Colorado

Analyzing Colorado’s shot at the Top

R2T news conference
Gov. Bill Ritter with Esmeralda Aguilar, a member of the student group Project VOYCE, among those supporting the state's R2T application.

Will Colorado’s desire for collaboration doom the state’s chances of winning the Race to the Top?

That question lingered Tuesday after the state submitted its application to try to secure $377 million of the $4.35 billion federal grant.

Analysts who’ve followed the highly competitive national education reform competition for the past year have typically placed Colorado among the top 10 contenders for the prize.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged as much during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“We’re expecting to get a great application from Colorado,” Duncan said, declining more specific comment on any individual state’s chances.

But others were quick to point out what they see as the plan’s greatest weakness – the creation of a council to figure out how to link teacher pay, retention, dismissal and tenure to student academic growth rather than the details of a plan doing exactly that.

Nationally, a former U.S. Department of Education official noted Colorado was among the states opting for buy-in from stakeholders such as teachers’ unions over the creation of a definitive proposal.

“The state decided against making tough calls on teacher evaluations, potentially knocking a frontrunner back several spots,” wrote Andy Smarick on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog.

 

Be bold, or collaborative?

 

One D.C. insider slotted Colorado behind states such as Tennessee, where the teachers’ union signed on to a plan linking 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation to measures of student academic progress.

Florida also is favored over Colorado, though that state’s union president publicly fought a proposal linking teacher evaluations to student growth and requiring that data be used to implement merit pay.

Duncan has repeatedly called for bold ideas in states’ proposals but states also get points if they show broad support for their plans.

“With Obama and Arne Duncan, the question is do you reward states for leaping out front even if they may make a bunch of mistakes?” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver.

“Or do you reward states, such as Colorado, where there’s really been a huge process of getting everybody on board and, as a result, you had to make compromises so the final result isn’t as bold as you’d like but you have the buy-in to make changes?”

From a researcher’s point of view, he noted, there are plenty of questions about linking student achievement to teacher performance.

For example, “when you’re looking at urban classrooms where half of the 25 kids at the beginning of the year are not the same 25 at the end of the year, 12 kids are statistically not enough to say whether the teacher really did well or badly,” Teske said. “The numbers are too small.”

 

Not interested in status quo

 

Colorado leaders on Tuesday agreed some states may wind up with “a better score” on their application.

But, “I would take our way of commiting to implementation over how some other states are doing it through conflict anyday,” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “We are arm and arm together.”

Duncan gave somewhat conflicting statements about whether broad support trumps a bold plan.

“What I see us doing is, we’re basically investing in states where the management team and all of the adults there are working together,” he said at one point in Tuesday’s conference call. “Just as in business you wouldn’t necessarily invest in a management team where people are fighting each other on different pages, we want to invest in those places that are working together.”

On the other hand, “If a state is getting consensus but doing it by perpetuating the status quo, well frankly, we’re not going to be that interested in doing it,” he said.

“What we think, and what we’re actually very confident, is that you’re going to have a set of states that both have folks working together on the same page and pushing a very strong reform agenda. So there’s a combination of those two that we’re going to look for. That’s how you’re going to win this competition.”

Duncan also repeated that there will be far more losers than winners among those competing in the first round of Race to the Top. Some are estimating no more than a handful of winners will be selected.

“This is a very, very difficult competition,” he said Tuesday. “This is not a race to the middle. This is a race to the top, and we meant what we said.”

 

Timeline for teacher changes

 

Colorado union leaders praised the state’s “unwavering commitment to pursuing a collaborative strategy” in a letter of support that accompanied its Race to the Top application.

Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association, said the creation of a Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness “will give us the opportunity to work on this crucial issue and get it right.”

Here’s the timeline of the council’s work, according to the application:

  • By Dec. 31, 2010, the council will recommend statewide definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness and adopt guidelines for identifying measures of their effectiveness.
  • By Sept. 30, 2011, the council will recommend policy changes, including changes in state law, to clear the way for school districts to use evaluations in determining teacher pay, retention, removal and tenure.
  • By fall 2012-13, all school districts participating in the Race to the Top will implement evaluation systems that have at least four ratings categories and that use student growth measures to determine at least 50 percent of a teacher or principal’s rating.
  • By 2013-2014, those districts will use their new evaluations in making decisions about the pay, promotion, retention and removal of teachers “after they have had ample opportunities to improve.”

“Teachers and principals will have timely feedback to identify areas for improvement, access to meaningful and relevant resources to address such areas, and ample opportunity to take advantage of such resources,” the application states.

 

‘Weak link nationwide’

 

Coverage of Race to the Top has focused on its emphasis on linking student growth to teacher evaluations, in part it’s the single largest chunk of possible points in the 500-point application.

It’s also controversial, and Colorado is far from the only state perceived by some as weak in that area.

“Teacher effectiveness is a weak link nationwide,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the New York-based Democrats for Education Reform, which supports many of the ideas pushed in the Race contest.

Colorado is seen as stronger in other key areas. Some states, including New York, tripped over efforts to loosen caps on charter schools – Colorado has no such limits.

The state has a student data system, the Colorado Growth Model, being adopted by others and it recently adopted “fewer, higher and clearer” academic standards in 13 content areas.

Still, the application promises to “dramatically transform public education” and initiatives spelled out in its 152 pages could do just that in the 134 districts statewide that have agreed to participate.

Small rural districts would receive unprecedented help in linking into, and using, the state’s student data system. Urban districts could get as much as $2 million per school to help turn around their lowest performers.    

Teachers would be asked to share model lessons and those whose lessons are rated highest by their peers would win $10,000. Students in high-poverty schools could benefit from a plan to ensure their teachers are just as effective in those at more affluent campuses.

Winners will be announced in April. If Colorado isn’t among them, round 2 kicks off in June.  

“If they make it through in the first round and are successful, fantastic,” Duncan said Tuesday of the application from Colorado officials. “If not, we expect them to come back in the second round.”

Click here to read Colorado’s Race to the Top application.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.