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:

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.