Straight Up Conversation: Douglas County Supe Liz Fagen

I recently had the chance to sit down and chat with Liz Fagen, superintendent of Douglas County School District in Colorado. Liz is intriguing. She’s a superintendent of a fair-sized (60,000 students), suburban, high-performing system who is pushing aggressively forward on controversial efforts around school vouchers and teacher quality. We pay a lot of attention to urban school districts, but much less to high-performing suburbs–where there’s typically less interest in much of the current “reform” agenda. All of that makes Liz and Douglas County kind of unique. I thought it worth chatting with Liz a bit about what they’re up to.

Rick Hess: Many readers may not be familiar with Douglas County. Can you say a bit why some observers think the district is such an interesting place?
Liz Fagen: There are a few things that the school district has taken on in a systematic fashion. Probably the most noteworthy is the board voted in what we call the choice scholarship program. Other people call it a voucher, [but] I think it’s slightly different than just the pure voucher. The idea is to allow students to select [a partner] school. The child can attend a private school with a portion of the revenue we receive from the state. That’s one of the big things.

[Another is] we have discovered that while there are a lot of assessments out there, there are really no assessments that measure what we–and our parents–find to be the most important outcomes for our students. So what we’re working to do is develop our own assessment system. Which has turned out to be, really, quite a project, because we haven’t been able to find the third-party support we thought we might.

So we’re working with our own teachers and our own assessment department, developing assessments for our students’ most important outcomes. [This includes] some of the more interesting 21st-century skills [around] creativity, collaboration, and communications…. [We want] a higher quality assessment, and then to collect the data that we get from those assessments and use that to identify some of the best teachers in our school district.

RH: You’re pushing forward on teacher evaluation, too, with a bit of a twist. Can you say a bit about what you’re doing?
LF: We have three different areas where we measure teacher performance. One is through a new evaluation instrument; the second is through the balanced assessment system, which I just referred to; and the third is in areas that we call world class education targets. Basically, they’re things that we believe we need to see in every classroom going forward. And if the teacher does well in all three areas, then we have put forward a framework that provides them with an additional amount of pay for hitting the rigorous targets…We’re moving away from the step-and-lane salary schedule toward what we hope is paying teachers based on market value for what they can teach their students. And [we’re] then overlaying that with pay-for-performance systems where they can make additional money based on how good they are.

RH: The assessment piece obviously entails a ton of work on your part. What are you looking for in assessments that you are having trouble finding?
LF: What we’re finding is really low-level kind of stuff that’s out there. What we call the “floor.”… What we want from our students is a lot more than that for them to be college and career ready…where students actually perform something and then the teacher loads the data about their performance into the system. Or even performance tasks that are more electronic in nature. Our dream is the Microsoft Light Table, where you have kindergartners doing work on a computer screen and the information is being captured about their progress and the teacher can assess that information.

I use the example of the Tag Reader pen. Leap Frog has this little pen and when my daughter uses it in a Tag Reader book the pen actually learns what my daughter can do. And if I plug the pen into my computer it…will actually show me how she’s doing on the various components of the learning progression. The pen is measuring what my daughter is doing as she’s doing it. But it’s not an additional assessment. I’m from Iowa and I joke with my teachers that if the pig doesn’t get fatter stop weighing it. So we don’t want to spend a whole lot of time assessing. We want the assessments to be natural, in real time. We don’t want our great teachers to have to do extra stuff. Instead we want to capture all that data real time just like that little pen does.

RH: Where are you on the assessment and evaluation pieces, in terms of the time line?
LF: Our assessment department is currently field testing items in math and reading. Our principals are working through the year getting used to the new evaluation system, really getting their feet wet with it. Of course the market-based pay and the components of pay have to go through negotiation process. So we’re doing that right now.

RH: Will the assessments have to be revisited when the Common Core is implemented?
LF: I believe that our assessment officer would tell you that because we’re using the Common Core to develop the most important outcomes for our students, we’re already aligned–we just exceed it.

RH: How do you characterize the Douglas County school system?
LF: Douglas County is just south of Denver. We have approximately 60,000 students, about 80 schools, including 11 charter schools that are district-operated. Our demographic is largely a middle-class school district. We don’t have a great deal of minority students [or] low-income students. We do have a few schools that have higher numbers [of those students], so it exists in pockets.

RH: And what’s achievement look like?
LF: It’s a very high-achieving school district; we’re always in the top three districts in the state. And again, we don’t feel like that gives us a lot of information. We’re really interested in knowing how our students are doing on a more international stage. So this year we are piloting the PISA test in two of our high schools. We want really want to know that our students can compete with any students in the world for whatever they want to do. And so we’re trying to push the envelope and think about things well beyond the low-bar state standards.

RH: Can you talk a bit more about this choice scholarship program? What was the thinking behind it and how has it been received?
LF: I wasn’t actually here when that started. But in 2009 there were a slate of candidates for the board that ran together. And they ran on a reform platform [saying that Douglas County] is a good school district…but it’s time to push it forward. They were all elected at a pretty high margin and they felt like the community had spoken clearly and was saying, “We want reform, we want you to get in there and push the district forward again.”…So the board came in and they started out of the gate with some charter school work [and] eventually they started what was called the choice task force.

We took [the task force’s recommendations] and we immediately went and met with the Colorado Department of Education. We explained that we have the most amazing schools in Douglas County [and] we do not fear competition from private schools. But we would like the opportunity to make other schools available if our students wanted to go there. So CDE worked together with us, we met with various groups, and we took lots of feedback and input.

And ultimately we designed the program, private schools applied to be our partners, we put them on a list, and we had a pilot of 500 students. The students get to choose from any of these private schools, but they have to get in on their own merit. If they do, we give the parents a check endorsed over to the school for 75 percent of the pupil’s tuition… In March the board voted to accept our entire strategic plan including the choice scholarship program. They created the policy and we were off and running. And then we were sued by the ACLU and it was enjoined by a Denver district court judge.

RH: And what’s the current court status?
LF: It is now in the Colorado court of appeals. We’ve been told that no matter how that goes either side would appeal, so we know that we’re heading for the Colorado Supreme Court. We are in such an interesting budget time in our school district, where for the first time, really, budgets are shrinking instead of growing. And we are a growing school district–even during these times we grow around 1,200 to 2,000 students per year. We used to grow as many as 3,000 per year. The board was really committed to saying, “Look, we know that the budgets are shrinking..So we will not pay any litigation. So we’re going to privately raise all that money,” and that’s what we’ve done.

RH: You’ve sketched an agenda that most would regard as pretty contentious, especially for a high-performing system. Have you gotten much push back with the board or the community?
LF: The board is great… I think that the community is a fifty- fifty split on the choice scholarship program. Just because there are people that question their tax dollars going to a private entity, and particularly to a religious school.

RH:You’re a suburban district, and few suburban districts in the nation have embraced this kind of reform agenda. Why do you think that is?
LF: I think one of the reasons is it is harder in a suburban school district when you have high-performing students. Change is hard if all of your metrics are implying that everything is great…. [But] I think it’s incumbent on school districts like Douglas County to lead the way, to try things and to be partners with urban districts in saying, “We’re going to pilot this and we’ll let you know how it goes. And we’ll help you if you want to do it and vice versa.”

-Frederick Hess

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up

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