Hammond: “The system does need to change”

Colorado’s education system is facing pressures that will unavoidably lead to modifications in things such as testing, but “It needs to be thoughtful change,” says outgoing education Commissioner Robert Hammond.

The commissioner sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado Friday afternoon, shortly after he announced his retirement (see story). Here are some of his reflections on the challenges facing K-12 education in Colorado and on his tenure at the department.

Why he decided to retire now

“There’s never a good time” to leave he said. “I’ve really been fighting whether to do this,” adding “over the last month I’ve been thinking more seriously about this.”

Hammond said, “It’s time to move on” for a number of personal reasons, including spending time with his wife, former Greeley Superintendent Ranelle Lang. Hammond also said health issues are involved but didn’t specify those.

“I give my job 110 percent, and I’ve missed out on so much” in his personal life, Hammond said.

Thoughts on the new board

Asked if changes on the State Board of Education were a factor in his decision, Hammond said, “Not a whole lot. … I’ve worked with a split board ever since I started this job, and I’ve been able to work with them.”

He noted that the current level of tension in education is “the highest I’ve ever seen, and it puts pressure on the board. … They feel very obligated to their constituents.

“This will all balance out.”

Challenges facing education

“The system does need to change, and I think that will happen,” Hammond said. Referring to current debates about testing, evaluation and accountability, he added, “All this talk is the precursor to the system eventually changing. … I know that testing will be reduced.”

Education reforms and initiatives passed in the last seven years have put tremendous pressure on districts and schools, he said. “The only thing I worry about is there’s so much that’s been enacted we’re almost at the tipping point.”

For Hammond the most important thing is “holding on to our standards.” Doing that, modifying the accountability system while maintaining its integrity and “having a system of truly aligned assessments … that is the challenge.”

“I don’t want this to go backwards.”

The changing role of the Department of Education

“The first thing we tried to do … is to really try to change the culture of the department,” Hammond said.

The effort to make CDE more service oriented began under his predecessor, Commissioner Dwight Jones.

Hammond cites as successes department efforts to help districts implement new evaluation systems, assist districts in implementing the READ Act, and helping incubate a model curriculum that originated with a group of districts.

Most important, Hammond said, has been helping districts effectively use the academic standards adopted in 2010. “If you understand those standards that in itself will drive improvement.”

“My sole desire has been to change the culture and work with the field.”

Walking the tightrope as commissioner

“It’s an incredibly tense job because you’re totally caught in the middle,” Hammond said. “You have the feds, you have legislative members who want to change things and you have board members who want to change things.” He added that districts make their own demands.

But Hammond is philosophical about all that. “It’s the nature of the job. That’s part of what makes this a fascinating job.”

Expectations of the job

Hammond was something of an atypical commissioner is that he doesn’t have a background as a teacher or superintendent. He worked on the administrative side of a school district and in municipal government and private business.

But he feels his background was an advantage. “No matter what I’ve done in my career, it’s always been getting into organizations and making changes. … Every time I get into a job it seems like my job was to turn it around,” he said. “Get great people and know where you want to improve things.”