Elliott Asp has done it all (pretty much) in Colorado education. Here’s his take on where we stand.

When it comes to Colorado education, Elliott Asp has seen it all.

He taught for several decades before serving as assistant superintendent in the Douglas County and Cherry Creek school districts, moved to the Colorado Department of Education and was appointed interim education commissioner in 2015.

In spring of 2016, Asp transitioned to the nonprofit sector. He worked with the Washington, D.C.-based organization Achieve, and now serves as a senior partner at the Colorado Education Initiative, which works with the state education department to provide teacher training and to support programs in STEM, health and wellness, and other issues.

Asp recently received this year’s CASEY award from the Colorado Association of School Executives, which recognizes a current non-educator who has “made a significant contribution to education,” according to the organization’s website.

We asked Asp for his take on changes to Colorado’s public education landscape — and what the future might bring. Here is our email exchange, edited for length and clarity:

What are the defining characteristics of Colorado’s approach to efforts to improve public education for all students? What distinguishes us or makes us stand out?

There are several key aspects of Colorado’s approach to improving education. The most important one is our focus on “local control” – which I think is a great strength.

It is our belief that those closest to the local classroom have the greatest understanding of the needs of the school and the community and are best positioned to make these crucial decisions. When we have combined this “bottom-up” approach with a few collaboratively developed state-wide requirements, we have been most successful.

We have adopted state goals when it makes sense to do so and we have developed processes for routinely reviewing those goals so that all interested parties can have their voices heard. Our approach to intervening in habitually low-performing schools gives preference to locally developed solutions and allows districts to bring additional evidence of student learning and contest their state accountability rating.

Colorado has been considered a leader in education policy because of reforms dating back years now in teacher evaluations, early literacy and more. Do you think the state’s policies have had the desired effect? 

We were one of the first states to develop academic content standards and administer a state assessment based on those standards that required kids to do more than answer multiple choice items. Our state assessments were groundbreaking at the time because kids had to write about what they read, develop and revise a piece of writing and explain their reasoning in math.

We were also one of the first states to set postsecondary and workforce readiness as the goal for all students and create a preschool-20 vision for public education (Governor Ritter’s CAP4K legislation). Our educator evaluation legislation (led by Mike Johnston) has served as a national model. Our focus on the importance of early literacy has also brought us national attention.

Like all state policies, some of these have had unintended negative consequences. However, there have been many positive outcomes as well. For example, while there was a narrowing of the curriculum in some districts and schools in response to the “content” state assessments and the way the results from those tests are used in the accountability system, teachers have also reported that they have improved their practice in reading, writing and math as they prepared their students for those assessments.

The educator evaluation policy caused districts to carefully examine their evaluation systems and make some much needed changes to ensure teachers and administrators received more useful feedback. It also helped ensure ineffective educators got help to improve, along with a more workable mechanism for removing those who did not.

Colorado continues to be a leader in educational policy and reform. Some of this leadership comes from our Department of Education and legislature, but much of what makes Colorado a national leader is the groundbreaking work of local districts, schools and nonprofits that are supporting some very effective local and state efforts. A prime example is the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), my new professional home. CEI supports innovation and transformative change in the service of improving outcomes for every student, and I am very excited to be part of this organization.

For us to continue to be national leaders, it is important for all players in the policy space to communicate openly and regularly. We are much better at finding solutions and adapting them to local needs when they emerge from a collaborative process rather than in an isolated manner from a specific sector, no matter how well intended.

You served on a committee that helped review state plans to comply with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you feel Colorado’s compared to other states? Will ESSA change public education in Colorado much? 

There was great hope that the flexibility afforded to states under ESSA would lead to innovative approaches to state assessment, broaden the focus of state accountability systems and provide more relevant and useful data to practitioners and community members. However, that has not been the case.

Most states have made some minor changes, but their ESSA accountability systems look a lot like their systems under the previous law, No Child Left Behind. Some of this is due to the change in administrations. States were not clear how the Trump administration would differ from the Obama administration when it came to approving state plans and were reluctant to make large changes that may not be approved.

The greatest opportunity under ESSA is to expand our notion of accountability to include, for example, non-test sources of data about student outcomes, such accumulation of career and technical certifications.

ESSA also provides the chance to explore different models for state assessment. We could take advantage of these opportunities by having districts experiment with different approaches to see if these lead to improved student outcomes locally and if they could be scaled statewide.

For example, a group of rural districts is using a “peer review” process as an integral part of an accountability project they have initiated. This kind of outside review could be one way to make the state accountability system more relevant to all districts, even those that are relatively high performing.

What is your read on how Colorado is doing on PARCC, now three years in? There has been some progress, but the majority of students still aren’t meeting the bar the state has set. What does that tell you?

This is not surprising. It reinforces what we’ve known for a long time – not all kids are graduating high school postsecondary and workforce ready. This is a relatively new goal and will take some time and resources to meet.

When I was in high school at Wasson High in Colorado Springs, only some kids were expected to go on to some sort of postsecondary training. That was how it was in every high school in that era because at that time you could still find some way to earn a living wage with only a high school diploma. That is no longer the case. To support a family and have options in their lives, students must be prepared to access and succeed in some sort of postsecondary education program.

For us to reach this goal, we need to create multiple pathways to postsecondary and workforce readiness within our high schools. These pathways must go beyond the “typical” college-bound, academic path to include career and technical certificate programs, work-based options and early college opportunities, to name a few. It is critical that these pathways are equally rigorous and personalized to student need and interests.

Colorado’s achievement gaps on tests aren’t shrinking. What kind of things can be done to change that storyline?

There are three basic things that we need to do to reduce achievement gaps and eliminate the predictability of student outcomes by student characteristics (e.g., race, gender, income).

  1. We must hold the same high expectations for every student, believe that they can meet those expectations and communicate that to students in a meaningful way. This is not about verbally expressing platitudes like “all kids can learn.” We communicate high expectations to students by our behavior – the questions we ask in class, who we call on, the instructional materials and processes we employ, who is in particular classes, the kind of support we provide for every student, how we reach out to families and honor different cultures in the classroom and school.
  2. We must ensure that every student has the opportunities to learn that will prepare them to become postsecondary and workforce ready. That includes more than enrolling in courses. It also involves the kind of curricular materials we use, the instructional approaches we employ and additional supports we provide. It goes beyond the school day to include providing assistance so that students come to school able to learn and have the materials and access to technology that will enable them to succeed. Every student must also feel emotionally and academically safe in school.
  3. We need to monitor student progress and intervene quickly when things are not going well. This can be done in the classroom on a daily basis as teachers use formative assessment practices but also includes leading measures related to student achievement such as attendance, course enrollment and social-emotional indicators.

Do you think that the plans that were approved for Colorado’s “out-of-time” schools and districts this past spring are going to be enough to turn around achievement? The state did not take the most aggressive steps it could have, in terms of closing schools and districts, or charter takeover. Are the actions the state and districts taking bold enough?

That is a question that can only be answered over time, but I want to compliment the Department of Education for their hard work and dedication in working with districts and schools as they went through this process. At times this was difficult for the adults involved, but the goal was not to make adults feel comfortable – it is about improving student outcomes.

It is critical that ineffective schools are not permitted to continue to operate indefinitely. But we know that state take-overs rarely work. We have had some success in Colorado with closing schools, governance changes and so forth when it is a local decision that is supported by the local school board and community. So I think the State Board of Education was wise to allow districts to move ahead with promising practices that are developed and supported locally. Every school and district situation is unique and will require some degree of individualization to be successful. There are no magic bullets.

It is important to remember that we can fundamentally change only three things about a school: what is taught, how it is taught (including who is doing the teaching) and the culture and organizational conditions in which those occur. A district or school is fortunate if it only needs to change one of these. Most ineffective districts and schools must change all three — and that is a very difficult task that takes time and focus.

This “end-of-clock” process in Colorado provides the opportunity to observe the work of these districts and schools and identify what strategies and actions seem to be the most effective in particular settings. We need to make good use of the lessons learned as we work to improve this process in the service of students.