Thank you very much, Dean Riordan. The whole University of Denver community that is such a partner in everything we try and do in the Metro Denver area, and truly in the whole region of the Rocky Mountains. It’s wonderful to have this jewel of a university, right here in the heart of Colorado.
I’m here tonight with a great deal of humility, because I’ve heard some of the other people in this series speak, and they all sound like they have a plan, and they have the will to execute. And I’m standing here before you, as a person who never had a single plan about my own career actually turn out. But I think that’s as valuable a lesson, because sometimes setting a plan and never diverging from it.
I grew up loving to read and literature. At every grade I thought, that’s the English teacher I want to be. Whether it was 2ndgrade, or 10th grade, or graduate school. And I liked school so much, that I just kept going, until I got a PhD and they forced me out. But I realized after I completed my gradate work, that I really wasn’t a scholar. And as much as I loved to do reading, and research and writing, 30 years doing scholarly work, probably wasn’t the right fit with me. So I did what every good English major does, I went out and bought a book on how you make a career change.
And because of the lovely people at our wonderful independent bookstore, Tattered Cover, they steered me to, I didn’t know it at the time, but an absolute classic, What Color is Your Parachute. And I followed it like the good student that I was, every step of the way. It’s mainly about informed networking. It ended up with me getting, as my first real job after being in academics as speech writer to the governor of Colorado, Richard D. Lamm. Who of course is now here at DU as a professor of public policy.
But what happened was I was exposed to politics and policy and got bitten by the bug. It was one of these when you know the fit is right for you, you throw yourself into it. I didn’t feel that fit of being about a scholar of literature, I felt it about public policy, and loved the whole arena of how you advocate for things you believe in, and how you try to create solutions to problems. And focused over time on education and health, which is probably the only constant that has been with me, in my career.
So fast forward I end up working for Governor Lamm, I end up running a child advocacy organization called the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has the mission of advocating for children, at the margins for society, primarily on health and education. I get a call from the Denver District Attorney, Bill Ritter, who said that he wanted to get together. And I knew he was thinking of running for Governor. I thought, okay, I’ll go brief him on health and education, and then I’ll get back to work. And then I got busy and it wasn’t convenient so I cancelled.
Well this happened three times. On the fourth time he left a message for me, so this is before cell phones and all of that, and he said, I’m going to be sitting at a certain Starbucks downtown, and I’m going to sit here until you come. They closed at 11 at night, and if you’re not there by 11 they have chairs outside, and I will sit outside until you come. I thought, well now I’ve got to go, I’ve got to give him the briefing, I probably have to make a donation to his campaign.
So I show up, briefcase packed full, and he said, put your reports away. I want you to run for lieutenant governor with me. And I want you to help make children one of the top priorities of our administration. He had no doubt that he was going to win. It threw me into a bit of a tizzy, because I loved my job, I had no intention of leaving, I’d never run for any office before, but what do you do? Do you stay comfortable, or do you roll the dice on something that if it works out would be absolutely incredible.
So needless to say, I rolled the dice with the help of my husband, who’s here tonight. I have to say that what we’ve been able to accomplish, especially in this economic downturn, has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. We got more kids who are struggling in chaotic families into preschool, we created the state’s first full day kindergarten program, we’re one of only two or three states in the whole country that actually increased the number of children and youth that are getting healthcare during this downturn, while every other state saw their number of kids drop. We created the nation’s first dual enrollment program, it means that kids could be in high school getting a high school diploma, and studying for an associate’s degree in a community college, for free, because you’re still public school students. So they can graduate from high school with either credits towards college, so it’s a little less expensive, or toward an AA degree that lets them go out into the workforce and get a better job. I am really proud of that.
There were some big things we were able to do. But there have been some little things that have been almost as gratifying. I discovered that when you’re in an office like the Lieutenant Governor’s office, people think they can come talk to you and you can perform magic of some sort. And I discovered that actually, you can. And I ended up calling it sprinkling fairy dust.
And the example that makes me smile whenever I think of it, was the Colorado Association of Watercolorists. And it turns out there are associations for everything and they all have their own newsletters, it is amazing how club oriented Americans are. But anyways, the association of Watercolorists, had to meet. And they came in and said, we’re afraid our art is dying out. The students aren’t learning how to watercolor, look at us, we’re all older than 70, when we’re gone it will be gone, what can we do? And I said, paint more. Go make more watercolors, paint like your life depended on it. Get people excited. It’s worthwhile, thank you for doing that. They we’re very excited and they left the office, chattering about how they were going to paint even more.
I didn’t do a thing to help them, I just made them feel as if what they did was important. And how they figure out how to keep water coloring alive, will be up to them. But at least they felt honored, and I think energized to continue on. I could tell you 50 stories like that one, of wonderful people in Colorado, who feel they’re not recognized or life is passing them on. And they just need a little fairy dust.
But I had an idea from that exchange. I think this is part of the career I’m going to end up talking with you about. How you build on little things. I decided that maybe what I could do is turn my office into an art gallery, and have rotating exhibits from Colorado artists. So that the thousands of people that come into the capitol, and hundreds and hundreds of them are school students, could see Colorado artists, in a fancy office. And maybe feel that’s something they could include in their lives as well. So I found a partner in the Colorado council on the arts, we decided to have 4 quarterly art shows from different regions of the state, with a reception with apple juice, just like they would have a reception, but without the wine, anywhere in Denver. So it’s amazing what you can do when you build on the little things, in-between pushing hard on the really big things.
There have also been some things I never would have expected from this job. Like protocol training. The first lady and I got training in what you do at a state dinner. And I actually learned the most, again from my husband, about getting ready for these. You find out not only what is the issue they want to talk about, but what’s the sports situation like? And I had more conversations with Jordanian Princes and Slovakian Ambassadors about their soccer teams, which led to better discussions about water and agriculture. But it’s finding that human connection.
So how to make a state dinner work. And I think the key to these meetings comes back to having the right book. Having a world atlas in my office, so when people come in and they can’t speak English, you can open to a map of their country, and they will immediately point to where they live. And it’s another connection and a starting point.
So it has been a wonderful ride, but I want my private life back. This is the only elected office I’ve ever had, so on January 11th, at about noon, there will be a new Lieutenant Governor, and I will be back to being a private citizen working on health and education reform, from some other venue.
So how does someone who really wanted to be an English teacher end up as a Lieutenant Governor? Beyond the need for luck and hard work. I want to take you back to 1957, and tell you about the best Natural Executive I’ve ever met. I’m going to ask you to imagine with me, imagine a 28- year- old woman, 4 children, stricken by polio. She’s paralyzed from the neck down, and unable to breathe without a respirator. Two years in a public polio hospital, much of that in an iron lung. Your farmer husband comes to take you back to the small farming community you and your family live in. Its 200 miles to get any kind of specialized care. You wonder how you’re going to reengage with life. Now remember, 28, can’t move or breathe without help, 4 children, and a farmer for a husband. And here’s what that woman, my mother, said to my grandmother.
Everyone will visit me once out of pity. They’ll only come back if I’m the best conversationalist in town. I want to repeat that. Everyone will visit me once out of pity. They’ll only come back if I’m the best conversationalist in town. Notice the cool analysis of the situation, the ambitious but practical goal, and she did it. For 30 years, our living room was full of people, who dropped by to talk about books, and politics, and even their own problems, if you can imagine that. She taught Bridge, on election years, she ran the phone list, they didn’t have phone banks back then, of people phone calling for our town’s “get out the vote”. Now, in my prospective, it was for the wrong party, but hey, she was involved.
And she was lucky that technology worked for her. She watched television. I think television had only been out for a couple of years. Arm supports were made because there were so many polio patients, technology was advancing. And she could use the eraser end of the pencil to turn pages of books. And a nurse gave her life saving advice. Mom was worried that she wouldn’t be able to do anything. Wouldn’t be a mother to her children. And the nurse told her, you are still you. Let others be your arms and legs. My dad used to say things like, mom made a really good dinner tonight. And one time I argued back with him that the kids made the dinner, we did the chopping, we did the stirring. We did all the cooking. But he would have absolutely nothing of that. She was the idea person, he insisted.
Now there’s a clear message to your children about what’s important. And being an English major, when I first read Milton, who wrote, “The mind can a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven,” I immediately thought of my mother. She could have focused on her condition, and the limitations of sitting in our living room all day. But instead, her world was wherever her mind wanted to go. She found people who would execute for her.
My grandmother bought our groceries every week, my aunt ran all of our families errands, our best friend took our 4 kids, and her 3 shopping for back to school clothes. I have many, many pictures from elementary school of the daughter from the other family, and me wearing the exact same clothes in picture after picture. Her mother would say, “Two of those, two t-shirts, two shorts, done”. And she was curious about everything. So another friend always bought the best-selling and prize winning books and brought them to her so that she could keep up with events and ideas. And all of this happened within a broader sense of community, then I fear our country has now. We’re very quick to cast blame these days. But when my dad checked my mom out of the polio hospital, where she had been for two years, there was no charge, and the woman in billing told him that he didn’t owe anything. He needed to focus on getting his family back on its feet. Imagine how that would be handled today. And I think the contract is worth contemplating.
So it is particularly gratifying to me that the Ritter-O’Brien administration accomplished so much in the healthcare arena. We worked with the hospital association to find coverage for 100,000 previously uninsured people, adults and kids. We hit our goal for immunizing children, which includes the polio vaccine. Clearly my mom and our community responded in a way to that challenge that had a lasting effect on me. Because I was such a beneficiary of it. But it was part of how we coped. And part of that was my dad. I wanted to tell you a quick story about him.
So he’s a farmer, he’s 31, he’s dealing with a polio stricken wife, 4 kids and farming duties. And farming, as most of you know, doesn’t take a day off. He was usually out of the house by 4:30 in the morning. He said that taking mom anywhere was like planning the Normandy invasion. But one day he said we ought to go on a picnic. So off we went with mom, her wheelchair, the respirators, the battery, the backup battery, the 4 kids, the dog, and the food.
And when we were done, getting back home was like the Normandy landing in reverse. Mom. Wheelchair, respirator, you get the picture, while he was getting mom back in the car and all of her stuff, it was always our job to pick up, make sure we didn’t forget anything. And dad had pointed out that we had left some trash on the ground. My brother protested that it wasn’t our trash, it was there when we got there. And my dad said, then we’ll leave it better than we found it. So there we were, our Normandy landing group, and he was looking for more work to do, and he wouldn’t even benefit from it. It would just be better for whoever came along next.
He also went everywhere with a shovel. Just in case a weed needed digging up, or a rattlesnake was near the road, you deal with rattlesnakes out in the country, or a tractor was stuck. He even dug my boyfriend’s car out of the mud one summer evening, when we were frog hunting and got stuck. But that’s another story, and the boy is now my husband.
I was reminded of my dad the other day when I read in the Denver Post about an octogenarian rancher in Colorado. Wanda Walker, and she said to the Denver Post reporter, I am for sure satisfied with my life. I can’t complain she says, as she steps out on her early morning chores carrying an ever present pair of gloves, and a bucket. It’s a Walker maxim that no matter where you go, there’s going to be something you need to do, that you need your gloves.
It’s a simple work ethic that work is good. That fixing things is good. That leaving it better than you found it, is good. So you do it, even when you’re tired. And think of all the ways that leave it better than you found it applies to daily life. At a minimum, wouldn’t the office lunch room be better, if everyone lived by, leave it better than you found it?
The habit of leaving it better reflects a relationship with the world, that’s engaged, responsible, and future oriented. It means you have the vision, and the maturity, to imagine what better might be. It means you embrace responsibility for shaping the future, whether it’s for a day or a decade. This belief that a person can make things better. In fact, that a person is responsible for making them better, has been the driving force behind my career.
I started out wanting to be a teacher because I wanted everyone to love to read as much as I did. But I fell in love with public policy, because you can have such an impact on the very quality of life and the state. How people get educated, how they get their healthcare met, how we balance energy and the environment. Things that are crucial to the future of Colorado.
And everyone can find a place where they can make a little difference, by just imagining when they look at something, how they might make a little bit better. But you have to be patient, and you have to be willing to search for a different way to do something. And I think this ethic of leaving it better than you find it, is also connected to this curiosity that really was the life force for my mother.
You won’t be very effective if you think you have all the answers, but you need to make room in your life to do a little bit of searching. And if you ask a question, you need to patient enough to really listen, and you will irritate your colleagues to no end, if you ask questions and then refuse to truly listen. Being curious isn’t quick or efficient, and in our fast paced world, it might feel like a luxury, but it’s the thing that can keep life fresh for you, over the 30, 40, 50 years that we will all be working. There’s someone whose curiosity I think was just an example of how boundless it could be. I want to read you a little bio.
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for his work and their path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the super fluidity of super cooled liquid helium, he received the Nobel Prize in 1965, but he also studied Maya Hieroglyphics, he was a prankster, a juggler, a safe cracker, he cracked safes in Los Almos, if you can imagine that, he was a bongo drum player, a painter and even developed his own pick-up artist method, which he tested in bars around the world. So clearly, Richard Feynman was a very smart and curious man.
I don’t think any of us if we just start asking more questions are going to be Nobel Laureates in Physics. But I’m fascinated by something he wrote in his biography. Every day his mother would ask him, what questions had he asked in school. And I was thunderstruck when I read that. I always ask my kids, how was school, what did you do today, very unimaginative. And I got the answers I deserved. Fine, nothing. Imagine starting a family from the beginning, where thoughtful questions are treasured, and you share them. Or in an office with our colleagues. Or with new employees that we have a chance to mentor. The problem is that it takes time to ask a meaningful question. You have to have paid attention to something. You have to wonder about it. And you really have to be serious about listening when someone takes your question seriously and tries to answer it.
I have an example that I want to give you of a question when I was at the Colorado Children’s Campaign that opened doors I never would have imagined. I had been at the Children’s Campaign for about 10 years, and someone asked me how I could stand being there, year after year. I was shocked. I really had to think about it. Then I remembered that every time that we look at a river, it’s a different river. The water is different, the light, the Eddies, and yet, it’s the Colorado or the Arkansas, it’s the same river. I thought about my mother, who, for the most part, sat in the same chair, in the same room, looking out the same window, for nearly 30 years.
Or my dad, despite huge responsibilities on his shoulders, who was always looking for a way to make something better. A sense of responsibility tied to curiosity, can be powerful in a life. These are two of my most important touchstones, and I think they led pretty directly to becoming Lieutenant Governor. So here’s the story about the question I asked.
In the early 1990’s the voters of Colorado passed ballot initiatives setting term limits on state elected officials. I thought, well what does that have to do with the Children’s campaign? Is this something I needed to worry about? Then I noticed, most of the legislators who worked the most with me to reform education or change healthcare, were the greybeards in the legislature. The older ones. And I thought that it must be that they’re grandparents, and now they’re thinking they have a chance to do it over, better again with younger kids. I thought I’d better check this out because a lot was riding on it.
So I conducted a survey, and asked them how long they had been in office before they started becoming interested in children’s issues. The answer was 8 years. Well I was horrified because with term limits, they’re in and out in 8 years. How in the world are we going to get the experienced leaders who understand these complicated issues involved? When I talked to them, it turned out that it had nothing to do with being grandparents. They realized after a while, every year they were voting on about a billion dollars’ worth of services for very high risk children. This is 1994 dollars. They better figure out how to vote smarter. They were doing their jobs.
For the children’s campaign, what that meant is we better find a way to accelerate that learning curve, so it took place in a year or two, not eight years. So I did what my mother always did. I assessed the situation, I set a big goal, and I enlisted the help of others. Our goal was to compress eight years of learning into one or two. Out of that came the two best tools we ever had out of the Children’s campaign.
The first one was a network of volunteers, who agreed to get their own training on children’s issues, and as soon as anyone threw their hat into the ring for state office, it didn’t matter what party they were, they would go meet them, form a relationship, start briefing them, and start giving them information about both local kids and state kids. By the time we were building this network, we had five thousand people all over the state, and we had legislators coming to us right after they were elected saying I was told I have to work with you and the children’s campaign so tell me what to do. I thought, I don’t need 8 years, I need people who care about their constituents. This is great.
The other tool that came out of this was so many legislators said, I’m going to make children a big part of my platform. That we’d formed something called the kids caucus. It was bipartisan, they had to agree to support each other’s bills unless they had a very strong philosophical reason not to, and they couldn’t politicize a bill that dealt with kids. It became the most prestigious group in the legislature, people begged to be appointed to it, and we could pick and choose based on what we thought were their leadership skills and potential.
So between the network of volunteers and the caucus with the most respected legislators, we did a lot of really good work at the children’s campaign. We created the preschool program from very high risk kids, we expanded the budget for immunizing uninsured low-income children. I could go on and on. But the connection to becoming lieutenant governor is that’s exactly why Bill Ritter called me wanting to know if I’d meet him for coffee, because he wanted to make kids a top priority. He knew I could work in a bipartisan way, and in politics, what’s better than a network already built in? So we were able to combine our passion for pushing forward on how our kids were being treading in our state, and I brought with me this tremendous experience.
It came, I’m convinced, out of that simple little survey wanting to know when the experienced legislators picked up the torch for kids. Probably the hardest thing I ever did in the public policy arena was also at the Children’s campaign. It was the most serious test I think of the organization’s principles, and of my touchstone principles, because of very good work governor Bill Owen’s had been doing around getting a standardized test for kids.
It became apparent that there was a huge achievement gap between low-income kids and middle income kids around math and language arts, and that a zip code was more predictive of how a student would do in school, than the school they went to. In fact, for low income kids, the longer they we’re in the public school system, the further behind they fell. What do you do as a child advocate when you have hard data like that coming forward?
The problem was, no one had any solutions. The high performing charter schools that have since emerged didn’t exist back then, we didn’t have the ability to analyze the public schools that were beating all the odds, and doing a really good job with educating all kids. We really didn’t have much to work on. It galvanized education reformers. So one day there was a hearing in the legislature in one of the education committees on the achievement gap. I went to listen. A mother who was clearly struggling economically came to testify that her 14- year-old son didn’t know how to read and she was very worried about what that meant for his future.
A legislator leaned forward and said in a very patronizing way, oh we’re going to put together a five year plan and it’ll start working and things will be better. She started crying and said, in five years my son will be out of school, and he won’t be able to support a family. I sat there and thought, if I were that mother would I have the courage to come to a hearing and share my anguish with legislators and then to be treated like that. And if I were a mother with a son who couldn’t read, what would I do? I would use every penny in my checkbook to find another option for him. But I have that option, I have that choice. My husband and I would do whatever it took. So what do you do for someone who doesn’t have those resources?
So we agonized, because if we went forward on something like vouchers for low-income struggling kids, we had the chance of losing donations from donors, we might burn bridges with a number of legislators who worked with us on other issues, and the research was pretty clear that most low-income kids who go to a local private school, don’t do any better than the kids in the public school. So it’s not as if that was a solution. We came down to deciding at least having the opportunity to try something else, should trump everything else.
Exactly what we feared came to happen. We lost donors, we lost friends, we lost legislative support, but because we had a very courageous board that was very tuned in to our mission, and we had a very courageous governor, Governor Bill Owens who signed the legislation that we got passed to create a pilot program for targeted, limited vouchers, for low income kids performing poorly in schools, and their schools were ranked as low-performing on the state report card.
So all this anguish and struggle to get this opportunity created, and then it was thrown out by the courts as being unconstitutional. We came out better for it, because when the comfort of adults came up against opportunities for kids, we stood firm for kids. I didn’t know it, but more opportunities came out of that, because even people who didn’t agree with us appreciated our courage. They appreciated our focus, and they knew our motivations were good, even if they didn’t agree.
I even almost lost being lieutenant governor because of this. The states teachers union threatened Bill Ritter that if I became his lieutenant governor, they would never support me. I think it’s a great testament to his character that he said, everyone works on things we don’t agree on, but you have to try. You can’t just sit still.
So almost every day, I won’t say every day, in public office has been a day where you can have a chance to make a difference. You have a chance to learn something you thought you’d never know to ask questions about it. It’s really an honor to be in this role, but I, again, can’t wait to go back to my private life and be able to work on this issues that I love without having to go out in so many places in the state right now where people are angry, and they’re not kind to each other when they talk, and I think we have to all find ways to get back to civil discourse about the future of our state and our country, and get it from where we are now to a place where we can at least have rational discussions about moving forward.
But I know we will do that, I know we will go forward, so I want to close with one of my favorite passages, and this is going to sound a little odd to you in October, but it’s from Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. If you remember, Scrooge is a bitter old businessman from Victorian England at Christmastime. He’s visited by Jacob Marley, the ghost of his partner, who’s come to give him a chance to change his life, and save him from his own doom. Jacobs doom is that in death, he must wander the Earth wrapped in a chain wrapped in cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses wrought in steel. If Scrooge can learn to feel charity in his heart, to engage in human matters, he can be saved from Jacob’s eternal misery. Scrooge tries to smooth this over and comfort the ghost. “But you are always a good man of business, Jacob.” And the ghost wails. “Business?” cried the ghost wringing his hands again, “mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, for parents and benevolence were all my business.”
The ghost’s agony in A Christmas Carol was that in death, he had a deeper understanding of human experience and human failings than in life. In death, he tried, Dickens wrote, “to interfere for good in human matters, and had lost the power forever”. To intervene for good in human matters, to leave things a little better than we find them, and yet, it is because Scrooge was a good businessman that he atones for his greed. He buys, anonymously, the biggest goose in the grocery store, and sends it to his clerk’s house for dinner. He give a generous tip to the delivery boy. He buys more coal for the furnace, to keep the office warmer, and he has the means to give the care to Tiny Tim, that Tiny Tim needs to have his life saved. He was good in business, and he used it to intervene for good.
So I think for all of us, to keep alive the spark of curiosity, to leave our campsite a little better than we find it, to intervene for good in human matters, those aren’t bad things to strive for. I do it in the deep sense of building on the example that my parents set for me, and I hope my husband and I set for our children. And I know that Rick knows how much I appreciate this ride we have taken together. Thank you very much.
So I’d be happy to take questions.
QUESTION: So some reports are coming out, if students aren’t caught up, particularly by second grade that they’re going to be behind for the rest of their academic careers. So in your mind, how best do we fix that? How best do we close that gap?
O'BRIEN: So we know a whole lot more than we did 10 years ago, so I’m actually optimistic about it. I think obviously teachers are the key to it and making sure that the teaching profession is the kind of profession that tracks the best and brightest for long stages of their careers. There’s nothing like a verbal organized educated person, in the role of the teacher to lift a whole classroom. There’s no magic about that. It’s that teaching and learning interaction. But I think we have a bit of a game changer in technology. We are getting such smart software that’s getting developed right now, especially around basic skills can analyze where kids are, and can accelerate them where they’re strong to help them make up for where they’re weak. I’ve see this working in pilot programs in the Silicon Valley.
So I think a combination of great teaching by the people who want to make this profession a big part of their lives and technology to catch up on basic skills that we have the chance to actually close that gap and get back to having learning be something that kids embrace instead of having kids run screaming from in middle school.
QUESTION: You’ve given us your perspective on education and healthcare. How do you believe unemployment and industry, and the struggles it has right now, has a diverse effect on that, and what do you do to overcome that challenge?
O'BRIEN: What do I think the economic downturn and unemployment and the struggles of industry, what impact that is having on healthcare and what should we do about it. I think strictly from a competitiveness perspective, right now we have American companies bearing the most burden of paying for healthcare insurance, and if you do any kind of global work at all, you’re competing with companies where the public sector entirely takes care of health care costs. So I think part of what we have to figure out is how we make sure for business it’s a level playing field, and you’re not carrying your business more and more level playing field, and you’re not carrying more and more burdens of my generation.
We’re going to need more and more health care as we get older, and figure out the competitiveness angle on that. I also know that while we’ve been able to keep kids in the healthcare system during this economic downturn, more and more adults have gone off the roles of the insured as either they lose their jobs, or companies have to cut back benefits. Health industries will tell you that just drives up costs for them because people come into the emergency rooms, they’re sicker, so we have got a real social problem that we have to fix. I support the package that was passed in congress. I do not think it was perfect, I think a lot needs to be done on it, but I also think we can’t sit on our hands while the global competitive factor gets worse and more and more people are ending up in emergency rooms.
So I don’t have a magic wand that I would wave, but I would certainly engage in trying to come up with more solutions and not just scream and yell about it. I think it’s absolutely essential for our economy that we fix something fundamental about how expensive health care is, why we aren’t as healthy as people from other countries, and the impact on the economy for that.
QUESTION: How important do you feel charter schools are as we move forward?
O'BRIEN: You know the answer to that, don’t you? The question is how important do I think charter schools are in moving forward. I think charter schools are public schools that are free from the red tape of a school district. They were designed and I was one of the leaders in this effort to create them in Colorado. They were designed to be research and development arm of public education, because it’s been so difficult in the past to experiment with public education. I think charter schools have lived up to that beautifully. We have some of the best charter schools that are the best public schools right here in Denver. We have Denver school of science and technology, which is going to expand to 5 different schools over the next several years. We have West Denver Prep, which has an almost entirely Hispanic student body, and they’re getting a hundred percent of their kids off to college, and their achievement gap closed, so there is a lot to learn from them.
But we also know not all charter schools are good. It’s R&D, some don’t work. I think we have to be very analytical about what we can learn about what works and do more of that and close down what doesn’t work, and build on our strengths. Right now, we get political fights over how many charter schools should there be. That’s not the question. The question is how many good schools can we get and who cares what we call them. So I think charter schools have been fabulous, but not all of them, and now we need to learn the best lessons and replicate.
QUESTION: I heard you mention earlier kind of in passing, standardized testing. I was wondering if you’re an advocate of standardized testing, and if so, what role should standardized testing play in future educational programs?
O'BRIEN: So the question is, what my thinking about standardized testing is. I think standardized testing is very crude. We shouldn’t be happy with it but if we hadn’t had standardized testing in the late 90’s and early part of the 21st century, we wouldn’t know that there was such a big achievement gap. The scores of low-income and minority students would have been swept under rugs as they had been for the previous 30 years. So it put a spotlight on the achievement gap. So now we know it’s there. They’re not diagnostic, they don’t help anyone learn better or teach better, so I can’t wait for better cost-effective tests to come out. But I think it did a real good service for us in saying that we can no longer sweep things under the rug. If we really believe every student can learn and achieve and go on to post-secondary education, we have to face those numbers and then figure out how to address them. So I think they were essential, but we’ve got to get better about assessment.
QUESTION: Related question to assessment, in terms of a lot of previous policies focused on output scores and performance metrics particularly in standardized testing, and that creates an incentive for exemption and corruption because their funding is tied on their test scores and how well kids are doing. So, speaking to accountability and being able to measure progress within the schools, as well as the question about the top of the merit pay, and how to ensure that the teachers are doing it but not just leaching off the system
O'BRIEN: So standardized tests in Colorado and in other states around the country have been tied to merit pay for teachers, we’re going to tie them to tenure in Colorado, and we have plenty of evidence around the country that these high stakes use of tests leads to cheating and people doing illegal things out of desperation that they’ll be shown to not have their kids perform as well as everyone thought.
That’s definitely a reality we have to deal with. Like anything else, that shouldn’t stop us from getting started. We have to know that what we’re doing in schools and classrooms is boosting student achievement. We are getting our clocks cleaned by countries around the world. We used to be among the top in the world for math and reading, generally now we’re below average, and the most developed countries in the world we’re bottom, next to bottom. We just absolutely cannot accept where we are, and part of that is starting to understand what teachers and principals with what students produce the best results or don’t.
It’s not going to be perfect, and it’s not going to be easy, but I think we at least have to start down that road. What I hope is that because in Colorado we built a beta year into our period of developing a system like this, we had a year to test it and try to get the bugs out.
I’m hoping that we will be improving every year that we go along, and that will be very cognoscente. That sometimes we produce desperate behaviors from adults, when really what you wanted was a chance to produce better teaching. So we have to be mindful about the link between testing and tenure pay or promotion or whatever it is. We have got to know that we are getting our money’s worth out of our public education system, and our kids have to start performing at a much higher level to compete globally with the top countries around the world.
QUESTION: I know recently there’s been a lot of regulation of business in different industries in our country. I was just curious to your opinion on how we, as future business leaders can kind of work to ensure that people continue to have an incentive to do something that they’re passionate about, and to do something that’s going to help them and help their community, rather than ending up with everything regulated and centralized.
O'BRIEN: Regulations seem to come about most often when some group like in the financial industry or some oil and natural gas companies when they don’t act in the best interests of their community and they are driven solely by profit which of course is good, but regulations are in reaction to totally going out of bounds. So the first thing we can do is get people who have a broad perspective of how their business fits into the community or the state or the world, and check themselves against broad excess, so that you don’t have a bunch of people coming in anger and regulating. I mean that’s not a healthy cycle, but that seems to be what happens.
But at least here in Colorado, we had the Ritter natural resources team, who really tried to put some smart regulations down that would do a better job of balancing energy production with sportsman and water sports and ranchers and yet our need for energy. It was really really bloody battle for a couple of years, and we heard that all sorts of the unemployment would shoot up because of it, but in reality, we’ve now been praised by oil and gas trade associations for what kind of National models those regulations are, and the people out in those communities are much happier, because they’re not waking up one morning and finding a drill going into their alfalfa field because mineral rights supersede farming rights.
So a lot of times instead of trying to fight any regulation, we ought to come together and try to solve the problem. And the problem was mining companies going wherever they wanted because they had rights, and it didn’t matter if a rancher had a field he was trying to do something with. So I think we’ll create a lot of our own conflict by just wanting all or nothing, and we’ve got to realize that we’re a complicated state with complicated communities, and lots of people have interests in things and do a better job of problem solving together.
QUESTION: I would like to go back to education in a moment. You made a reference to early childhood education and the strides that have been made. Recent studies show the effectiveness of parental involvement and good parental education in helping raise students, raise learners, raise readers. Is there additional consideration for parents in preparing children to be successful in school?
O'BRIEN: Do you mean applying that research about parental involvement to the K-12 system?
QUESTION: No to the early years.
O'BRIEN: You know it is the role of parents is woven into as much early childhood education as we possibly can. So we always asked for centers or programs to offer parents training programs to have parents check in and have a chance for the teacher to talk to them, morning and afternoon when they pick the kids up. But fundamentally we subsidize early childhood education in this state to let the parents hold a steady job and get the family economically on its feet, and to increase the likelihood that a child will succeed in school. So if the parents don’t buy in to parent involvement, it's still up to these programs to get the kid’s school ready by the time they go to kindergarten. So it’s absolutely fundamentally important. But, if you’re in a public program, you’re low-income, your family is struggling, and we don’t accept it as an excuse that a parent’s not involved. The child isn’t expected to do well. It’s easier for the parent to get the kids involved, but it’s the job of the program to get the kids ready for school, and that’s what they’re evaluated on.
QUESTION: My name is Steve Kaufman. So you touched on an important point about hard work. So my question to you is how do we instill that value of hard work and break the mindset of entitlements to the upcoming generations, especially with the global competition that we will be facing.
O'BRIEN: So the question has to do with instilling hard work into people and breaking this sense of entitlement, and I would say we start with school-age kids. I mean, how many times we have all read in the news that the parents supported the child, not the teacher when they got in trouble. I mean this is our society, this is our adult callings who aren’t even demanding this of our children. So I think a lot of it has to start with our attitude as adults in the community about how hard you worked, your kids worked, and kids are kids. You know they’re going to mess up and act up, but who do you support. Even if you think the teacher overreacted, do you go sue?
I think we all have to go look at ourselves and see if this cynicism about people in roles of authority has really done us a disservice about teaching our kids to be a little more respective of authority and work hard for their approval. So I know what you’re talking about something bigger, but it’s very hard once people are adults. But we have kids for 12 or 13 years in the classroom, and we have them in our homes. We can start to shape the next generation to go back to the values we all remember as making our state and our country so great.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the state’s recent budget cutbacks on higher education, and what alternatives are possibly on the table.
O'BRIEN: So the question has to do with the cuts to higher education and what alternatives there are. There are more to come sadly, we’re facing having to cut $250 million more from this year’s budget, and next year another 650 more, because of the sales tax receipts and income tax to the state have continued to decline. So the reality is that cuts have to come from somewhere, and there are very few places in the budget that are protected. So what we’ve been talking about, is there a way, and I have to say there is no fat left in the State Government, everything is really down to the bone, and yet we’re trying to make sure that the infrastructure that lets the next generation have the opportunities we had, so higher education, technical training, all those things to make sure that’s there and affordable to them.
So there’s a wonderful process that is being spearheaded by DU, around taking a look at changes I the state constitution that need to be made, we are looking at what can we go to the voters and ask them to fund around higher education, there’s a group headed up by some business people looking at that. So we are exploring every opportunity that we can see on the horizon, but in the short term, the fact is that they’re going to be more cuts, and it’s going to hurt the affordability of higher education. I wish that weren’t true, but we can’t sugarcoat it.
We really need everyone to start talking around the kitchen table and around their communities about some things that you absolutely need to have for the future, and one is higher education. You know, roads we understand, prisons we understand, higher education is a tough sell in Colorado.
The voting public tends to think that you ought to just go pay for it yourself, but there’s almost no one in this room that paid for it themselves. You’re all taking advantage of what generations before you put into place. I think we have to figure out our obligation to the young people coming behind us to also have affordable chances to get education and training.
Maybe one more?
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you a question about leadership, you need to have some policy, some vision to execute, but how do you handle this, how do you proceed with different paths to do this. You know, our political system is so complicated. I want to hear some of your tips.
O'BRIEN: Letting people know what your policy positions and your vision for the state are. In a state like Colorado, it’s complicated. We’re very committed to local control, so we have a lot of decentralized decision making. The only way you can do that is to go all over the state talking to Rotary clubs and Kiwanis clubs, and high school graduations, and community college town meetings to get your message out. It really takes a whole lot of connecting around the state.
I think the strength to that compared to places like Pennsylvania or New York, now they’re probably going to get mad at me, there they can do so many things top down, and they don’t really care if they brought people along with them. Here, you’ve got to bring people along with you. You’ve got to really invest in the conversation, and the idea exchange, to get people to have a state wide consensus. So we in Colorado have to do much more upfront work to get there, but then we go forward more often than not as a unified state, and I’ve seen other states where they don’t have to put that work in up front, and they pay for it later, as organizations and companies and people try to wiggle out of it. So I actually think it’s a better way here. It’s hard to get around and build a consensus, but if you do it, you really have a chance to go forward without a lot of pushback later on.
So I want to thank you for inviting me, I want you to know I spent a lot time thinking about how to be a voice of experience, it’s a daunting assignment. I can’t wait to hear some of the other people who’ve come to speak to you, because this is a wonderful speaker series and privilege to be here with you tonight.
Thank you very much.
Speech from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkmxKcL0-g.