From the Statehouse

Teacher bill – next comes the vote

Four reform-minded superintendents and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña headlined the witnesses supporting Senate Bill 10-191 in testimony before the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon.

Superintendents Tom Boasberg, John Barry, Mike Miles and Charlotte Ciancio lined up April 22, 2010, to support the proposed educator effectiveness bill.

Peña spoke passionately about the need for the bill and for education reform and easily parried questions from Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who emerged as the most skeptical and persistent committee member Thursday.

“There are some who want us to go slow,” said Peña, who heads the A+ Denver citizens’ group advising Denver Public Schools. “I understand compromise. I understand we have to be flexible.” But, he said, proposed amendments that would extend the bill’s timeline “should give some comfort to teachers and principals.

“Let us not wait another 10 years to be bold,” he said. “Let us seize this historic opportunity.”

The meeting, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran well past 6 p.m., ended two sessions of testimony on the high-profile bill, which would substantially change the state’s rules for evaluating teachers and principals and for moving teachers in and out of probation. Read background.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has mounted a full court press in opposition to the bill. CEA witnesses testified during the committee’s first meeting Wednesday and at the beginning of Thursday’s session. See this story for details on the Wednesday meeting.

The CEA is organizing a rally at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Capitol’s west steps, promising about 600 teachers will show up. About 60 presidents of CEA local associations plan to lobby legislators.

At Thursday’s hearing, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the CEA’s parent organization, gave an articulate critique of the bill.

“The status quo for too many of our students in unacceptable,” he said. “I hope another thing we can agree on is that if you really want to transform a school … it requires collaboration. … You must have a good evaluation system and a professional development system.”

The supporting side had its own national witness, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, who vigorously supported the measure.

He argued that the bill actually “would give teachers far more protection than they have today.”

And a different union leader, Brenda Smith, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado unit, testified in qualified support of the bill Thursday. “We are looking forward to improving the language … for the best possible results,” she said.

Four superintendents who have tried various reform experiments in their districts also put their weight behind the measure.

Charlotte Ciancio of Mapleton led off the testimony and noted that all other metro-area superintendents back the bill.

Mike Miles of Harrison and Tom Boasberg of Denver talked about teacher quality reforms in their districts.

John Barry of Aurora was perhaps the most forceful, saying, “Evaluations and tenure change must happen together. … We need an environment of continuous improvement … based on evaluations every year.”

Other civic heavyweights backing the bill were Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver; George Sparks, head of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney; and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Groups such as Padres Unidos, the Urban League and the black and Hispanic chambers of commerce also support SB 10-191.

It was obvious that both the CEA and supporters carefully selected and prepared their witnesses. Almost all read from prepared statements, and both sides had marshaled teachers, principals and other representative figures to speak.

Some CEA witnesses told emotional stories about how they had lost jobs or struggled against unfair evaluations.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the prime mover behind SB 10-191, roamed around the Old Supreme Court Chamber, looking for witnesses and checking the list he carried in his hand.

The sharpest moment of the hearing came when Hudak challenged Peña, saying, “If I read between the lines, it sounds like you’re saying the reason we’re losing those [at-risk] students is because the teachers are bad.”

Pena, whose rhetorical skills have been honed by years as civil rights lawyer, legislator, mayor and federal cabinet secretary, replied, “I said the exact opposite, with all due respect.”

With several witnesses, Hudak raised the question of how teachers can be evaluated on the basis of tests that students may not take seriously. She repeatedly used the analogy of a dental hygienist whose patents don’t take care of their teeth.

It got to the point that some witnesses started to pre-empt Hudak by using their own dental analogies.

Senate Ed, which normally meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, will hold an extra meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday to consider a lengthy list of proposed amendments and to vote on the bill.

The clock is ticking for SB 10-191 and several other pieces of key education legislation. Starting Friday, lawmakers have only 14 working days left before they must adjourn. If passed by the committee, the bill has to go through two rounds on Senate floor consideration before it can go to the House, where the whole process will have to be repeated starting in the House Education Committee.

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.”