What the Board of Education chair’s turbulent departure says about Colorado schools
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to have civil discourse about education issues in Colorado.”
If thousands of kids protesting and lawmakers staying up until all hours trying to hash out workable compromises on testing reform didn’t tell you that public education in Colorado is a minefield these days, then the abrupt resignation of newly-elected state Board of Education Chair Marcia Neal sure should.
Neal served six years on the board before being re-elected for a second term last fall and then chosen as chair. Sixth months into that leadership position, she’s calling it quits, citing her personal health and the board’s dynamics.
“Sadly, our current board has become dysfunctional,” Neal wrote in a scathing letter announcing her resignation.
Neal slammed the board for causing “significant confusion in the field” when a majority comprised of the far left and far right told school districts it could grant them waivers out of the new PARCC standardized tests when, in fact, the board lacked the legal authority.
The board’s other efforts to obstruct the use of assessments included a move Neal says will prevent high-school students from ever finding out how they did on this year’s social-studies exams and make it “very difficult” to analyze science-test data as well.
Neal also lamented the board’s heated debate over the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which she implied was a waste of time because they turned out to have very little authority over how schools administer the voluntary, anonymous survey.
“[U]nder better circumstances, I would like to stay on the board to work toward common goals and mutually agreed upon aspirations for improving learning for all students,” Neal concluded. “In fact, I don’t hear any board discussions about the benefits of our work in supporting student learning – making students better prepared for the world they’ll encounter after graduation…If we’re not working for these things, what are we doing to meet our responsibilities for preparing our students for success?”
Elaine Berman, who served on the board for six years with Neal before term-limiting out this fall, said she was proud of her colleague’s candor and couldn’t agree more.
“There’s been a dramatic change,” said Berman of the difference between this board an the one she and Neal served on together.
“I’ve observed an amazing level of disrespectful behavior directed towards staff by members of the [new] board. I would characterize it as bullying,” said Berman. “While no staff have attributed their departures directly to the board, there is no question that at the highest level there’s been a mass exodus.”
Indeed Neal is not alone in her decision to jump ship. The commissioner of education Rob Hammond will be leaving at the end of this month along with at least four other members of the department’s “leadership team.”
“One has to wonder how much of the board’s seemingly destructive behavior has contributed to this exodus,” wrote Neal.
Rachel Zenzinger, a former state senator, social studies teacher and Common Core advocate, said she was disappointed but “not surprised” to hear of Neal’s resignation.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to have civil discourse about education issues in Colorado,” agreed Zenzinger, calling Neal’s resignation “a negative development for education in Colorado.”
“Neal has earned my respect for her moderate, thoughtful approach toward policies that enable kids to be better prepared for the future,” said Zenzinger. “Her resignation highlights how political extremism has disrupted the process, making it very hard to craft sound education policies.”
Inside sources say that Neal angered her fellow Republicans by supporting the election of Boulder Democrat Angelika Schroeder to the vice-chair position on the board instead of a Republican. Neal found herself further on the outs when lefty Denver upstart Val Flores joined ranks with the new conservative members of the board in taking a hardline stance on standardized-testing reform.
Neal, who voted against Common Core in 2010, wrote of finding herself frustrated as part of a moderate minority on the issue this year.
“Remember ‘A Nation At Risk’? Thirty years old, it forecast that the U.S. would be consistently outperformed by foreign nations. Actions by the federal government and by our current ‘local control’ crowd almost guarantee it,” Neal wrote. “Don’t we have better things to do than squabble with both the far left and the far right who share the same goals of no standards, no accountability, and no teacher quality efforts?”
For her part, Flores sees Neal’s departure as an indication of just how tough the job of steering Colorado’s public education has become.
“The pressure has been extremely high, on all of us,” said Flores, speaking specifically about testing reform. “I’m meeting people and talking to people all the time, day and night. I don’t even have a private life at this point, it’s so all-consuming.”
Flores added to the difficulties of coming to consensus on the new PARCC tests and Common Core standards, the larger structural challenges of the state’s radically under-funded public education system. She said the legislature didn’t appropriate anywhere near the necessary funds to implement the new tests, which require schools to have robust access to computers.
And the discord isn’t just around tests. For example, while Flores agreed with more conservative board members about reducing testing, they clashed on other issues from whether students are better off in charter schools to whether to invest more money into accessible early-childhood education for at-risk students.
“We can wish this was an apolitical position, but it’s not. It’s really not,” Flores said of the board. ” To say it’s not political is to bury your head in the sand.”
State Representative Paul Lundeen served as chair of the board before being elected to the statehouse. He too was unsurprised to hear of Neal’s departure, though he cited Neal’s health challenges and a recent car wreck as the primary factors.
“Leadership is challenging at any point in time. Leadership in education over the last year, maybe over the last two or three years, and probably for next couple, is going to be very challenging,” said Lundeen. “That said, I think we’re making progress.”
Lundeen pointed to the legislative compromise he helped hack out in the last few days of the session this year. He calls it the first step in a thousand because it involves a pilot program that would allow districts to experiment with assessments other than PARCC, edging the state away from Common Core.
Fellow board-alumni Berman did not think progress, or at least the right kind, is being made.
“To put it mildly, this is a very scary time in education and these are very serious actions,” she said. “The stakes here are huge. The new majority on the state board wants to dismantle all the reforms of the last ten years around high standards, around teacher evaluations and around accountability.”
Ultimately, if there’s one thing all these voices in education agree on, it’s that they’re sad to see Neal go.
“This is a big disappointment,” said Flores. “I’m sorry to see her leave because we were both teachers, and I think she knew kids and she knew the profession. She knew education. We’re just going to miss all that background she had and all those years she served on the board. I saw her as mentor. I think we all did. We all had a lot of respect for her.”
A cafeteria food fight, via Adam Jacobs.
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