A Critique of Jason Glass’ Vision for the Future of Jeffco Schools
Jefferson County Colorado lies to the west of Denver, and has a population of almost 600,000. It is quite affluent — 42% of adult residents are college graduates, and median household income was $70,164 in 2015.
The Jefferson County School District is the 36th largest in the United States (Denver is the 35th). Jeffco serves 86,000 students, with 160 schools and total revenues of about a billion dollars per year. Of Jeffco’s 4,900 teachers, 98% are rated by their school principals as effective or highly effective (despite the fact that, according to the US Department of Education, 30% of them are chronically absent). One third of Jeffco students are eligible for free and reduced lunch (which includes students who “choice-in” to Jeffco from surrounding districts), and 11% attend charter schools.
Regardless of Jeffco’s affluence and substantial spending on public schools, its academic results have been mediocre for the seven years since we moved here from Calgary.
In fact, stagnant student achievement results have been a problem in Jeffco for more than twenty years.
In 1997, faced with rising public frustration over student achievement, Jeffco hired Jane Hammond, an outsider with a very strong track record of success, as its new Superintendent. Hammond made many significant changes, and won passage of an award winning mill levy that tied increased taxpayer funding to the realization of improved student achievement results. In just one year, Jeffco was halfway to its three-year achievement goal, and Hammond was named Colorado’s 2001 Superintendent of the year.
In 2002 she was suddenly replaced by Cindy Stevenson, a career Jeffco employee. And since then, achievement results in Jeffco have failed to significantly improve.
On the 2016 state assessments (Colorado is a member of PARCC), only 42% of Jeffco 3rd graders met or exceeded the state standard for English Language Arts. For 6th graders, 49% met or exceeded the standard, while only 46% of 8th graders met or exceeded it.
On the 2016 state math assessment, 45% of 3rd graders, and 41% of 6th graders met the state standard. In 8th grade, about 1/3 of Jeffco students take an advanced math assessment (e.g., for algebra), while 2/3 take the assessment for grade level math. In the latter group, only 19% met or exceeded the state standard.
On the 2016 ACT, which is taken by every 11th grader in Colorado, only 32% of Jeffco students met all four college and career ready benchmarks (ACT results are highly correlated with scores on the ASVAB test that students who want to serve in the military must take, as well as pre-employment screening tests).
Finally, about one-third of Jeffco students who attend college must take one or more non-credit remedial courses.
In May 2017, the Jefferson County Board of Education announced the appointment of Jason Glass as the district’s new Superintendent. Glass comes from Eagle County schools, a Colorado district one-tenth the size of Jeffco.
As he did in Eagle County, Glass has recently released his vision for the future of Jeffco (The Eagle County report is “Unparalleled Altitude: A Globally Inspired Vision for Eagle County Schools”. The Jeffco report is “Jeffco Generations: A Learning-Centered Vision for our Community’s Schools”).
This article will critique Glass’ vision for the future of Jeffco schools.
I’ll begin with the observation that after forty years in the private sector, I can think of few activities that have wasted more employee time than “missioning and visioning.”
One problem is vast confusion over the meaning of these two terms: Ask ten people to define them and you’ll probably get ten different answers. Here are just a few that you can find with a short google search:
· “Mission is about purpose. Vision is about the future.”
· “Mission and vision are interchangeable terms.”
· “Mission is what you do, for whom you do it, and the benefit. Vision is the picture of your preferred future.”
· “Mission is about major organizational commitments. Vision is the organization’s high level goals for the future.”
· “Mission tells you why; vision tells you what.”
· “Mission is about doing. Vision is about seeing.”
· “Vision is inspirational. Mission is practical.”
A second problem is the insipid results of most organizations’ attempts at “missioning and visioning”. Quick: Can you write down your organization’s mission and vision statements? Or can you tell me how they guide you in making the decisions you face every day?
If you couldn’t, you’re far from alone. I’ve asked these questions of clients for almost forty years with the same depressing result. The painful truth is that most mission and vision statements are exercises in organizational vanity that are indistinguishable, generic, and so filled with buzzwords that they are devoid of practical meaning, much less the ability to inspire action and guide decisions.
Instead of typical mission and vision gobbledygook, I vastly prefer the definitions used by military organizations:
A “Commander’s Intent” is “a clear and concise explanation of the purpose of an operation and its desired end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders to act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.”
A “mission order” is a statement of “the task, together with its purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefore.”
“Mission Command” is “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified operations.”
While not perfect, the military’s approach is, in many ways, the antithesis of that found in too many organizations, whose mission and vision statements are meaningless fluff and where email’s CC and BCC functions are routinely used to diffuse accountability (and pre-assign blame) for the results of any risky action that can’t be avoided and must be taken.
More broadly, over the years I’ve also learned the virtue of practically focusing on purpose, strategy, plans, and feedback loops rather than wasting people’s time on meaningless missioning and visioning.
Purpose is far easier to discern than most people think. Just ask yourself this question: What would the world lose if your organization ceased to exist tomorrow? Hopefully, the world’s response won’t be “good riddance.”
Strategy is also far less mysterious than it is often made out to be. It is simply a causal theory of how to achieve an organization’s most important goals with limited resources in the face of uncertainty (see, for example, “Does Your School District Have a Real Strategy?”).
With that in mind, let’s now turn to Jason’s vision for the future of the nation’s 36th largest school district.
In point of fact, “Jeffco Generations” is far more than a description of a desired future state. Behind its buzzwords is a rough description of Jeffco Schools’ purpose and some (if not all) of the elements of a district strategy. But the document also has a number of glaring and critical omissions.
With respect to Jeffco’s purpose, Glass states that, “the core purpose of any educational system is learning. More specifically, its focus should be on the experience of the student.” Elsewhere he suggests a more concrete purpose, writing that, “our schools need to change and adapt if we wish to prepare Jeffco’s next generation to compete in the lightning-fast global economy.”
Not quite, “Jeffco’s purpose is to educate students who are prepared for the challenges of college and career in the global economy”, but getting there.
Strategies that are complete and effective are grounded in an unsparingly honest situation assessment that includes both an understanding of how an organization came to its present circumstances, and an anticipation of the trends and uncertainties that will shape its future environment.
The first glaring omission in Glass’ document is the total absence of any discussion of Jeffco’s student achievement results (stunningly, the word achievement never appears in the whole document), or any examination of Jeffco’s history and the lessons he has learned from it.
To this critical issue, Glass devotes only one sentence: “Jeffco Public Schools has challenges around equity when it comes to funding, facilities, and available supports.”
This is a frankly shocking contrast to the many lessons I described in my case study of the obstacles to performance improvement in the Jefferson County school district that I have observed in the seven years since we moved to Colorado from Alberta (see, “Why Do So Many School Districts Fail to Improve?”).
Looking to the future, Glass’ discussion of the trends and uncertainties facing Jeffco is perfunctory, and includes these statements:
· “I think the most important change impacting [public education] is the shift in the global economy.”
· “In today’s merciless and instantaneous global economy, anything that can be automated or outsourced to a cheaper labor market will be (or it already has).”
· “Commerce, communication, and competition are pervasive, instantaneous, and relentless in their pace and demands.”
· “Content is important, but what is more important is what a student can do with that content in a changing world and how they use both knowledge and skills in pursuit of their individual passion.”
· “For our future generations to succeed, we will need to reinforce those things that are uniquely human: aesthetic and human experiences which bring meaning, purpose, and beauty to the world.”
· “The introduction of technology into learning and our schools profoundly transforms the realm of possibilities.”
· “The world’s best performing education systems consider teaching a profession which not everyone can or should do.”
Based on its assessment of the past and the range of possible futures it could face, a leadership team must determine the most important and measurable goals that an organization needs to achieve within a specified timeframe in order to survive and thrive.
In the military, the determination of these few critical goals lies at the heart of mission command, which enables flexibility and agility while also ensuring alignment and synchronization throughout an organization.
The Jeffco Generations document contains one statement that sounds like a critical objective:
· “Prepare our students to engage in this new world and succeed in an environment of constant change.”
But it then goes on to list of seven other critical objectives, including:
· Content Mastery
· Civic and Global Engagement
· Self-Direction and Personal Responsibility
· Critical and Creative Thinking
· Collaboration and Leading by Influence
· Agility and Adaptability
To confuse matters further, at a recent training session for district principals, Glass’ team noted another set of goals, saying, “We do not have educational equity in schools until schools are free of oppression. That is:
Nowhere does Glass indicate how any of these goals are to be measured, nor does he provide any sense of prioritization that would enable Jeffco staff to make practical tradeoffs between their achievement.
With respect to the timeframe in which these goals must be achieved, Glass first asserts that, “the changes proposed here [in Jeffco Generations] are deep and meaningful in scope” and then states that they will “take years of focused intensity to execute fully.”
At its heart, strategy is a creative process that seeks to resolve the tension between the critical goals an organization must achieve and the limited resources it has available to reach them in an uncertain environment.
Setting out ambitious goals and describing how they could be achieved without taking limited resources and uncertainty into account is not strategy, but rather an exercise in wishful thinking that comes with a built in excuse: “It didn’t work because you didn’t give us enough money.”
Thus the second glaring omission in Glass’ “Jeffco Generations” document is its total silence on the critical issue of limited resources. Glass never mentions considerations like these:
· The certainty of another teacher pension (PERA) funding crisis;
· The high probability that substantial increases in state K-12 funding will not be forthcoming, because of competing demands from a backlog of infrastructure projects and an explosion in social safety net spending to support the rising number of people who lack the skills needed to succeed in today’s economy;
· Voter resistance to paying higher taxes unless and until governments (and our schools in particular) significantly improve the value they provide; and,
· Declining enrollment in district-run schools.
Nor does Glass address the critical issue of how efficiently and effectively Jeffco is spending the billion dollars it currently receives each year from the taxpayers. In fact, the words “taxpayer”, “money”, “effective”, and “efficient” do not appear anywhere in “Jeffco Generations”. And the only mention of “funding” is with respect to the alleged lack of “equity” in Jeffco schools.
The lack of any discussion of limited resources is a stunning omission by Glass, and a likely a telling indicator of what lies ahead for Jeffco.
The creative heart of every strategy is its causal theory of success, which describes how an organization will achieve its critical goals in the face of uncertainty with limited resources.
Glass makes multiple causal statements in “Jeffco Generations”, but fails to relate them to the achievement of different goals, to prioritize them in terms of their potential impact and timing, or to estimate the resources they will require.
This is not a strategy. It is a shopping list that includes these statements:
· Somewhat ominously, Glass lays out what he seeks to end, which includes reversing many reforms made in the past two decades. He begins gently, saying that, “raising standards and accountability sheds light on students we may have been overlooking. In addition, the infusion of choice and competition has led to new and innovative school models.”
· However, he quickly states his conclusion about the overall worth of these reforms: “In spite of all of these changes and tremendous effort involved in implementing them, we have not seen the kind of dramatic and positive change in quality across our entire system that we’d hoped for. Our schools were often misdirected, confused and overwhelmed by conflicting reforms that were never designed to work together.”
· And then Glass makes this incredible statement: “Instead of continuing this chaotic approach, Jeffco Public Schools will focus our efforts on strategies which have a direct impact on changing the student learning experience.” It remains to be seen whether this means that Jeffco will soon dispense with high standards, accountability, and choice. And it is certainly odd in light of his other statements in Jeffco Generations, not to mention the district’s new initiative to launch an arts-focused high school.
· Confusingly, Glass goes on to note that, “It is essential that the experiences of our students be anchored against high expectations. Our schools can accomplish that through an intentional process of alignment: alignment of learning experiences with curriculum, which is aligned with standards, which is aligned with high (and internationally benchmarked) expectations.” Unfortunately, Glass gives no indication of how Jeffco parents, employers, and taxpayers are supposed to know when and if these high expectations are met, and how many students meet them. And he says nothing about how he plans to internationally benchmark Jeffco’s results (say, by using the PISA assessment).
· “Change the student learning experience in ways that make the teaching and learning experience more hands-on and skills-focused…Learning content (facts) matters, but what matters more is giving students the opportunity to apply that content to real-world situations, problems and scenarios — where they get the chance to practice skills such as communication, self-direction, civic engagement, problem-solving and creativity.”
· “We must educate our students so that they are all able to engage with and appreciate the arts, creative design, support them in becoming life-long creators, and expand opportunities to acquire new languages.” Again, are these goals co-equal with traditional goals like mastering reading, writing, math, and science?
· “The best performing education systems have intentional procedures and systems to monitor how students are doing and adapt the learning experience of the student based on their needs. We must work to make sure these well-established best practices are present in our schools, with clear and repeatable processes and procedures, so every student receives the individual attention they deserve.” Like many districts, Jeffco has for years employed MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) and before that RTI (Response to Intervention) for just the purpose Glass describes. But he isn’t clear what else he has in mind.
· “Create intentional pathways through our education system which are customized to each student’s strengths, aspirations and talents — which lead them to fulfilling and meaningful lives that give each student the opportunity to do what they love and make a difference.” Again, this is already happening at Jeffco. But Glass has supported budget cuts at the most diverse high school in the district where pathways programs are most advanced.
· “We must expand apprenticeship, internship, and other experiential education opportunities in partnership with businesses and our community so that students have real-world and meaningful learning experiences as part of their education.” Again, this has already been happening at some Jeffco high schools, sometimes in partnership with Denver Public Schools’ CareerConnect and the state’s CareerWise programs. But as CareerWise has discovered, school districts are in no rush to adapt their scheduling systems to give students the time they need to work at these apprenticeships. Time will tell whether Glass is willing to remove that obstacle.
· “We will expand opportunities and develop even stronger partnerships with community colleges and other institutions of higher education, where our students can earn early college credit and be more prepared for post-secondary education.” Concurrent enrollment programs have been around for years. Again, one wonders what else Glass has in mind? Perhaps paying for Dual Enrollment courses at institutions like the University of Colorado, and not just concurrent enrollment courses in community colleges, which Jeffco has up to now refused to do?
· “We must change our school practices to involve parents in decision-making and bring our community into our schools as partners.” That is exactly what Colorado’s School Accountability law was intended to do, with its creation of School and District Accountability Committees. Yet again, this leaves one wondering what exactly Glass has in mind here.
· “It’s critically important that we work with our communities and parents to make sure all students have the supports they need in place to engage in the learning process.”
· Turn schools into “community hubs.” Glass clearly isn’t aware that Jeffco rejected piloting the Massachusetts Wrap Around Zone model in favor of adding “Social Emotional Learning Specialists” and a new “social emotional curriculum” to the school week. Many will cynically chuckle when they read this line.
· “Expand early childhood education.” Despite his avowed love of evidence, Glass cites none to support this initiative (probably because the evidence is very mixed and controversial).
· “We should honor and preserve Jeffco’s tradition of school-level autonomy, and empower the professionals at buildings with the flexibility they need to deploy resources to meet the needs of their school. But we should also have a level of system-ness, and a common vision and direction we are working toward.” Perhaps Glass should read up on Mission Command?
· “Jeffco Public Schools commits to this professional model of teaching and in doing so also commits to treating our professionals with respect and dignity. The best instructional decisions for students happen close to the work, which is why our professional model of teaching must also empower educators to make key decisions about instructional approaches, curricular resources and lessons.” This is an interesting and important point. Despite the emphasis Glass places on high standards and an aligned, high quality curriculum, he apparently intends to let teachers continue creating their own, even though this practice has been widely criticized in recent reports. This approach is also at odds with those found in high performing systems outside the United States, which is something you would think a self-professed “international benchmarking expert” like Jason Glass would acknowledge.
· “We must also compensate our educators as the knowledge-workers they are… As a system, we must commit to paying our teachers (and all our employees) a fair, livable and reasonable wage.” Unfortunately, Jeffco has repeatedly raised teachers’ pay with no improvement in student achievement results. And Glass completely avoids the issue of the state’s teacher pension funding crisis and its implications for future teacher pay and district costs.
· “We need to start taking some calculated risks, embracing new, creative, and evidence-based models of learning, and bringing more of a start-up mind-set to our district. This spirit should imbue all aspects of our work, and compel us to consider if there are better ways to support student learning.” Unfortunately, as many organizations have discovered, this is much easier said than done when an organization’s culture has reinforced the opposite norm for many years.
· “Jeffco must adapt and change to prepare our students for their future. A central element of this change will be to take on an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to innovate and adapt.” Again, a noble intention. But Jeffco has a deeply rooted culture that has resisted change for many years. Glass completely avoids any discussion of how he plans to successfully implement this initiative, much less how he will measure its success.
In sum, with “Jeffco Generations”, Jason Glass has presented parents, employers, and taxpayers not with a vision, and certainly not with a strategy, but rather with a shopping list of initiatives. While he says they will take years to produce results (if they ever do), I suspect he will soon ask Jeffco voters to pay-up front for these initiatives with much higher taxes.
The CEO of a billion-dollar private sector company with a desperate need to improve its performance could never take this approach.
Time will tell whether Jason Glass succeeds with it in Jeffco.
Tom Coyne is a co-founder of K12 Accountability Inc. (www.k12accountability.org)