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.

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”