Q&A No shortage of divides over education
Katy Anthes, Colorado Department of Education’s new commissioner
Katy Anthes is known as a consensus builder and a steady hand.
As she begins her tenure as Colorado education commissioner, those traits will be put to the test. There is no shortage of divides over education policy, and the state has plenty on the agenda.
Anthes was serving as the education department’s chief of staff eight months ago when she put in her notice of resignation — part of a period of upheaval at the department that saw a wave of resignations.
She changed her mind and stayed to become interim commissioner after Rich Crandall’s abrupt resignation. (Anthes has declined to discuss what prompted her to want to leave.)
In her first interview with Chalkbeat since dropping the “interim” from her title, Anthes discussed her approach to understanding the nation’s new education law, how she plans to work with the state’s lowest performing schools to boost learning and what equity in education means to her.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Walk me through what it’s been like for you the past few months. How did you get from there to here — personally? Situations change, circumstances change. I’ve always been really committed to the state of Colorado and education issues in Colorado. So no matter where my path was going to take me, I’d still be working on those issues and committed to those issues. It was a bit of a surprise, too, after giving my resignation, to step in. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you have to think deeply about those opportunities and I did. It was announced earlier this year that you had planned to stay through May. And then just weeks later, it was announced you got the job permanently. What changed? It was an ongoing process and discussion. We were working well together with the board and it was really a board decision. It was up to them. I can’t speak to their internal process. But when that discussion arose around, “Do you want to be permanent?” I was excited to take the opportunity. I was surprised to hear that. It’s exciting. I’m honored to be in that role for sure. I also know I work with a lot of incredibly talented, amazing women leaders, so it doesn’t feel that different or unique to me. I hope I do it well. That’s definitely a real tension and a real issue. I think it’s something we’ve always grappled with, too. Our role as the department is to implement the law the legislature passes with integrity and fidelity, and also implement the regulations the State Board of Education passes with integrity. We definitely, and I as the leader of the department, always want to have the conversation, “What do those policies and those implementation practices look like for either a rural district or an urban district?” They certainly are different contexts. What we’ve done so far in the last seven months, and when I was chief of staff and in other roles here, is look at those practices and see where can we support rural districts a little more, knowing that they don’t have all that personnel to submit their data reports. They don’t have a long line of teachers waiting to take all the hard-to-staff jobs. I think we’ve been investigating that in terms of data reporting — how do we streamline it, make it easier for rural districts. I think some of it was around understanding ESSA. For all the good intentions of going big and rethinking the landscape, we had a landscape here. I think it was important that we do some education. We actually had a waiver from (the previous federal education law), No Child Left Behind. If you went from what are the rules and regulations under No Child Left Behind to what are the rules under ESSA, that would be a big shift. But Colorado already did a big shift. We weren’t operating under the same kind of constraints that No Child Left Behind outlined. (The state received waivers from certain aspects of the law.) So the shift you’ve seen, and the more tempered approach you’ve seen, is because we have a context. We got those waivers early on. And we have a state legislative framework we’re already working under. It’s not necessarily the federal law that we have to pay a lot of attention to. We have our own state laws that talk a lot about those same things. If we wanted to go bigger within ESSA, most of those changes would have to be taken up by our legislators. We wouldn’t be able to take that up as a department because we have to follow the law of our state. (Laughs.) That’s a question for them. But you know, I think we’ve been in ongoing dialogue with them. And we’re learning, too. It’s a long law. And the regulations are now coming out in pieces and parts. We’re making sure everything matches up. I don’t think we need any major changes (to be in compliance). If the situation calls for it — absolutely. Our north star is around supporting student achievement and increasing student achievement. So we want to work in collaboration with school districts. Each situation will be different. Each context will be different. The trajectory of each district will be different. So I, along with the staff and others, are taking all of that into consideration. No two recommendations will be alike. I’m hearing that they have a sense of urgency, that there is a lot of hard work being put into their efforts, and in some cases there is some success. But turnaround is not fast work. There is no silver bullet that fixes it all. So I’m hearing they have to approach this work from multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are starts and stops. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s hard, complicated work. But I’m hearing they are committed to doing whatever they can. I don’t think there is a common denominator. You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things. And these things present themselves differently in different communities. So I don’t think there is a common denominator. It’s really contextual. And I think the support and the recommendations have to be contextual. Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news organization covering education issues. For more, visit chalkbeat.org/co.
Colorado education commissioner Katy Anthes talks about the challenges that schools face. “You know, education is harder than rocket science. It’s complex. It’s humans and human behavior, and it’s emotion and learning and brain development. It’s about additional risk factors. It’s about all of these things.”
You’ve been visiting with the state’s lowest performing schools and districts as they approach the end of the state’s accountability timeline. I know from talking with some of your staff that you want to find solutions to boost learning in collaboration with these districts. But are you also prepared to make recommendations to the state board that might go against the districts’ wishes?
The urban and rural split is Colorado’s education community is sharp these days. You see it in the funding debate, the testing debate, the accountability debate, the teacher shortage. What steps is the department taking to really think through these different issues and positions?
approach. You’ve repeatedly said the Colorado is in compliance and there probably isn’t a need for new legislation. Why this approach?
The list of schools facing possible sanctions includes a mix of urban and rural. Is there a common denominator?
You’ve said we probably don’t need new legislation to comply with ESSA. Do you think the state’s lawmakers are going to listen to you?
What are you hearing when you talk to these schools and districts?