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Consultant mixed on school changes

Wagner commonly cited as district touts reforms


The Douglas County School District repeatedly cites Harvard education expert Tony Wagner's work with the district on what it refers to as “the most rigorous transformation plan in American public education,” but Wagner doesn't support much of what DCSD has done — including vouchers. He also said he finds pay for performance problematic.

Wagner, a Harvard University-based education specialist and former K-8 principal, speaks frequently at national and international education conferences about the need to transform American education. His 2008 book, “The Global Achievement Gap,” is an international best-seller.

Wagner's film, “Most Likely to Succeed,” debuts Jan. 26 at Utah's Sundance Film Festival. The documentary is described as an examination of the educational environment most likely to prepare students for a fast-changing world. Wagner said he could not confirm or deny whether DCSD will be included in the film.

In a recent interview, Wagner said he cautioned the district during a 2012 visit not to implement its reform plans without community and teacher support.

“I think the surrounding politics is poisoning the well and will make full and successful implementation of the educational initiatives exceedingly difficult, if not impossible,” said Wagner. “I, in fact, spoke with the board and warned them. I said if they continued to pursue these other priorities and continue to undermine trust with teachers, they will never be able to realize the kinds of educational changes they desire. In my experience, trust and respect are absolutely preconditions for changes in teaching and learning.”

Under the reforms, teachers are faced with changing curriculum, new planning methods, increased testing and self-evaluations that are factored into potential pay increases. Teachers districtwide have expressed concerns about the complexity and validity of the changes.

Wagner visited the school district as a consultant in December 2012, and said he hasn't been back since. He was paid $12,500 for presentations given to faculty, parents and the school board.

School board president Kevin Larsen, who was fairly new to the board when Wagner visited, said many changes have occurred since then.

“That was early in the formation stages of the pay-change structure, and even the early implementation of the evaluation system,” he said. “I think each year there's been more time to adapt and adjust and to improve the system.”

Larsen acknowledged DCSD has seen some turnover since the changes debuted. The state shows Douglas County's teacher turnover for 2013-14 at 17.23 percent. The figure is higher than that of surrounding suburban districts, and higher than in DCSD's past.

But Larsen believes those who remain or came since the policy changes were implemented understand the system, and “are finding this to be a productive, nurturing and successful environment."

“It's not perfect yet,” Larsen said. “But we're always working to keep that moving ahead.”

Wagner said he is impressed with DCSD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, describing her as a “very strong instructional leader.”

But during his 2012 visit, “I made very clear to (Fagen) I was not in favor of vouchers,”Wagner said.

DCSD's proposed voucher program allows parents to use public funds for their student toward tuition at select private schools.

“I was extremely concerned about what had happened with the union and teacher morale,” Wagner added. “I was very explicit I was not there in any way to support the other priorities of the board.

“I am supportive of their efforts to re-imagine outcomes and assessments for the 21st century. I am very concerned about a number of other priorities. Anytime there is a breakdown in communication between the bargaining unit of teachers and the board, there is deep cause for concern.”

The longstanding contract between the district and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers expired in mid-2012 after negotiations came to a standstill.

Wagner described pay for performance, which DCSD implemented in a revamped form in 2012, as “very challenging and difficult,” and said it's difficult to make a case for major change “in a district that is already high-performing.”

Wagner said he has not closely followed developments in DCSD, and that Fagen has not sought any additional advice.

Larsen said the district doesn't agree with all its consultants' advice.

“Even all of these experts don't agree with one another completely,” he said. “Our district isn't going to mirror any one person in the field's point of view. We're going to glean pieces of all of that and develop what's best for Douglas County.”

Wagner doesn't necessarily object to the district using his name.

“I guess I would rather they make more clear exactly what I supported,” he said, “but I don't know that it's worth a big struggle.”


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