Volume 3 Issues 3

Jeffco Recall Election Raises Timeless Issues

by Tom Coyne, Guest Editorial

I have spent my career working on organizational performance improvement challenges, which have consistently centered on the same three questions that are at the heart of the election to recall members of the Jeffco Board of Education.

First, do we have a performance problem? 
Many organizations will deny the existence of a performance problem until the truth becomes too painful to ignore. Some candidates in this election apparently believe there is no student achievement problem in Jeffco. Ron Mitchell claims “Jeffco was on the brink of greatness” when the new board majority was elected, while Amanda Stevens cites “the district’s track record of excellence.” The evidence tells a different story. 

Every student in Colorado takes the ACT in 11th grade. It is the last comprehensive measure we have of the cumulative result of the taxpayers’ investment in twelve years (K-11) of their education. 

In 2015, only 44 percent of Jeffco students met the ACT’s “college and career ready” (C&C) standard in reading, only 44 percent in math, and only 40 percent in science. 

Among low-income Jeffco students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL), just 24 percent met the C&C reading standard, 20 percent met the math standard, and 18 percent met the science standard. However, only 50 percent of non-FRL eligible students met the C&C reading standard, 54 percent met the math standard, and 47 percent met the science standard. 

Between 2008 and 2015, over 27,000 Jeffco 11th graders have failed to meet the C&C standard in reading, over 28,000 have failed to meet the math standard, and over 34,000 have failed to meet the science standard.

That doesn’t look like a track record of excellence, or a district on the brink of greatness. 

And please don’t reply, “But Jeffco outperforms (fill in the blank).” In the real world, that doesn’t matter. If my children can’t do algebra, they aren’t getting the job or into the college they want. In our intensely competitive world, if Jeffco’s children aren’t graduating college and career ready, they’re going to struggle for years.

The second question is: If we admit we have a problem, what will we do? 
Substantial performance improvement always requires substantial change. There are no magic bullets.

The board members that are the target of the recall—Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams (“WNW”)—have supported significant changes to improve student achievement in Jeffco. These changes include the following:
•    Establishing measurable achievement improvement goals
•    Approving a new math curriculum
•    Making free full-day kindergarten available to every FRL student
•    Increasing additional school funding per FRL student from $150 to $850
•    Strengthen-ing local control and accountability by giving principals more authority over their budgets
•    Increasing the rigor of program evaluations to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money
•    Raising pay for starting teachers to attract more talent
•    Basing teacher pay raises on performance rather than seniority
•    Switching to new assessments that provide much faster feedback
•    Revitalizing School Accountability Committees, which give parents and business leaders a strong voice on achievement improvement issues

In contrast, the candidates backed by the recall campaign propose a strategy the key elements of which (based on their websites) include “keeping great teachers in every classroom,” “full-day kindergarten for all students,” and “strong neighborhood schools.”

The third question is: How will we implement our performance improvement strategy? 
Substantial change inevitably generates conflict. Yet too many struggling organizations place conflict avoidance (typically described as a “collaborative approach”) above the urgent need to take action to improve their performance. The result is a poorly implemented strategy that fails to achieve its goals. The election in Jeffco highlights this classic tradeoff. WNW believe that “change is hard,” and a temporarily higher level of conflict is a price worth paying for faster improvement in student achievement results. In contrast, the candidates backed by the recall campaign have placed less conflict and more collaboration at the top of their agenda.

Will History Repeat Itself? 
This isn’t the first time that Jeffco has confronted these three critical questions. In 1997, faced with rising public frustration over poor student achievement results, Jeffco hired outsider Jane Hammond as superintendent. She made many significant changes, and won passage of an award-winning mill levy that tied increased taxpayer funding to improved student achievement. 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. 

Over the next decade, collaboration was a high priority in Jeffco. But student achievement stagnated despite billions in spending. Time will tell if history repeats in 2015.

Tom Coyne is a political Independent. He is a member of Jeffco’s District Accountability Committee.