Q&A

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

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
Longtime Colorado educator Elliott Asp

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.

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”