on the record

Colorado’s new education commissioner on the urban-rural divide, turnaround schools and the teacher shortage

Katy Anthes (photo by Nic Garcia).

Katy Anthes is known as a consensus builder and a steady hand.

As Anthes begins her tenure as Colorado education commissioner, those traits will be put to the test. There are no shortage of divides over education policy, and the state has plenty on the agenda.

Anthes was serving as the education department’s chief of staff eight months ago when she put in her notice of resignation — part of a period of upheaval at the department that saw a wave of resignations.

She changed her mind and stayed to become interim commissioner after Rich Crandall’s abrupt resignation. (Anthes has declined to discuss what prompted her to want to leave).

In her first interview with Chalkbeat since dropping the “interim” from her title, Anthes discussed her approach to understanding the nation’s new education law, how she plans to work with the state’s lowest performing schools to boost learning and what equity in education means to her.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations. It’s been quite the year for you. First you resigned as chief-of-staff and eight months later, you’re the commissioner of education. Walk me through what it’s been like for you the last few months. How did you get from there to here — personally?

Situations change, circumstances change. I’ve always been really committed to the state of Colorado and education issues in Colorado. So no matter where my path was going to take me, I’d still be working on those issues and committed to those issues. It was a bit of a surprise, too, after giving my resignation, to step in. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to think deeply about those opportunities and I did.

It was announced earlier this year that you had planned to stay through May. And then just weeks later, it was announced you got the job permanently. What changed?

It was an ongoing process and discussion. We were working well together with the board and it was really a board decision. It was up to them. I can’t speak to their internal process. But when that discussion arose around, “Do you want to be permanent?”’ I was excited to take the opportunity.

You’re the first woman to lead the department since 1951. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised to hear that. It’s exciting. I’m honored to be in that role for sure. I also know I work with a lot of incredibly talented amazing women leaders, so it doesn’t feel that different or unique to me. I hope I do it well.

The urban and rural split is Colorado’s education community is sharp these days. You see it in the funding debate, the testing debate, the accountability debate, the teacher shortage. What steps is the department taking to really think through these different issues and positions?

That’s definitely a real tension and a real issue. I think it’s something we’ve always grappled with, too. Our role as the department is to implement the law the legislature passes with integrity and fidelity, and also implement the regulations the State Board of Education passes with integrity.

We definitely, and I as the leader of the department, always want to have the conversation, “What do those policies and those implementation practices look like for either a rural district or an urban district?” They certainly are different contexts.

What we’ve done so far in the last seven months, and when I was chief of staff and in other roles here, is look at those practices and see where can we support rural districts a little more, knowing that they don’t have all that personnel to submit their data reports. They don’t have a long line of teachers waiting to take all the hard-to-staff jobs. I think we’ve been investigating that in terms of data reporting — how do we streamline it, make it easier for rural districts.

Let’s talk about the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Your predecessor, Rich Crandall, had this idea of using ESSA to completely reshape or reimagine Colorado’s education landscape. Under your leadership, it’s been a much more tempered approach. You’ve repeatedly said the Colorado is in compliance and there probably isn’t a need for new legislation. Why this approach?

I think some of it was around understanding ESSA. For all the good intentions of going big and rethinking the landscape, we had a landscape here.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Interim Education Commissioner Katy Anthes addresses a joint committee of lawmakers studying the nation’s new education laws.

I think it was important that we do some education. We actually had a waiver from (the previous federal education law), No Child Left Behind. If you went from what are the rules and regulations under No Child Left Behind to what are the rules under ESSA, that would be a big shift.

But Colorado already did a big shift. We weren’t operating under the same kind of constraints that No Child Left Behind outlined. (The state received waivers from certain aspects of the law). So the shift you’ve seen, and the more tempered approach you’ve seen, is because we have a context. We got those waivers early on.

And we have a state legislative framework we’re already working under. It’s not necessarily the federal law that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We have our own state laws that talk a lot about those same things.

If we wanted to go bigger within ESSA, most of those changes would have to be taken up by our legislators. We wouldn’t be able to take that up as a department because we have to follow the law of our state.

You’ve said we probably don’t need new legislation to comply with ESSA. Do you think the state’s lawmakers are going to listen to you?

(Laughs.) That’s a question for them. But you know, I think we’ve been in ongoing dialogue with them. And we’re learning, too. It’s a long law. And the regulations are now coming out in pieces and parts. We’re making sure everything matches up. I don’t think we need any major changes (to be in compliance).

But legislators would have to make that decision if they want to make any changes to the state framework.

The state board has raised concerns about waivers to state law, especially around the law that governs how districts measure if Colorado’s youngest students are ready for school. Talk to me about the department’s concerns and what kind of legislative fixes you hope to see.

I’ll follow the lead from the board. It’s the governing entity that decides if it wants to take any stances on policy. I am in conversations about that. I think they have a balanced concern when they say, “Yeah, we want to provide some flexibility when it makes sense and when we can learn from it. But we also want to know that we have some timeframes for the districts to come back and report on progress. What are the district’s learning?” I think that’s what I’ve heard from the board so far and that’s what they’re interested in.

The teacher shortage: The department really doesn’t have a lot of authority to help in this issue. But can we expect to see anything in the coming year out of the department to help address this issue?

It’s definitely something high on my radar screen. It’s a concern I’m hearing from rural districts and from some on the Front Range, too. It’s something I want to explore and talk to the board about and see how we could be helpful. My personal approach to those types of things is being a convener — to have a discussion and collaborate with folks about different ideas.

You’ve been visiting with the state’s lowest performing schools and districts as they approach the end of the state’s accountability timeline. I know from talking with some of your staff that you want to find solutions to boost learning in collaboration with these districts. But are you also prepared to make recommendations to the state board that might go against the districts’ wishes?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class. The high school is one of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

If the situation calls for it — absolutely. Our north star is around supporting student achievement and increasing student achievement. So we want to work in collaboration with school districts. Each situation will be different. Each context will be different. The trajectory of each district will be different. So I, along with the staff and others, are taking all of that into consideration. No two recommendations will be alike.

What are you hearing when you talk to these schools and districts?

I’m hearing that they have a sense of urgency, that there is a lot of hard work being put into their efforts, and in some cases there is some success. But turnaround is not fast work. There is no silver bullet that fixes it all. So I’m hearing they have to approach this work from multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are starts and stops. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s hard, complicated work. But I’m hearing they are committed to doing whatever they can.

The list of schools facing possible sanctions includes a mix of urban and rural. Is there a common denominator?

I don’t think there is a common denominator. You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things. And these things present themselves differently in different communities. So I don’t think there is a common denominator. It’s really contextual. And I think the support and the recommendations have to be contextual.

Do you believe all Colorado students have access to a quality education?

I think we are all striving for that. I think there are probably differences in context and communities. And I think that truly is our north star — that quality is happening. I think that is something that the legislature and the board and me and others across the state are striving for. There are probably places where it’s not all the same, and the opportunities are not all the same. And that’s part of the crux of the conversation moving forward.

I think having the conversation is important. I do think that raising issues of equity, and what equity means, what does equal access mean — that will be an important thing for me to do, and to have that open dialogue to get those different perspectives.

What does equity mean to you?

That’s a tough question. I think equity does mean that every student, no matter where they live, no matter what district they’re in, what ZIP code they’re in, has the opportunity to reach their potential and the opportunity to go wherever they want to go in their future: a career, college, their family business. And that they had an opportunity during their schooling to explore their different passions and enhance those passions.

Any predictions for how the education landscape may change in 2017?

I’m not a prediction person. We know every year we have somewhere between 50 and 100 education bills that come across. So I’m sure the education landscape will continue to shift. And I think we’re up to the challenge as it shifts, and up to the task to make sure all the different perspectives are heard.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, he Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.