Colorado weighs another shot at R2T

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien talk to reporters Monday about R2T.

Colorado’s loss in round one of the federal Race to the Top sent state leaders scrambling Monday to figure out how to up their odds in round two – if they chose to apply again.

That’s up to Gov. Bill Ritter, who described it as “likely,” but was careful not to commit.

Colorado made it to the finals stage with its $377 million application to jump-start education reform statewide but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan named only two winners on Monday: Delaware and Tennessee.

Duncan said he hopes to name another “10 to 15 states” winners in round two of the overall $4.3 billion national grant competition, part of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

But to do that, Duncan said states must adhere to budget guidelines based on school-aged population in the second round, which has a June 1 deadline. That means Colorado will have to slash its application to between $60 million and $175 million.

Ritter said state leaders will look at the winning applications and see how they differed from Colorado’s before deciding, within the next week, whether to apply again.

“We’ll look … and see what distinguished their applications from ours,” the governor said. “If they’re going to fund another 10 to 15 states, we still think that we have some chance if we decide to go forward.”

Tennessee will receive $500 million and Delaware will get $100 million for winning round one of the federal Race, leaving $3.4 billion to be awarded in round two. See how all the states stacked up in the ranking here.

Colorado won the most points for its standards and assessments and for its plan to turn around low-performing schools, winning 90 percent of the points possible in both areas. See the state scorecard here and reviewers’ comments here.

Comparing Colorado’s bid to winning states

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the first round of Race to the Top, and panels of outsider reviewers hired by the U.S. Department of Education cut that number to 16 finalists on March 4. Monday, Duncan named the two winners and released states’ rankings and reviewers’ comments.

Colorado ranked third from the bottom of the 16 finalists, with 409.6 out of a possible 500 points, topping only New York and Washington D.C. In contrast, Delaware received 454.6 points and Tennessee earned 444.2 points.

Reviewers judged the weakest spots in Colorado’s application to be its plan to improve teacher and principal quality, which netted 75.9 percent of 138 possible points, and in its likelihood of successfully implementing the overall reform plan, which won 76.1 percent of 125 possible points.

Scroll down in the chart below to see how Colorado compares to the winning states in each category:  

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Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who led Colorado’s Race effort, pointed out the state did not lose points, as some had predicted, in its creation of a council to define effective teachers and principals and to come up with ways to measure them linked to student growth.

Other states passed laws locking in educator evaluation systems. Days before the first Race deadline, Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation requiring the annual evaluations of teachers and principals based at least 50 percent on student achievement.

But reviewers did fault Colorado for failing to provide quality alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals, noting those in place produce fewer than 10 percent of the state’s educators.

Reviewers also took points away for what they saw as the state’s failure to explain how it would ensure effective teachers are equitably distributed in high-poverty, high-minority schools and across hard-to-fill subject areas.

“The application does not adequately address how the state monitors or evaluates all areas of need related to critical educator shortages,” one reviewer wrote.

O’Brien said the state can strengthen its application language in those areas.

“We were talking like a Western state,” she said. “But we have to have incentives to get districts and teachers to distribute themselves and to have alternative pathways because that’s how you do it in a local-control state.

“I do think we can be much more explicit about, ‘This is our goal and we will reach it.’ ”

Low marks for academic track record, participation

Other parts of Colorado’s application cited as weaknesses were its lack of demonstrated significant progress in raising achievement and concerns about buy-in from school districts and unions.

One reviewer said “the overall gains suggest real progress” among Colorado’s students but that the state did not link specific strategies to some data.

For example, national and state test scores “shows a general flat performance in reading across the 2003-2009 period” but the application “fails to provide an explanation of how the state is adjusting its strategy based upon the data story.”

Another reviewer said the state attributes a rise in math scores to “a focus” on standards and alignment but since reading scores haven’t similarly improved, “perhaps there was no parallel focus on reading … this lack of focus would need to be explained.”

Several reviewers also cited concerns about the fact that only 41 percent of local teachers’ unions signed on to participate in reforms if Colorado won Race dollars.

In the metro area, Aurora and Cherry Creek unions declined to participate though the statewide teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, submitted a letter of support.

“Successful state reform efforts must have the strong support of the local unions,” a reviewer wrote. “Without their participation, the possibility for obstruction of the reform agenda is heightened.”

In Delaware, 100 percent of union leaders agreed to participate and, in Tennessee, 93 percent of unions signed on. Both winning states also had 100 percent of school districts climbing on board for Race reforms, which Duncan cited in Monday’s press conference.

“Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies,” he said. “And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Next steps in the Race to the Top

In Colorado, 134 of the state’s 178 school districts have indicated they will participate in reforms funded by Race dollars.

The other 4o are “mostly small, mostly rural” districts wary of federal entanglement, O’Brien said.

“They don’t like federal mandates and they want to make sure there isn’t federal takeover of education,” she said.

As state leaders figure out whether to re-apply for Race to the Top, they’ll be talking to those superintendents again to see if they’re willing to reconsider. It likely won’t help that the state will be seeking half its original bid in round two.

O’Brien said education officials are poring over the 46 pages of reviewers’ comments as they figure out next steps.

“We want to look at all the comments for several other states, definitely Delaware and Tennessee and maybe some others that are ahead of us,” she said, “and try and drill down to what we think we can do on a reduced budget if we apply for a second round.”

State leaders said they still plan to implement the education reforms detailed in Colorado’s 152-page application but that, without the Race dollars, it will take longer.

Race to the Top grants are for four years – Colorado’s $377 million bid, then, represents a tiny portion of the state’s four-year spending on K-12 education or about $25 billion.

But in tough economic times, many were looking to the grant to help finance education initiatives already enacted but little funded, such as the Ritter’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids.

“There are things we are going to do no matter what,” O’Brien said. “We are designing a new evaluation system no matter what, we are going to have internationally benchmarked standards no matter what, we are going to have a new CSAP (state test) no matter what.”

She said state officials are seeking other sources of finance, including private dollars and other federal grants.

“We’ll be looking everywhere for every dollar we can find,” she said.

To learn more:

Related: R2T decision may spur teacher quality bill

Click here to go to the Colorado Department of Education’s Race to the Top page, to see a summary of the state’s application, its full application and a budget.

Click here to see all of the states’ applications for Race to the Top, including the winning bids from Delaware and Tennessee.

Click here to read a statement from state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and here to see a statement from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Click here to see prior EdNews’ stories about Race to the Top.

Click below to hear state leaders describe next steps for Colorado in the Race to the Top:

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.