Politics to the core

Reporter’s notebook: After a night with Glenn Beck, anti-Common Core crusaders look toward election, legislative session

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jack Matthews, an organizer for Stop Common Core Colorado, watches Glenn Beck's "We Will Not Conform" live event via satellite at a theater in Aurora.

Anita Stapleton, one of the original Colorado crusaders against the Common Core State Standards, didn’t need the validation she felt on Tuesday night.

But it didn’t hurt, either.

That night, Stapleton was one of hundreds of theatergoers statewide who participated in a live event hosted by conservative-media personality powerhouse Glenn Beck, who recently authored a book of opposition on the matter.

Dubbed “We Will Not Conform,” the event — equal parts group therapy, sermon, strategy session, book-sale pitch — was filmed in Texas and beamed via satellite to cineplexes across the nation.

“For him to take this on, it’s been huge,” Stapleton said. Seeing the dozens of educators, parents, and politicians who stood with Beck Tuesday night “substantiated” everything Stapleton has done. “I’m not crazy,” she chuckled. “I’m not alone.”

Stapleton’s small but vocal protest against the standards, which Colorado adopted in 2010, has been a regular fixture at Colorado State Board of Education meetings for more than a year. Multiple times a month, she crisscrosses the state, sharing her reasons for opposing the standards with whomever will listen.

Opponents of the standards, like Stapleton, have a long list of concerns. Generally, they believe the standards — and new standardized tests created to match the standards — stifle local control of schools, parents’ and student privacy rights, and that the true intent of the new standards is to make money for private businesses — not boost academic performance.

Meanwhile, supporters of the new standards, which were designed by a coalition of states and later backed by the federal government, believe the benchmarks are more rigorous than previous standards and will help prepare students for the economy of the future.

“Beck’s book asserts that Common Core is ‘about creating workers, not thinkers,’” said Zack Neumeyer, chairman of Sage Hospitality and spokesman for Future Forward Colorado, the business coalition in support of the new standards and tests. “If he talked to Colorado’s CEOs, they would tell him that we need employees who can think deeply and solve problems. The Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core, are higher expectations that give employers like me confidence that our job candidates will have the skills they need to run a hotel or restaurant or identify a good investment opportunity.”

The standards were also designed to ensure consistency in what schools are teaching across state lines. A student in Colorado, supporters argue, should neither be too far ahead nor too far behind when her family moves to Iowa. Their assessments, which debut next spring, are meant to allow states to compare results.

Beck’s aim was to catch up newbies to the issues and fire up those who have been opposed to the new standards.

And it worked, Stapleton said.

“This was a call to action — to help get the grassroots organized,” Stapleton said after the event. “It gave direction to those who didn’t have direction. We have needed help nationwide — to get to those areas where we haven’t been to raise awareness.”

The question now is whether the intended jolt of energy for those concerned citizens will translate into real political action and results.

To help ensure that translation, Beck’s team crafted a nearly 20-page “action plan” outlining next steps and emailed it to individuals who signed up for it at the event.

So far, three of the original 45 states that signed on to the standards have withdrawn from the Common Core. But in Colorado, as in a number of other states, efforts to abandon the standards have so far failed to gain substantial political momentum.

Stapleton’s organization, Stop Common Core Colorado, had organizers at 12 of the 21 theaters across Colorado that participated in the event.

The average theater, according to her organizers, had about 30 people. A theater in Grand Junction, she said, had the highest turnout with 165 people. In Aurora, where I caught the event, there were more than 60. Neither Beck nor a representative from Fathom Events, the distributor would comment on exactly how many tickets were sold at the 700 theaters that participated. But, in a statement, Josh Raffel, spokesperson for Glenn Beck said the event “would have placed it No. 2 on a per auditorium basis at the box-office when compared to movies showing the prior Tuesday.”

Stapleton said she heard reports along the front range of moviegoers staying out late into the night at nearby coffee shops and restaurants discussing their next steps.

But, she admitted, “I’ve been promised bus loads of people before” that haven’t materialized.

Turnout for a rally in February to support a bill that would delay the new standards and their aligned tests, organized in part by Stop Common Core Colorado and Core Concerns, was expected to be high, but in reality few materialized. (Plenty of folks showed up later to testify both in front of the State Board of Education and a legislative panel reviewing the bill — which later killed it.)

Still, Stapleton said she has renewed hope.

On Monday, Stapleton will kick-off a series of weekly statewide conference calls to better coordinate across the state. A leadership workshop is in the works to train activists across the state. Opponents to the standards are already eyeing the next legislative session.

And of course, there’s the 2014 midterm elections that includes a battle for control of the state Senate and the governor’s mansion. And when I asked if she and her cohorts would be taking an active role in the election, Stapleton replied: “Heavens yes.”

But other parents in Aurora were less committed.

“I’m still trying to digest it all,” said Jenae Hester, a mother of two. She pulled her daughter out of the Cherry Creek School District over her objections to the standards that she believes are a “one-size fits all” approach to education and age-inappropriate. “I took a lot of notes,” she said. “I’m going to some of the websites they mentioned.”

(For a national perspective on Beck’s event — and its possible impact on the debate — check out these articles from The Washington Post, and NPR here and here.)

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.