Verna Penny sits in the teacher's lounge at Carmel Middle School, waiting for her cup of tea to brew. She is the picture of reflection and a self-assuredness tempered by bumps along life's road. Unfazed by my question, she calmly responds that this year has been the toughest year of her nine in District 2.
We both go off-script for the next half-hour as she describes her year and tells her story — a story of school and life, fears and hopes. I learn a little about the challenges of being a single mom and about a car accident that totaled her car. She tells me about the daily effort to instruct well and the pride of making a difference for her eighth-grade students.
She had feared that she would not do as well on District 2's Effectiveness and Results (E&R, or pay-for-performance) plan this year, because personal struggles outside of school had taken her off her best game. She was relieved, however, when her evaluation resulted in a "Proficient I" rating, validating her effectiveness. Unprompted, she told me that she was optimistic about next year and that she had resolved to be even more effective.
Verna's story is similar to many of the approximately 150 short interviews with teachers that my team and I conducted this spring. It is the E&R story — the story of best hopes and worst fears.
The E&R plan begins not with rubrics or achievement data, but with the district's core beliefs. In Harrison, we believe that at-risk students can achieve with the help of highly effective teachers. Our teachers help our students achieve more than a year's growth in a year. A district comprised of 79 percent free- and reduced-price-lunch students, Harrison chooses to discard the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and believes that both our students and staff can meet high expectations.
The E&R story is also about change and the courage to travel uncharted waters. Our plan, based on systems thinking, good instruction and demonstrated success in raising student achievement, is arguably the most innovative and thoughtful pay-for-performance plan in the nation. There is doubt and self-doubt. However, there is also a great deal of confidence and support among the staff. Two weeks ago, 76 percent of the staff voted to accept the district's Agreement of Trust and Understanding, the most significant part of which revolved around the E&R plan.
With the recent passage of state legislation that requires districts to tie teacher evaluations to achievement results (Senate Bill 191), Harrison's E&R plan is a harbinger of the challenges teachers everywhere will now face. Districts will engage in arguments about fair evaluations, student motivation, expectations for at-risk students, and whether student achievement is more important than meeting the other intangible needs of children.
There will be many who lead people toward their best hopes. Unfortunately, there will be many others — some reporters, pundits, naysayers and even board members — who will resist reform, will misinform, raise false alarms, and otherwise take advantage of people's worst fears. My best hope is that cooler heads will prevail and that we truly transform public education.
Mike Miles, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger and diplomat, has been Harrison School District 2's superintendent for four years and wrote this in response to last week's cover story.
Harrison Principals Support District's Direction
Dear District 2 Board of Education:
How many times in life can people say that they have been part of something extraordinary? Better yet, how many times can people say that they have been part of revolutionizing education for the improvement and benefit of children?
To achieve different results, we must take different actions. Because our actions are shaped by how we see the world, to do something different we must see something different. We must question the assumptions and mental models we use to see the world, frame our thinking, and determine action. Innovation depends on it. (M. Kathryn Clubb)
Throughout the history of the Harrison District, we have been riddled with criticism from community, press and the department of education surrounding low student performance. As a district we were put on "Academic Watch" and deemed by the outside world as inferior.
To achieve different results, we must take different actions.
Four years ago Mike Miles was hired as a change agent to do just this. This journey has not been easy. Mr. Miles and the Board of Education have put in place infrastructures to address systems thinking and address leverage points.
For the first time in the history of Harrison, we have been placed on the national map for our reform efforts. Out of 150,000 schools across the United States, Education Week took note of a small urban district in Colorado Springs and the innovative ways it is solving the problems of a high-impact poverty district.
A large part of our recent success in Harrison has been the ability to focus time and energy in moving in the same direction. Although Harrison has always had a mission, it has only been recently that we have identified a common path and used this synergy to draw and hire people with common core beliefs and values to reach the end destination.
When questioning assumptions and mental models of the past, there is no question that this has forced some difficult conversations and changes. As with any life-altering change, there is bound to be friction, challenges and obstacles to overcome. It is just these types of obstacles and challenges which will be the impetus for us to be distinguished.
The greatest creative challenge is not only to do something different, but to be something different. (George Land and Beth Jarman)
We, the Principals of Harrison District 2, affirm that we are in support of Mr. Miles and the Board of Education on this journey to change history and be part of something monumental for the benefit of kids in our community. We are currently experiencing the highest levels of proficiency in the history of Harrison District, as well as closing the achievement gaps for our most at-risk students. We are pioneers of innovation and are being enlisted by others to help their journey to improve student achievement.
We in Harrison are not looking to do something different, but to be something different!
Harrison District No. 2 Principals