commitment to dramatic changes from the status quo, and the leader should signal the magnitude and urgency of that change. A low-performing school that fails to make adequate yearly progress must improve student achievement within a short timeframe–it does not have the luxury of years to implement incremental reforms.

2. Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction. Chronically low-performing schools need to maintain a sharp focus on improving instruction at every step of the reform process. To improve instruction, schools should use data to set goals for instructional improvement, make changes to immediately and directly affect instruction, and continually reassess student learning and instructional practices to refocus the goals.

3. Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins). These can rally staff around the effort and overcome resistance and inertia.

4. Build a committed staff. The school leader must build a staff that is committed to the school’s improvement goals and qualified to carry out school improvement. This goal may require changes in staff, such as releasing, replacing, or redeploying staff who are not fully committed to turning around student performance and bringing in new staff who are committed.

Get more background here.


  1. wgersen says:

    Thanks for the link to Rubenstein’s post… as usual he’s made a compelling case using the data that’s available. As a retired NH superintendent who proposed alternatives to the step-and-track system in collective bargaining, I must say I NEVER proposed a plan that had bonuses or one that suggested test scores were a valid measure of performance. YIKES!

    Diane Ravitch posted yesterday on one of the consequences of the performance pay plan: the Board needed to find savings somewhere else so they eliminated three foreign language teachers and replaced them with an on-line course. My comment to that is applicable to this post as well:

    “As one who has written about the futility “merit pay”, I am not surprised at the consequences of implementing the compensation system Gates proposed. School budgets are always a zero sum game effectively limited by the amount of additional taxes the voters are willing to pay. That means you cannot add an expenditure without finding a corresponding area to reduce. Businessmen cannot get their heads around this notion when they advocate “performance pay” because in the private sector the bottom line is linked to the performance of the business as a whole. In schools, there is NO link between the revenues and performance and so it is possible for a school system to improve (as Eagle County evidently did based on (ulp) test scores) and face budget compromises. In Eagle Valley’s case, they could maintain their “performance bonuses” based on (ulp) test scores, find someplace else to cut, or, heaven forfend, try to see if the local taxpayers are willing to dig a little deeper in their pockets.”

    As it turns out, based on Rubenstein’s research, Eagle Valley’s improvement on test scores was illusory… but the merit pay for some teachers continued… could it be that the bonus system erodes the teamwork needed to raise everyone’s scores in a school district?

    • Bill Duncan says:


      On teamwork, some assessment specialists make the point that, while student growth should comprise a modest portion of the total evaluation, even that use of test scores should be applied to the team of teachers rather than the teachers individually. In many cases, it’s just too difficult and inaccurate to try to attribute a student’s growth to one teacher or apportion it out proportionately. The thought is that, when student growth is attributed to the team, the teachers will know who the weak links are and would work to improve the whole team’s score.

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