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Q&A with Andy Smarick

If you follow the education reform movement, you’re likely familiar with Andy Smarick. If you’re not, here’s your chance to get to know him. Author of The Urban School System of the Future, Partner at Bellwether Education and Senior Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Smarick explores ways to improve educational opportunities for high-need students across the nation. In a complex space filled to the brim with emotion, fierce dedication and debate, Smarick provides thought leadership grounded in extensive experience and thorough research. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pick his brain about some of the most involved issues of today’s K-12 education world. Read on to learn more about Smarick’s insights on the (necessary) complexity of teacher evaluations, the potential impact (or lack of impact) of the Vergara lawsuit and what it will take to make the biggest educational gains for low income families. 

[KB]   What adjective would you use to describe the current state of American public education?

[AS]   I’ve been wrestling with this question a great deal recently. Though I focus a good bit of my time on urban school issues, there is much to K-12 education beyond big cities. I think the results of urban K-12 have been tragic for half a century. But there are other geographic areas that also need attention desperately, like much of rural America. Then there are the public schools in suburban and exurban areas about which, frankly, we know too little – even though they’ve been subjected to recent statewide reforms like Common Core and new teacher evaluation laws. I’m trying to figure out which parts of our entire system need to be dramatically changed and which parts need to be jealously protected. I think reformers have generally done a poor job of disaggregating our school “system” so we can understand its component parts and then apply targeted reforms as necessary and preserve other areas.

[KB]   You’ve done work with teacher evaluation systems. What do you think are the key features of an effective evaluation system for public educators?

[AS]   I think the wave of state laws that overhauled evaluation systems were necessary and directionally correct. I’m a huge believer in including measures of student performance in educator evaluations. What I think those laws (and previous statutes and regulations, observation rubrics, etc.) haven’t done as well as they might’ve is articulating all of the important things great teachers do and creating measures for those things. Schools do more than generate test scores. They have civic responsibilities, they teach non-cognitive skills and on and on. I’m deeply concerned that if we technocratically focus evaluation systems on a limited set of measures, we won’t capture much of the value of schools and educators. I’m by no means making excuses for schools or teachers that aren’t helping kids learn basic skills. But I’m also mindful that technocracy habitually ignores the stuff of social capital. Technocracy simplifies. Teaching is complex.

techno[KB]   When you look around the country, who are some of the most promising leaders in public education right now?

[AS]   The moment before an idea is understood to be groundbreaking, it’s considered silly, unrealistic and unworkable. I’m drawn to people who can see things that appear invisible to others or things that are lurking just over the horizon. Sometimes these ideas or lessons push us forward, sometimes they cause us to take stock; so this isn’t just about big and new, it can also be about subtle and prudent. I’ve been thinking recently in terms of the baseball sabermetric known as “wins above replacement” or “WAR.” That measures how many games a team wins because of a particular player compared to how many they’d win if that player were replaced by a rookie straight out of triple-A. I’m asking myself, “Who are the people with the highest WAR – those who just can’t be replaced without our field losing a great deal?” I’d rather leave it at that rather than name-check people. But I’ll say this, about eight to ten folks come to mind, and they are dispersed in nonprofits, SEAs, foundations and a couple of other organizations. The last thing I’ll add is this provocative point: I think our field’s traditional skills-assessment and development approach to hiring and mentoring does a remarkably poor job of identifying and grooming these people.

[KB]   What are some of the most exciting innovations you see happening in public education?

[AS]   I’m probably too old to answer this with any credibility. I’ve been around long enough now that I’m increasingly seeing things in terms of our current rules and structures. The most creative thinking is done by those who know enough about a field to be deeply informed but haven’t been around long enough to assume some things always have to be a certain way. I’m in the twilight days of that golden era. So I’m cautious to weigh in on innovations. I’ll produce too many false positives and false negatives – things that seem exciting to me might actually be too pedestrian; and things that seem unrealistic to me might actually be right on.

[KB]   The Vergara verdict has sent shockwaves around the education sector. What kind of impact do you predict Vergara will have nationally?

[AS]   If the decision is overturned by a higher California court and other states don’t have similar cases and verdicts, Vergara will be a historical footnote at most. But if we see similar cases and decisions elsewhere, Vergara could be huge. Three implications are on my mind. First a good thing: it could change for the better critically important personnel rules across the nation. Second, a worrisome thing: it could invite court meddling in many other K-12 policies. Apart from the most egregious cases (e.g. racial segregation), the elected branches, not the courts, should be trusted with policy. Third, a huge question. Will the unions stubbornly fight to defend these antiquated policies state by state, or will new union leadership emerge understanding that to gloriously lose these court battles threatens the longterm viability of teachers’ unions?

edgains[KB]   What do you see as the greatest differentiator between public schools and public charter schools?

[AS]   Charter schools are public schools.

[KB]   What do you think is next for blended learning? In addition to Rocketship, are there schools or districts across the country that are deploying a blended learning model particularly well?

[AS]   Blended needs to prove itself. There have been a million big-promise innovations over the years, and as a rule, they never deliver the results promised. I’m a major skeptic of technology in education. I’ve been burned too many times. So we need to assess with clear eyes whether this model is working. And that requires defining what “working” means. Is blended generating better achievement results? Is it helping teachers become more effective and efficient? Is it actually enabling better differentiation? Is it freeing up funding for other important purposes? Is it preserving the critical but largely invisible aspects of schooling that are transmitted through more traditional instructional approaches?

[KB]   You’ve written about the immense amount of political posturing that’s dominating the debate on the Common Core. When you break through all of this noise, what does the future look like for Common Core? What do you see as the biggest opportunities around implementation of the new standards?

[AS]   I don’t think I’ve written about the political posturing related to Common Core. If anything, I’ve been arguing that we need to take seriously the critics who’ve been accused of political posturing. The shift to common standards represents a massive break with tradition. I worry that we went about this change too cavalierly. Big, swift, technocratic changes seldom end well. I hope states, districts and schools can implement these standards well, because if history is any guide, there are gobs of unintended consequences right around the corner. The upsides of this transition better outweigh the downsides, or Common Core will go down as another K-12 cautionary tale.

[KB]   At Rocketship, one of our core values is engaged parents. Through your observation and research of schools around the country, what sort of parent engagement are you seeing and what impact are they having?

[AS]   I’m a choice zealot because I think meaningful, lasting parental engagement comes after expanded choice, not before it. If ed reformers are really serious about engaging low-income families when it comes to K-12, they should vigorously support public school and private school choice and oppose those arguing for a return to a school-assignment system, i.e. a “neighborhood” schools approach. We’ll make our biggest gains as a movement when we stop telling low-income families where their kids have to go to school and instead make a wide array of options available to them.

Follow Andy on Twitter: @smarick

Kevin works on the Rocketship Network Support Team and is the Editor of Beyond. He is a former Special Education teacher in San Jose, with experience teaching in both traditional public and Rocketship schools. He earned a BA in Journalism and Digital Arts from the University of Oregon. A current Bay Area resident, Kevin is passionate about education, story-telling and creative exploration. 

Published on August 25, 2014