Everybody’s talking about education reform and it’s easy to understand why. America’s education system is outdated and broken. While national leaders opine on the subject, a groundbreaking transformation is underway at the local level in Douglas County, Colorado. Douglas County is a short drive south of Denver, but its education community (including students, parents, teachers and administrators) is stealing the spotlight from Colorado’s capital city.
Officials built a comprehensive program on choice, world-class education and systems performance that will transform every aspect of the county’s education system. The highest profile aspect of that plan is related to choice. Last year the Douglas County School Board took an unprecedented vote to create the first district-authorized voucher program in the United States. They approved the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program for 500 students in the 2011-12 school year. Under the program, eligible students can receive vouchers worth the lesser of private school tuition or 75 percent of their per-pupil public revenue ($4,575 for 2011-12) and families are allowed to supplement vouchers.
In this August 2012 Innovators in Action interview with Reason Foundation’s Harris Kenny, Douglas County School District (Colorado) Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen (pictured on the right) outlines the educational transformation underway in Douglas County. Highlights of the interview include the district’s ongoing legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union and the district’s decision to not sign an exclusive collective barganing agreement with a teacher’s union that would represent the entire district. This interview is a long one, but it’s loaded with valuable insight into some of the most innovative education reforms happening in the U.S. today.
Harris Kenny, Reason Foundation: Can you walk through your professional background and experience leading up to today?
Dr. Elizabeth Fagen, Superintendent of Douglas County School District (Colorado): It’s been an interesting journey. I was a high school science teacher in Iowa, and then I became the principle of a school for students in 7-12 grade in Iowa. Then I went on to be a high school principle in Iowa. At that point I wanted the experience of leading in a large system, so I accepted an associate principal position-which is kind of like an assistant principal but it’s a step above that-in West Des Moines at Valley High school, which is a big high school. West Des Moines Valley High School is just three grades, 10-12 grade, and about 2,000 students. Most of the districts in Iowa are small, and I wanted to get the flavor of leading in a larger organization.
As an aside, I feel like I’ve had this great blend of leading in both small and large organizations. When you’re in a small organization you have to do everything. There is no Human Relations Department-that’s you, and on and on it goes. My small district roots taught me all the parts of the system, which ultimately led me to be able to be in the position I’m in today.
Next I went on to be the executive director of high schools in Des Moines, an independent school district where I supervised all the high school principles and all the alternative school principles. We had a new superintendent come in, and I become associate superintendent. This gave me the opportunity for K-12 experience. I then went to Tucson to be the superintendent of Tucson Unified School District. And now I’m serving as superintendent here in Douglas County.
It was never a planned path. I never started out saying I wanted to be a superintendent-it just didn’t start that way. I was just fortunate, I worked for a lot of great leaders who brought out the best in me, and they allowed me to continue to move up and grow and learn. I worked for some challenging leaders also, but I learned a lot from them too, just in a different way.
Again, I think that small school start taught me all the different parts of an education system, which makes me what my cabinet calls a hands-on superintendent. I have experience in finance, operations and human relations, so I understand all those different areas. But obviously, my heart is in instruction and moving the system forward in the way we educate students.
Kenny: What was it like when you got here, and where did you start?
Dr. Fagen: When I got here, most of the cabinet members had either retired or gotten promotions in other districts. So when I walked in, it seemed rather lonely. However, I had the opportunity to hire the majority of my team. I met with the principals right out of the gate. I asked them, “What are the things that you want out of the system? What are the things that are great, that you don’t want to lose? What are things that are not as great, that we need to fix?” As a result of their feedback, we completely redesigned the central leadership structure to support the leadership in our buildings.
We flattened our organizational hierarchy too. The other superintendent has six or seven direct reports and I started out with seventeen. The first year we saved about $500,000 in on-going cabinet expenses alone by flattening the organization.
I had a fair amount of work to do building relationships throughout the system. When you’re new that’s important, and in a big system it’s especially hard. At the same time, the board was raring to go because they had been in place since 2009, so they had been there for a while and were ready to move forward with some things. I had to put my relationship building on a fast track where I was meeting with mayors, state and local leaders, teachers and all these people as fast as I could. I was busy both hiring my team and creating my team. You can bring all these people in, but you don’t have a team right off the bat.
Once we had all the pieces in place-as best you could after six months-we started building a strategic plan for the district. We did that with the mindset of, “We want Douglas County students to be the best prepared in the world for whatever they want to do. We know that means not just reforming, but transforming, many different parts of our organization.” We built that plan, which includes choice, world-class education and system performance. The board voted in favor of it in March 2011, and we began implementation.
It’s probably the most rigorous reform agenda of any district, of which I’m aware, and we’re all very passionate about it. It’s a lot of work though in a system this size.
Kenny: How did the principals respond? Were they surprised that you so eagerly gave them a voice? And were they prepared to bring solutions to the table?
Dr. Fagen: The answer to that is so interesting. So, first the way superintendent contracts work is that you start the first of July. And I scheduled my first meetings with them the day after the Fourth of July weekend. I think they were initially thinking, “What a terrible time for a meeting.” But out of respect for the new superintendent they all came. And they had tons of ideas.
I could tell that the system had been through a long year of transition. That was immediately apparent to me. Because the previous superintendent left suddenly the board hired an interim superintendent for a year. Then there was a board transition. Generally speaking, the superintendent role is to assist the board with their transition in. However with an interim, it’s not exactly the same. The health of the system didn’t seem to be where it needed to be. There was certainly a level, from the principals, of “We need some leadership. We need some stability. Stop the revolving door of ideas.”
They immediately had a lot of ideas, and I listened intently to what they brought to the table. Historically, the district had been organized different ways, but most recently, it was organized in nine feeders. What I knew for sure was that I couldn’t afford that model. They had, had nine feeder directors – that’s really expensive. Then on top of that, an assistant superintendent, curriculum directors, and many other leaders. So I said to them, “Look, we have to come together here on a model that is both economically feasible, given our fiscal situation, and one that will support you in moving forward because we have work to do.”
They were great, they talked about how in previous years the elementary schools felt they didn’t have a lot of support because there were not people in the cabinet with a strong elementary background. So I knew that was a priority to get some cabinet-level folks who had been elementary school teachers and had walked in those shoes. What I was most impressed by was when they said, “You know what? If we can’t be organized in feeders the way we have been, that’s okay, because we’re happy to take the role of calling feeder meetings. We can call each other up and organize them ourselves. We don’t need somebody from the district to do that. What we need is somebody who works with all the high schools on high school reform issues; all the middle schools on middle school reform issues; and all the elementary schools on elementary school reform issues.”
They were smart about it. They had great input and we used it to fill our open positions, which was helpful because time was at a premium.
Kenny: How is implementation of the plan going? I know there has been a lawsuit filed against the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, can you give an update on that?
Dr. Fagen: I believe in systems thinking. The district put together a high-level plan that’s, as I mentioned earlier, is built on choice, world-class education and system performance. The choice piece has twenty-seven strategies and one of those strategies is to build a student scholarship/voucher/option certifications-it has had many names throughout its development-at the end of the day we call it the Choice Scholarship Program.
I think it’s important to look at the big picture choice and a lot of people don’t understand why I would be a fan of allowing students to take part of their per pupil revenue (PPR) and go to a private school. I think it’s pretty simple to understand that as a superintendent my goal is that every single child who lives in Douglas County receives an educational experience that provides the maximum opportunity for success, or sometimes we say ‘Unleash the genius of every child.’ We know that you don’t do that using a one-size-fits-all system, so opening the door to other options, or other opportunities, that we don’t have in the district by providing this 75% PPR to a parent allows a child to reach his or her potential. For me that’s what it’s all about.
People think this is all a political platform, and that’s when I often say, “You need to understand that among the board members I believe there are 18 children, and of the 18, 17 go to Douglas Country neighborhood schools, and the other one goes to a charter school in Douglas County.” My child, who’s in school, I have a 2-year old so she’s not in school yet, but my older child who’s in school goes to a Douglas County neighborhood school. So when making the selection for our children we have chosen Douglas County schools. That’s not to say that private schools are good or bad, it’s just to say that we value the schools in this district and that this is not about any political kind of thing. It’s about if a parent says, “The difference for my child will be Humanex Academy and they cannot go there without that 75% PPR, or $4,500 dollars,” we don’t understand why we would want to get in the way of that as long as it’s legally okay. We always want to do what is best for the child.
So when we moved forward with this, we had the Choice Scholarship idea. Originally we started with the Choice Task Force seven sub-committees. One sub-committee was the voucher sub-committee and they came forward with a program I believe they called ‘Option Certificates’. As time went on it had lots of different names. Some people liked to call it ‘Vouchers.’ We think it’s slightly different, because you have to be a partner school by meeting conditions of eligibility, and you have to be a Douglas County resident student who has attended a DCSD student for at least one year. The student stays in the district. They enroll in the choice charter school. The choice charter school opens the door to all these other choices and the charter school staff stays in touch with that student and family through assessments and also counseling and coaching opportunities. So it’s not a pure voucher, where you just take your $6,500 backpack and go where you want. That’s why we intentionally called it the Choice Scholarship Program, and as we moved forward with this idea, we knew it was dead on arrival without being within the requirements of the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) – including the legal requirements.
In our very first meeting, when the board presented this concept to my team and really turned it over to us, they said, “We’re interested in you going further with this… See what’s possible.” Our first meeting, the first week of January, was with the CDE. We sat down with them and said, “Here’s our vision for what we want to do for kids. Is it even possible? Is it possible for us to do this and for you to pay us for the students?” If they had said “No” we would have been done. We’d have had to go home and say “They won’t fund the students; there’s no way to do it.” So the CDE, seeing our passion for what we want to do for kids, really brainstormed with us about the possibilities for them being able to fund it, and they basically told us that if we were going to have it, we had to be in compliance with the School Finance Act and many other laws, rules, and requirements. If we were going to use a charter school model, we would be provided all the same waivers that charters get, and then we would only have to be in compliance with the School Finance Act and No Child Left Behind. So that’s the model that we used. They basically told us that if we continued down the path, and could be in compliance with those things, that they would be able to fund the students. So, we built the system that way.
We actually went back to them with our draft of the system, and a lot of our good ideas came from them. They would pose issues to us and say, “We’re concerned about ‘X’.” We would find a way in our pilot program to mitigate that concern. One was that they were worried about the state budget because the economy has been so challenging. They said, “We’re worried you’re going to have all this open enrollment from children in other districts who were going to private schools anyway, and you’re going to dramatically increase the state budget for students at a time when there’s no money.” So we said, “Look we’re a local control school district-we really believe in local control. We’re not trying to tell everyone else what to do. So, we’re happy to say that this is a program for Douglas County resident students who have attended a Douglas County public school for one year.” That was a win-win-win, because that means they’re already in the state budget and it also means we have baseline data on their performance. If they go to a private school and all of a sudden they’re doing horribly, we know how they were doing when they were with us, and we would be able to coach the family, and counsel with the family, and make sure that that student gets back on track. We got this draft plan together and that plan was highly influenced by CDE, by other superintendents in other districts, by lawyers who told us this was okay and this way not okay.
We really were open to ideas and we ultimately finished our draft. We decided to take it on the road in Douglas County, so we did community forums in Highlands Ranch, Parker, and Castle Rock, where we invited people to come and to do two things. One, we allowed the pro-Scholarship Program folks to present and we allowed the against-Scholarship Programs to present. They all worked together so there was one big presentation by this group and one big presentation by that — instead of having 50 people get up and say the same thing.
Then we had a session after that where they got to ask us questions and provide us with input. A lot of the questions they asked really polished our thinking on various aspects of the program and we made revisions almost after every meeting. We Ultimately brought the board what we felt was a very thorough program pilot that would be good for students, that had all the risk mitigation in it that we needed, financially and with our partners including CDE. We felt that it was a pilot that was going to provide us with the data we needed to know, and really show if this works financially, if it works for kids, if it works for student achievement, and if it benefits taxpayers.
So we put it in place. We had 500 slots in the pilot, and we had 497 initially kids apply. It’s just serendipity. We had about 31 private partner schools that we partnered with, and we never actually said, to somebody, “No, you’re not a partner school.” We would send back things and say “We need you to work on this, or consider that,” and they would do it. Some chose not to, and that’s okay too. We had no intention of being entangled with them at all — not in their admissions policies or anything else, but we had to have financial stability, we had to have curricular stability, we had to have quality teachers — these kinds of things. And then we started the year and these students actually got to start the program. Our schools started and life was going along and then the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued us. We went to Denver District Court, and unfortunately it was not in Douglas County. Being a big believer in local control we thought that that argument should have been had in Douglas County, but the ACLU sued not just us, but also CDE and the Colorado State Board of Education, which allowed them to move the case to Denver District Court. The judge ruled against. When you read the judge’s opinion there were a lot of really important parts of this that just weren’t addressed, and we felt it didn’t give our students the opportunity to really understand why they couldn’t continue. And we were required to call all of it back. So we did.
We worked with our private schools, and some of these schools said “You know what? We’re going to let these kids stay and we’re not going to charge them the difference.” Others couldn’t afford to do that. We had some families that personally fundraised for their kids to go and then some who came back to the district. That was a tough thing because when you have a child who has struggled for various reasons, and finds a place where they really feel like they’re at home, they could learn and grow and be the best that they could be, and then say to them “You can’t stay here,” that was really tough. It was tough on our parents, and it was tough on our community and I think that our community stepped up a lot to help parents navigate that. Now we are in the Colorado Court of Appeals and the other side has asked for extensions, which they’ve gotten. This has really lengthened the process, but we fully expect to go to the Colorado Supreme Court and perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court on the Blaine Amendment issue. Many states have Blaine Amendments and this seems like an appropriate case to bring this issue to that level. And by the way, we received 100% of the money we provided to families back.
It has been a difficult budget season for the district for about four years. The board was concerned about the litigation costs of this, but they were committed to it for our students, so they made a commitment to privately fundraise all the money. To date we have raised just short of a million dollars for this case, and we believe that will take us all the way through the Colorado Supreme Court. We have many, many people who have told us that should it go further, to the U.S. Supreme Court, they would be very interested in helping to fund that, so we don’t think we’re going to have any financial issues for that. I’ve always felt that the program was good for kids and very compelling. I feel like our legal team has really made a compelling case that we are indeed within the law in what we’re hoping to do.
Kenny: Besides choice, can you give an overview of the 27 reform strategies that the district is pursuing?
Dr. Fagen: We have 3 big priorities: choice, a world-class education for every student, and system performance. Within choice, this program is one of some 27 strategies. It’s funny, because I’ve had people say to me, “Well why all this stuff on vouchers? Why aren’t you concentrating on doing what’s right in education?” and I just kind of laugh and say, “You know, you’re just not correct about that.” We’re actually doing all of those things, that just happens to be the one that the media likes to write about the most.
Kenny: You’ve described this revolution, or transformation, to achieve the district’s goal of providing a world-class education system. What are some specific aspects of these strategies? And how do these strategies reflect what seems to be educators’ dual mandate of ensuring global competitiveness and meeting individual students’ needs?
Dr. Fagen: Well the way we have framed it is that we want all of our kids to have choices. We know every child needs to learn how to communicate and that has lots of pieces. We don’t care if they do it in an artful learning space, a Montessori space, or a core-knowledge space. I mean, we want them to have all these choices, but all of those choices need to be world-class. When you say that to people who are not into the educational world, their eyes glaze over because of the “educationeese.” Putting it simply, when I talk to non-educator audiences or parents, I say, “Look back to what your educational experience was about. It was about developing some skills as far as reading, writing, and then mostly memorization of information.” They all nod and say “Yes, that’s what it was about”, but today that’s not useful. We have to remember that then we were starting our education system we were preparing kids to be assembly-line workers, and the attributes you want in an assembly-line worker are you want them to be compliant, you want them to be quiet, have work ethic, do what they’re told, and this repetitive kind of thing, right? School worked really hard to prepare kids to do that, but today that’s not the case. Not at all.
What I do is I go to the hiring sites for companies like Apple, Nike, and Google. Why those? Because, well, Apple is widely considered a successful business. Google is seen as one of the very best places in the country to work. People give that the highest ratings as far as work-satisfaction. Nike is an international company that has stayed current and evolved over time. They are not new, but they are highly successful. So I use those three just as examples and go to their hiring sites and pull off what they say they want in their workers. It’s things like ‘breaking the mold’ and ‘compassionate’ and ‘having passion’ and its ‘creativity!’, ‘innovation!’, ‘solutions!’ I use these words and I say, “Now think back to your education. Is this what you were prepared to do? To invent, and reinvent, to rethink, to be curious, and to push?” ‘Obliterate’ is a word that Nike uses on their site. Obliterate old thinking and old ideas. Parents always say “No, that’s not what they were coaching me to be and do.” Beyond those websites, I have had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the scientists from Biosphere 2 and even business folks in downtown Denver, and across the board these key business folks will tell you that our students think every answer is found in a book. That’s by virtue of our last ten years where we really prized those standardized testing experiences where there was one right answer, the teacher had it, and you had to figure it out. But what we’re hearing from key business leaders, key industry leaders, is “This is not the skill-set we want. We want innovation, creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking. These are the things we want.”
In Douglas County the first step for us is to re-think what we teach. Even to really broaden the idea of the word ‘teach’. Teachers are less dispellers of knowledge and more facilitators of skill-development and coaches, so we have gone down this path of creating what we call the Douglas County Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum. I wish the terminology was more modern, but when you’re trying to change a very old system sometimes using a name that’s comfortable to people is helpful. If you give it some crazy new name it’s scary. We have created on our website, “What does every kindergartner need to know and be able to do?” and it’s not the old kind of stuff. We’re really pushing the boundaries. Even though we have a first draft of it, we’re even questioning ourselves and saying, “Did we go far enough? Can we push this farther?” and the answer we think is “Yes.” Part of having a world-class education is having world-class outcomes and being focused on the right things, and developing these highly creative kids who know how to collaborate with people from all over the world. That can communicate in writing, by speaking, and listening; all these components. Who are wonderful readers, or course, and kids who are critical thinkers, who understand how to collect data and research, and to synthesize it, evaluate it, and come out with something new. That’s the first part. The second thing is then you have to be able to assess all those new outcomes. This is where Douglas County is really a pioneer, because the country has been obsessed with testing, but the tests were never very good. At least, they did not authentically measure the most important outcomes.
Kenny: Is it accurate to say that nobody effectively tested the tests?
Dr. Fagen: Right. Recently people just are saying, “Well, good, here’s a test. We’ll use it.” We’ve searched high and low for a partner to measure through performance these outcomes I’ve described, and we can’t find it. It doesn’t exist — they are doing it in other countries, but not here. What people want to do is say “Yeah, we do that.” and when you dig deeply into their stuff, it’s not there. So we are literally writing our own performance assessments. For example, we field tested our performance assessment in grades 2 through 8 in math and reading that we believe are better than any assessment you can just go out and purchase last year. They’re aligned to those outcomes that our teachers said were the most important, and they’re aligned to the outcomes we know our kids need. Once you have those kinds of assessments, and we’re just beginning, you really know how your students are really doing and you can start to see how your teachers are doing too. We don’t think anything is measured on one test or one day so we’ve developed what we call ‘The Balance Assessment System’ and those interim assessments are part of it, but they’re not it. There are formative assessments, which teachers do ahead of time to find out how much kids know about certain things, interim assessments that we’ve developed, and then summative assessments. We’re still going to take things like ACTs and we have the only two Colorado high schools that participated in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for Schools pilot. PISA is an international assessment, which allows you to see how you did against Singapore, Finland, China, and India, and these are the things that we need to know. We’ve participated in that pilot and we’re continuing forward because when we say ‘world-class’ we mean it.
So you have all these new outcomes, you’re assessing all these new outcomes, you’re taking that assessment data and you’re holding yourselves accountable for your students’ growth, your teachers’ performance, your leaders’ performance, and your schools’ performance and then your district performance. And all of that together creates what we call the ‘System Performance Framework.’ It’s complicated.
We’re also working with our teachers. We have done incredible professional development this past year and this summer — we have literally hundreds of teachers going through development opportunities where they’re sitting down with an old lesson or an old unit, or they’re sitting down with these new outcomes and we’re helping them backward plan a modern, or a world-class, unit where they say “These are the outcomes and they’re important. These are the quality assessments I’m going to use. Now let’s talk about how I’m going to teach it.” It’s no longer “sit and ‘get,” it’s, “How do I create the opportunity for a student to construct their own knowledge, their own learning and be able to create, invent, and practice skills?” It’s hard work. Teachers will tell you this is not how they were trained. They love it, they understand that it’s best for kids today and they want to do it, but it’s really hard work, and we are committed to supporting them in doing it.
It would be a huge asset to us if we could partner with higher education and perhaps rethink some of the teacher training. I actually did pitch an idea to the University of Denver (DU). I said “We had a third-grade opening at Northeast Elementary this year and we had 300 and some-odd applicants. We have to screen through those and figure it all out. It’s really a lot of work, which is fine, but it would really be helpful if you offered a course at DU that was an elective, that taught some of the things that Douglas County is pioneering: backward planning, modern outcomes, performance assessments, quality teaching strategies; all this. And then, if a student elected to take that course and then they applied to our district to work, we would give them higher priority. It’s funny, because DU is like “Wait a minute. You’re saying that what we’re doing isn’t what you need?” and I said, “Well, I’m just saying, again, we believe in local-control. We’re not trying to tell everybody what to do, but these are the things we’re doing, and if you were helping teacher-candidates learn that in advance, it’d make a really big difference. We haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m hopeful that we will.
We actually have an elementary principle here that wants to offer an internship program for aspiring teachers that want to work in Douglas County, to learn all those things by working in her school for a period of time and learning all those pieces. So there’s ‘choice,’ there’s ‘world-class education,’ there’s ‘system performance,’ they’re all integrated and we’re working to prepare our students to compete around the world for any college or career they want, and we believe they will be the leaders. We also want to provide a model that other districts, if they want to, can take from, learn and grow from. Sometimes it’s easier to have an example than it is to start from scratch. Well, we feel we started from scratch. We’re okay with that.
Kenny: Given the challenges at the state and federal level, and from the higher education community, can you pinpoint why it’s so hard for districts to implement reform like this? Why is Douglas County able to be so revolutionary?
Dr. Fagen: First of all you have to remember that school districts have a board of education, and most of the time board members run as individuals and they have their own vision and paradigms in thinking about what education should be like. Then a superintendent has to bring those people, that sort of eclectic group of people together and help them develop a common vision, and if the board changes a lot then you’re doing that repetitively. And you can’t seem to get anywhere, right?
Well in Douglas County, in 2009, we had four board candidates that ran together as a slate and said, “This is our vision. This is what we want. If you elect all four of us then this is what we promise to do.” I wasn’t here at the time, but when people first said that to me I was like “Ahh, you know, okay,” but having lived through the past two years of it, what a difference it makes to have unified leadership and unified vision. Then in 2011 there was another board election and the four worked with three others who said “We’ll run as the other side of that slate and work with them and collectively we’ll continue this vision forward.” When you have that and don’t have to develop it, it can be a blessing. Developing it can take years, and then you have a board change. Here we basically had these candidates that have stepped up and said, “We want choice, we want the right kind of teaching and learning, we want the right kind of accountability, we want our teacher to have professional pay, and we’re willing to do it.” Then they all get elected, which means the community agrees with those things, and you don’t have to go through this whole, long process that can take years.
A reform-minded superintendent colleague of mine in another district, didn’t have that when he got in, so he literally brought thousands of community members together in an auditorium and they used chart paper and sticky dots and they all decided what it was they want the district to be. That was a huge process. Well our board came in, having already set that out, laid it out for the community and said, “If this is what you want, vote for me,” and the community voted for them and so we were sort of further down the road. What normally happens next is even if you get that stuff together, there gets to be… change is scary, and change threatens some people’s status quo that they really like, and so even if you have a board that does the chart paper and comes up with a collective community vision you still have times of turmoil and it takes great courage to stand on what’s right for kids when you have adults that will attack you personally for it. A lot of people just decide, “Wow! This is a voluntary position!” Or you have a superintendent that is intimidated and says, “Jeez. This is really not okay. I’m not excited about this.”
Kenny: Do any factors jump out that help explain why Douglas County is so reform-minded right now?
Dr. Fagen:The keepers of the status quo are vigilant in their positions and they will do what they can do. And there’s a lot of leaders that just don’t want to be attacked, and don’t want to be demeaned by the ‘status quo folks.’ You have to have the right amount of courage, and conviction, and knowhow.
This board has had the courage; this leadership team has had the courage to say, “We’ve started down a path. We know what’s right for kids, including our own, and we’re going to stand strong no matter what the attacks are, no matter what kind of lies are told, whatever, because we know we’re doing the right thing for the right reason. We’re so well grounded in that. Most districts I think struggle to get all those arrows aligned. I mean you could have a majority of the board aligned, but a superintendent’s not. Or a district leadership team who doesn’t have the capacity, or whatever, to get it all lined up like we have it. I have to say this too: Let’s say you have a board, and a leadership team, and they’re all aligned. Maybe your system doesn’t have the capacity. Maybe your teachers don’t have the capacity. We have in this district the perfect storm of positive. We have the absolute right staff, we have the absolute right leaders, we have the right district team, we have the right board. So that has made all the difference. When people come up to me and say, “How do we get there? How do we get this in our district?” I just say, “Look, you just have to start at the top. The community and the board have to be aligned in a common vision; they have to be absolutely steadfast in it. They can’t waver, no matter how hard it gets and they have to recognize that district leadership matters too. That you have to have the people with the expertise actually implement it, because we always have great ideas in education. We have tons of them, and lots of them just never go anywhere.” So it’s an important combination of things. It has to be the perfect storm.
Kenny: What do you see coming up for the district? How do you see next year going, besides the choice lawsuit that you outlined earlier?
Dr. Fagen: Several things have happened. We did open negotiations this year, which was wonderful for me. I think it was wonderful for other people, and for the community too. Normally, as superintendent, negotiations are very hard, because technically you’re not allowed to talk about it. So how do you negotiate on behalf of 100% of your teachers when you can’t talk to them about it? You know what I mean? It doesn’t make sense to me and it never has. In past districts where I’ve tried to just survey the teachers and say “Everything’s limited. Would you rather have salary? Would you rather have benefits? Would you rather have jobs?” I mean, these are our choices, right? We all have to do more and have fewer people or we have to have less other things. I’ve surveyed teachers and I’ve gotten real pushback on that. “You’re not supposed to be doing that!” I’ve said, “I don’t understand. These are my employees. I’m working on their behalf and want them to have what they need. I want to do as much as I can within the parameters that I have.” The notion of opening negotiations, which everybody agreed to, allowed me to go out and talk with teachers. We did listening tours in the night and follow-ups at some schools; not all. I really got to listen and exchange ideas with the teacher and principals. Principals have always been okay, but the teachers… it was always sticky when it was closed negotiations.
I used all that information that my team and I gathered to build out our budget and to build out our negotiations’ package. Knowing what our teachers want and need, we put 25 things on the table that we believed, and still believe, are great for our kids and great for our teachers and moved the district forward. With three big goals: maintain and improve the fiscal health of the district, improve the quality of life for our teachers, and continue to move the district forward for our students. We aligned all of those 25 things with these goals, and we went to negotiations. It was a real struggle. There was a lot of stonewalling; there was a lot of chasing our tails. I wasn’t part of that team; this is just second-hand information and from the tapes. We were hoping that we would come to the table and say “We would like to do a 1% retention bonus, what do you guys think about that?” and the other side would say “We think that’s a good idea, but maybe it shouldn’t be 1%, maybe it should be a flat amount for everyone, because our youngest and newest teachers have been frozen on step at $30,000 for 4 years. Maybe everybody should get ‘X’ dollars instead of them only getting $300 and people making $75,000 for the last three years getting $750.” That’s the kind of thing we hoped for and we just didn’t get that. We really wanted an exchange of ideas around the items we knew we could afford to implement, and it didn’t happen. We have hours and hours and hours, over a hundred hours, on tape of this, and I haven’t listened to all 100 hours of it of course, but it was a very disappointing experience in that we just couldn’t come to agreement on things that we really believed were good for our teachers.
The contract expired on June 30th, and on July 3rd the board decided that they didn’t want our teachers to feel any kind of ambiguity. They didn’t want the teachers out there saying, “Well jeez, the contract expired and now I don’t know what’s going on.” so they felt very passionate that they should come together (even though one was in Spain and one was in South Carolina) when they hadn’t planned to come together, it was a day or two before the 4th of July, but they felt very passionate that they come together and give our teachers the reassurance that they were committed to the raise, they were committed to the retention, they were committed to the benefits improvements, and they were moving forward with them, regardless. So they did that, and because we didn’t expect to be in this spot, we didn’t exactly have everything figured out, and we’re working on what we call the employee, I think it’s called, the “Compensation and Benefits Program, “which kind of replaces the notion of a collective bargaining agreement. It just tells employees what they should expect as far as workloads and salary and pay-for-performance, and all that kind of stuff. We drafted up, knowing that it needs improvement, because we had to do it really fast. There are several other areas just like that. So what we’re doing right now is, for all those areas where we didn’t settle, and we didn’t get any collaboration on, we’re going back to the table with ourselves and saying “Okay, what’s the very best way to do this for great teachers?” and putting that stuff together. We’re doing all of that, and we’re going to have to transition our system in the fall so that principals understand what the ‘new’ sort of day looks like and what changes have been made. We’re just sort of getting our sea legs.
Kenny: How would you sum up the current labor situation for Douglas County teachers?
Dr. Fagen: What would be correct to say is that there is no collective bargaining agreement, and there is no exclusive collective bargaining agent. Teachers are always free to join any teacher organization that they want.
The district historically has collected the dues through payroll deduction, paid for part of the union full-time equivalents (FTEs), and agreed that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was the exclusive bargaining agent for all teachers. One of the items that was very contentious for us in negotiations was that under the spirit of choice we felt like there are teachers that choose not to join the (AFT) that should have the opportunity to join other groups We also should have the opportunity to work with those other groups if we want to, if the board wants to. So we asked the teachers’ union if it would be okay if they were no longer the exclusive bargaining agent, if they were just a bargaining agent, and they refused to agree to that. For reasons that were very confusing to me, and to our team, saying that it was a democracy to do it this way. I guess I just don’t see that. They said it would create chaos; I don’t see that either. I think that when you open the door to choice, and teachers join any organization they feel benefits them, or none at all, that’s the way things should be. We didn’t say we wouldn’t bargain with them, we just said we wanted the opportunity to bargain with other groups if we wanted to, and they said “no.” So that was one of the areas where we couldn’t reach agreement.
Kenny: This appears to be a major change for the district, is that accurate?
Dr. Fagen: Yes, it is a major change, and I feel like we had the courage to do what was right. They did not agree with it, and of course that’s their decision, but it’s the board’s legal requirement, by the (Colorado state) Constitution, to be in charge of the district and approve the contracts, and they can’t approve a contract they don’t think is right and that’s why the contract just expired. There are provisions regarding local control, education, and school boards that are very specific.
Kenny: How are the teachers responding?
Dr. Fagen: I had two teachers who actually asked me to lunch two weeks ago. They’re two veteran teachers at one of our middle schools and they said “We just want to take you to lunch” and I’m just thinking “Oh! What’s this about?” I sat down with them and one of them, a very respected and good teacher, said to me, “I have never felt more like a partner than I do right now. I am working side-by-side, hand-in-glove with leaders across this district to reinvent American education. I’ve never felt more involved or empowered and I love what we’re doing and I want to know how we can get the message out.”
The other teacher said the same thing. He said, “Everybody is so focused on, you know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads,'” the media stuff, he said “but, we’re really doing what needs to be done here. I just want people to know it. I want other teachers throughout our district to know that this is whatever, but as far as teaching and learning in our profession goes, we’re on it, and we’re doing it together.” That’s kind of how I feel about the negotiations thing. I’m not for or against unions. I’ve worked with unions my whole life. I’m totally fine with it, but I have never felt like I needed somebody between me and the teachers. I am a teacher, I was a teacher, I know what it’s like to walk in their shoes every day, and I just want to work directly with them and listening to these two teachers, and many others, just really reaffirmed that for me because they feel so valued in working alongside district leaders and building leaders and creating all of this change. It’s good.
Kenny: What else is on your radar for this upcoming school year?
Dr. Fagen: There’s the choice stuff for students for which we continue down the paths of the other strategies. I think this is going to be a really exciting year because we’ve had an unprecedented number of teachers working side by side with leaders, developing outcomes, developing assessments, rewriting their units and their lesson plans. I think we’re going to see substantial change in the way teaching and learning happen in our classrooms. Not everywhere, but lots of places. We have some pioneer teachers who are out there reinventing themselves this summer, and I think we are going to see dramatic changes all over the district, and I think our students are going to be amazed and wowed and excited about what happens. That’s not the piece that gets the press, but when you get down to brass tacks that’s the piece that matters for our kids. To develop future leaders, to reinvent American education, to bring the highest paying careers to this country, and to maintain the kind of economic conditions that we have had. All of those things. I know that that’s not what gets the story, but that’s what makes Douglas County, Douglas County.
I believe this is a destination county for many reasons, but one is because the quality of the education system has been incredible, and therefore, people move here to be by our schools, which improves the property values, which encourages business to locate here. I think that as our teachers and students start to see transformation in their classrooms and as that information gets out and parents start to hear about the kind of experiences our students are getting they will want to be in DCSD even more. Our students aren’t going to be doing work sheets, they’re going to be doing real research where they’re developing new things – innovating! I think we’re going to see more people wanting to be part of the Douglas County School District, and more property value increases, and more economic development. I just see this spiraling upward – good for our students, good for our parents, good for our teachers, and good for our community. That’s going to take place in this county, and I think it starts with us. We’ve only been doing this new plan for really a year and a few months, because it was approved in March of 2011. This is sort of a tipping point for us, this year. I really believe that we have gotten over some major hurdles. I mean we have spent a year where we have had to spend a lot of time fixing misinformation — working to get fear and anxiety out of a system. Now we can fully concentrate on the right stuff and move ahead. We’ve been doing it, but I think we have a chance this year for it to become the focus and I can’t wait.
Kenny: Lastly, what’s the best place for people to go if they’re interested in more information?
Dr. Fagen: www.DCSDK12.org. Our community relations team does a phenomenal job of putting videos that are like 3 minutes long, all over our website, so that people don’t have to read lengthy documents, they don’t have to read the strategic plan necessarily. If they want an overview on system performance they can go to that page and watch that video. If they want to see some of the innovation our front page constantly hosts a new video that illustrates what we’re doing that’s innovative, what we’re doing that’s excellent, what we’re doing that’s efficient, and what we’re doing that improves student safety, because those are our four traditions. Then you can delve into the other pages on curriculum and on professional development, and on system performance, and on choice, and you can watch videos, or look at materials and see what we’re doing that’s different. I’m part of a superintendents’ professional learning community called EdLeader21. It started with just a handful of us who believe that education must change, and it must change quickly, and we are committed to doing that in our districts. EdLeader 21 allows us to support one another. There are several “beacon” school districts in that group according to Ken Kay (the Chief Executive Officer of EdLeader21), and Douglas County is one.
Dr. Elizabeth Fagen is the Superintendent of Douglas County School District, Colorado’s third largest school district, serving approximately 60,000 students. The Superintendent’s responsibility is to ensure accomplishment of the Board of Education’s goals and vision for the District.
Dr. Fagen has broad experience in various educational roles. Beginning as a high school biology and chemistry teacher in Centerville, Iowa, Dr. Fagen progressed into positions from associate principal and principal to executive director of high schools before becoming Associate Superintendent of Des Moines Independent School District. Dr. Fagen holds a MS, Ed. S. and Ed. D. in Educational Leadership from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
In 2008, Dr. Fagen became Superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona, a district of 56,000 students with 105 schools. After conducting a national search last year, the DCSD Board of Education unanimously named Fagen Superintendent for Douglas County School District effective July 1, 2010.
Additional thanks to Reason Foundation research assistant David Aloyts for his work on this interview.
Other interviews in Reason Foundation’s Innovators in Action 2012 series are available online here.