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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.