on the record

Colorado’s new education commissioner on the urban-rural divide, turnaround schools and the teacher shortage

Katy Anthes (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

Katy Anthes is known as a consensus builder and a steady hand.

As Anthes begins her tenure as Colorado education commissioner, those traits will be put to the test. There are no shortage of divides over education policy, and the state has plenty on the agenda.

Anthes was serving as the education department’s chief of staff eight months ago when she put in her notice of resignation — part of a period of upheaval at the department that saw a wave of resignations.

She changed her mind and stayed to become interim commissioner after Rich Crandall’s abrupt resignation. (Anthes has declined to discuss what prompted her to want to leave).

In her first interview with Chalkbeat since dropping the “interim” from her title, Anthes discussed her approach to understanding the nation’s new education law, how she plans to work with the state’s lowest performing schools to boost learning and what equity in education means to her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations. It’s been quite the year for you. First you resigned as chief-of-staff and eight months later, you’re the commissioner of education. Walk me through what it’s been like for you the last few months. How did you get from there to here — personally?

Situations change, circumstances change. I’ve always been really committed to the state of Colorado and education issues in Colorado. So no matter where my path was going to take me, I’d still be working on those issues and committed to those issues. It was a bit of a surprise, too, after giving my resignation, to step in. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to think deeply about those opportunities and I did.

It was announced earlier this year that you had planned to stay through May. And then just weeks later, it was announced you got the job permanently. What changed?

It was an ongoing process and discussion. We were working well together with the board and it was really a board decision. It was up to them. I can’t speak to their internal process. But when that discussion arose around, “Do you want to be permanent?”’ I was excited to take the opportunity.

You’re the first woman to lead the department since 1951. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised to hear that. It’s exciting. I’m honored to be in that role for sure. I also know I work with a lot of incredibly talented amazing women leaders, so it doesn’t feel that different or unique to me. I hope I do it well.

The urban and rural split is Colorado’s education community is sharp these days. You see it in the funding debate, the testing debate, the accountability debate, the teacher shortage. What steps is the department taking to really think through these different issues and positions?

That’s definitely a real tension and a real issue. I think it’s something we’ve always grappled with, too. Our role as the department is to implement the law the legislature passes with integrity and fidelity, and also implement the regulations the State Board of Education passes with integrity.

We definitely, and I as the leader of the department, always want to have the conversation, “What do those policies and those implementation practices look like for either a rural district or an urban district?” They certainly are different contexts.

What we’ve done so far in the last seven months, and when I was chief of staff and in other roles here, is look at those practices and see where can we support rural districts a little more, knowing that they don’t have all that personnel to submit their data reports. They don’t have a long line of teachers waiting to take all the hard-to-staff jobs. I think we’ve been investigating that in terms of data reporting — how do we streamline it, make it easier for rural districts.

Let’s talk about the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Your predecessor, Rich Crandall, had this idea of using ESSA to completely reshape or reimagine Colorado’s education landscape. Under your leadership, it’s been a much more tempered approach. You’ve repeatedly said the Colorado is in compliance and there probably isn’t a need for new legislation. Why this approach?

I think some of it was around understanding ESSA. For all the good intentions of going big and rethinking the landscape, we had a landscape here.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes addresses a joint committee of lawmakers studying the nation’s new education laws.

I think it was important that we do some education. We actually had a waiver from (the previous federal education law), No Child Left Behind. If you went from what are the rules and regulations under No Child Left Behind to what are the rules under ESSA, that would be a big shift.

But Colorado already did a big shift. We weren’t operating under the same kind of constraints that No Child Left Behind outlined. (The state received waivers from certain aspects of the law). So the shift you’ve seen, and the more tempered approach you’ve seen, is because we have a context. We got those waivers early on.

And we have a state legislative framework we’re already working under. It’s not necessarily the federal law that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We have our own state laws that talk a lot about those same things.

If we wanted to go bigger within ESSA, most of those changes would have to be taken up by our legislators. We wouldn’t be able to take that up as a department because we have to follow the law of our state.

You’ve said we probably don’t need new legislation to comply with ESSA. Do you think the state’s lawmakers are going to listen to you?

(Laughs.) That’s a question for them. But you know, I think we’ve been in ongoing dialogue with them. And we’re learning, too. It’s a long law. And the regulations are now coming out in pieces and parts. We’re making sure everything matches up. I don’t think we need any major changes (to be in compliance).

But legislators would have to make that decision if they want to make any changes to the state framework.

The state board has raised concerns about waivers to state law, especially around the law that governs how districts measure if Colorado’s youngest students are ready for school. Talk to me about the department’s concerns and what kind of legislative fixes you hope to see.

I’ll follow the lead from the board. It’s the governing entity that decides if it wants to take any stances on policy. I am in conversations about that. I think they have a balanced concern when they say, “Yeah, we want to provide some flexibility when it makes sense and when we can learn from it. But we also want to know that we have some timeframes for the districts to come back and report on progress. What are the district’s learning?” I think that’s what I’ve heard from the board so far and that’s what they’re interested in.

The teacher shortage: The department really doesn’t have a lot of authority to help in this issue. But can we expect to see anything in the coming year out of the department to help address this issue?

It’s definitely something high on my radar screen. It’s a concern I’m hearing from rural districts and from some on the Front Range, too. It’s something I want to explore and talk to the board about and see how we could be helpful. My personal approach to those types of things is being a convener — to have a discussion and collaborate with folks about different ideas.

You’ve been visiting with the state’s lowest performing schools and districts as they approach the end of the state’s accountability timeline. I know from talking with some of your staff that you want to find solutions to boost learning in collaboration with these districts. But are you also prepared to make recommendations to the state board that might go against the districts’ wishes?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class. The high school is one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

If the situation calls for it — absolutely. Our north star is around supporting student achievement and increasing student achievement. So we want to work in collaboration with school districts. Each situation will be different. Each context will be different. The trajectory of each district will be different. So I, along with the staff and others, are taking all of that into consideration. No two recommendations will be alike.

What are you hearing when you talk to these schools and districts?

I’m hearing that they have a sense of urgency, that there is a lot of hard work being put into their efforts, and in some cases there is some success. But turnaround is not fast work. There is no silver bullet that fixes it all. So I’m hearing they have to approach this work from multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are starts and stops. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s hard, complicated work. But I’m hearing they are committed to doing whatever they can.

The list of schools facing possible sanctions includes a mix of urban and rural. Is there a common denominator?

I don’t think there is a common denominator. You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things. And these things present themselves differently in different communities. So I don’t think there is a common denominator. It’s really contextual. And I think the support and the recommendations have to be contextual.

Do you believe all Colorado students have access to a quality education?

I think we are all striving for that. I think there are probably differences in context and communities. And I think that truly is our north star — that quality is happening. I think that is something that the legislature and the board and me and others across the state are striving for. There are probably places where it’s not all the same, and the opportunities are not all the same. And that’s part of the crux of the conversation moving forward.

I think having the conversation is important. I do think that raising issues of equity, and what equity means, what does equal access mean — that will be an important thing for me to do, and to have that open dialogue to get those different perspectives.

What does equity mean to you?

That’s a tough question. I think equity does mean that every student, no matter where they live, no matter what district they’re in, what ZIP code they’re in, has the opportunity to reach their potential and the opportunity to go wherever they want to go in their future: a career, college, their family business. And that they had an opportunity during their schooling to explore their different passions and enhance those passions.

Any predictions for how the education landscape may change in 2017?

I’m not a prediction person. We know every year we have somewhere between 50 and 100 education bills that come across. So I’m sure the education landscape will continue to shift. And I think we’re up to the challenge as it shifts, and up to the task to make sure all the different perspectives are heard.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

secretary statements

Betsy DeVos on American schools: ‘I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot’

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t concerned that a push for more school choice could inadvertently harm America’s schools, she said Wednesday — because she believes the nation’s achievement is already too abysmal for that to be possible.

“I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today,” DeVos said of achievement levels. “The fact that our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate as compared to the rest of the world, and that we’ve seen stagnant at best results with the NAEP scores over the years — I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot.”

DeVos was referring to one international test and another taken by a sample of students across the United States that’s used to compare performance across states. Her comments, made at the Brookings Institution, paint a picture that’s more dire than fully accurate.

On the international PISA tests in reading and science, the U.S. hovers near the international average, though it falls near the bottom of other industrialized countries in math. And on the NAEP tests, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” math scores have been rising for decades, as moderator Russ Whitehurst noted, while reading scores have also increased, though much more slowly.

The comments reveal an unflinchingly negative guiding premise for the nation’s top education official: With nowhere to go but up, any disruption of the current system is, by definition, going in the right direction. (She pushed that idea further by invoking the fight between Uber and taxi companies as a parallel for the push for school choice.)

At the same time, DeVos indicated that she was uncomfortable using statistics as the basis for some of her own policies.

“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” DeVos said, when asked specifically how she would want her success to be measured. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”

You can watch her speech and her discussion with Whitehurst afterward here: