From the Statehouse

Colorado in sweet 16 for Race to the Top

Video and audio clips are at the bottom of this story.

Colorado’s bid for $377 million in federal Race to the Top education stimulus funds was strong enough to land it among the 16 finalists, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Thursday morning.

Duncan said Colorado, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee made the finalist cut. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied. Colorado is the only western state selected.

More states were named finalists than many observers had expected. The states named Thursday will be invited to Washington the week of March 15 to make presentations. States that don’t make the cut can apply in a second round later this year.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien discuss Colorado's selection Thursday as a Race to the Top finalist. Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams and Bob Bacon are in the background.

Meeting with reporters about an hour after the announcement, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and Education Commissioner Dwight Jones were understandably upbeat.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be considered one of the top states in the country,” said O’Brien, who helped lead the state’s effort. But, she added, “We’re very aware that all we’ve done so far is make the first cut.”

O’Brien also praised the state’s collaborative approach in developing the application, which has been questioned by some observers.

“We think we’re one of the states that really has the highest likelihood of successfully implementing our plan because of the broad public input process we had. … If what’s right for Colorado ends up being what’s right in the eyes of Washington, it will be a huge win-win.”

Jones, noting that R2T “is a difficult, competitive process,” added, “We know we still have a lot of work to do. I’m very optimistic. … No matter what the outcome of the competition, we still plan to continue with Colorado reforms.”

O’Brien announced that Gov. Bill Ritter has named the members of the Educator Effectiveness Council that will develop a proposal for a new teacher evaluation and tenure system. This is the piece of the state’s R2T plan that has been criticized by some who want a faster pace of reform on this issue. (List of council members.)

“We are committed to streamlining and modernizing our teacher effectiveness system,” O’Brien said. “The idea will be to figure out what we need in rules and state policy” concerning educator evaluation.

She said teacher evaluations and student performance will be tied to compensation, retention, promotion and tenure. “I think we’re going to have a very finely tuned performance management system in our districts.”

O’Brien said state officials hadn’t yet learned how Colorado’s application was scored nor the details of the presentation process in Washington later this month.

“We are cautiously optimistic. Now the hard work of explaining our proposal in detail will begin,” she said.

R2T has been the focus of state policymakers’ attention for months. One lawmaker called it the “golden ticket” for solving the state’s school problems; other officials have tried to subtly downplay expectations.

The competition required states to detail how they would use the money in four broad policy areas:

  • Standards and testing that prepare students for college and work.
  • Data systems that measure student growth and success and help educators improve teaching.
  • Recruitment, development, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially in the most challenged schools.
  • Turnaround plans for the lowest-performing schools.

Applicants were graded on a 500-point scoring system by outside judges hired by the U.S. Department of Education. The interviews can move that total score up or down. But the final decisions rest with Duncan.

Colorado education leaders have long felt recent education reforms have positioned the state reasonably well for the competition, except in the area of educator effectiveness.

In contrast to some states, which pushed through new laws on teacher preparation, evaluation and tenure, the Ritter administration as part of the application instead opted to create the Council for Educator Effectiveness that will develop a proposed new educator evaluation system, based at least 50 percent on student performance.

The administration has defended that strategy as a “consensus” approach more likely to create sustainable reforms because of the involvement of a wide spectrum of interests, including teachers unions.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, had been working on comprehensive evaluation and tenure reform legislation before Ritter’s plan was announced. He says he still plans to introduce a bill but said Wednesday it might not happen for several weeks.

Much of what Colorado proposes would pay the costs of implementing previously approved but unfunded education reforms such as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. The state proposes to use the $377 million in these ways:

  • Implementation costs – $21.5 million
  • Rollout of and training in new standards and in use of data – $23.8 million
  • Subsidies and incentives for schools to acquire new instructional materials and formative assessments – $18.6 million
  • Review of and partial subsidies for new interim assessments – $8.6 million
  • Improved state data capture of district information and a statewide enrollment system – $24.4 million
  • Other data improvements, including data on educator effectiveness – $52.5 million
  • Colorado Center for Educator Excellence – $5.7 million
  • Office of Educator Effectiveness to help districts – $4.5 million
  • Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness – $605,000
  • Rollout of new evaluation systems in districts – $67.8 million
  • Increase the number of Teach for America teachers in Colorado in low-performing schools – $24.5 million
  • Incentive grants for highly effective educators – $2.6 million
  • Grants for high quality teacher preparation programs – $6 million
  • School Leadership Academy – $7.3 million
  • Increased enrollment in Advanced Placement courses – $8.2 million
  • Grants to districts to develop alternative compensation plans – $5.5 million
  • Aid to teachers to gain expertise in high-needs subject areas – $5 million
  • Colorado Turnaround Center – $41.4 million
  • CDE Turnaround Office – $4.8 million
  • Innovation Acceleration Grant Program to develop school turnaround strategies – $6 million
  • Undesignated grants to districts for implementation of various reforms – $37 million

(See this CDE document for details on each proposed spending area.)

The R2T process required formal sign-on by school districts (known as “local education agencies”) if they want to receive funds from the program. Half of total funding is to go to districts. In Colorado, 134 of 178 districts signed on, representing 94 percent of state students, including 94 percent of free and reduced lunch students and 95 percent of minority students.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is leading the state's Race to the Top effort.

Leading up to the announcement, state leaders have been measured in their comments about Colorado’s chances. O’Brien has repeatedly said that Colorado will apply for the second round of R2T if necessary and that the plan will provide a blueprint for future education initiatives even if Colorado doesn’t garner any federal money.

While R2T has received most of the attention, it’s only part of the total education funding that state has received, or is eligible for, under other programs of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

For example, some $620 million has been used to shore up the budgets of state colleges and universities and nearly $270 million is available to school districts under various pre-existing federal formulas. The bulk of that money is for Title I and special education programs. (More information from CDE on other education stimulus programs.)

R2T funding, which will be spread out over multiple budget years, also is small in the context of total annual K-12 spending in Colorado, which this year is about $5.7 billion in state and local funds.

Members of the Council for Educator Effectiveness

  • Colorado Department of Education: Nina Lopez, Special Assistant to Education Commissioner
  • Colorado Department of Higher Education: Lorrie Shepard, Dean, School of Education, University of Colorado – Boulder
  • Teachers: Shelly Genereax of Brighton School District 27J, Kerrie Dallman of Jefferson County Public Schools, Amie Baca-Oehlert of Adams District 12, Nikkie Felix of Aurora Public Schools
  • Public School Administrators: Margaret Crespo, Principal of John Evans Middle School in Weld County, Tracy Dorland, Executive Director of Teacher Effectiveness in Denver Public Schools
  • Public School Superintendent: Sandra Smyser, Superintendent of Eagle County Schools
  • School Board Members: Bill Bregar of Pueblo District 70, Jo Ann Baxter of Moffat County
  • Charter Schools: Colin Mullaney, Principal of Cheyenne Mountain Charter in Colorado Springs
  • Public School Parent: Towanna Henderson of Denver Public Schools
  • Student: Shelby Gonzales-Parker of Justice High School in Denver Public Schools
  • At-Large Member: Matt Smith, Vice-President of Engineering, United Launch Alliance

Do your homework


EdNews video of O’Brien and Jones news conference:

Audio of today’s announcement from Colorado officials:

Video of Secretary Duncan’s announcement:

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”