Align Away

Denver Public Schools “back to the drawing board” in search for Common Core-aligned curriculum

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Sofia Aliyeva, a third grader, works on learning the proper use of the word "spent" in an ESL class at Ellis Elementary.

Denver Public Schools officials say they are starting their search for curricular materials aligned to the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts all over again.

It’s been four years since Colorado adopted the Common Core in language arts and math as part of the Colorado Academic Standards. Starting next spring, the state’s standardized test in the subjects will be tied to the new standards.

But DPS has yet to adopt or purchase a new set of curricular resources aligned to the Common Core.

District officials say that the textbooks and other academic resources that are on the market right now aren’t up to snuff, especially for Denver’s large population of English learners.

“It’s a real struggle right now,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer. “Finding a curriculum that’s that’s been redesigned for the Common Core is difficult enough—and finding one that’s aligned for English learners is a different challenge.”

The district reviewed the Common Core-aligned textbooks and curriculum on the market last year, Whitehead-Bust said, but decided that none was worth the millions of dollars the district would have to invest.

The district then decided to create a new curriculum in-house. “That was Plan B. And that turned out to be equally challenging,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Now we’re back to the drawing board.”

Whitehead-Bust said there was no clear date by which the district was guaranteed to have new resources. “We’re continuing to move forward with research and investigation,” she said.

In the meantime, DPS teachers are in limbo, adapting resources that were created with the previous state standards in mind to create lessons that are aligned the Common Core.

Redesigned, not realigned

The Common Core standards for English language arts and math have been adopted in 43 states and the District of Columbia (Minnesota adopted only the standards in English language arts). Though the standards have stirred political and educational controversy, Denver officials say they are more rigorous and will encourage better teaching and learning.

Third graders at Ellis Elementary study English with ESL teacher Bree Roon.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Third graders at Ellis Elementary study English with ESL teacher Bree Roon. Each of the students in this group has a different native language, including Karen, Spanish, Russian/Turkish, Arabic, and Bosnian.

But Denver is not alone in having not found new Common Core-aligned curriculum and textbooks, said Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for Common Core State Standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which helped develop the standards. “Many places didn’t want to rush to buy new materials until there were more quality resources out there.”

She said that’s starting to change: Some states, including Tennessee, Louisiana, and Hawaii, have recommended lists of textbooks that are aligned to the standards.

In Colorado, each district chooses which curriculum and resources it will use. Some districts, including Boulder, have adopted new curricular resources tied to the Common Core.

Whitehead-Bust said that DPS is searching for something that’s not simply old textbooks with a new label. “There are a lot of companies that have remapped their material to the standards. But they haven’t redone their material. We’re looking for materials that are really redesigned, not just realigned.”

In the meantime, she said, teachers haven’t been totally without updates and support. “What we’re trying to do is take the resources that were in place last year, many of which were really strong and solid resources, and deepen the rigor of the content, infuse more informational text, and deepen expectations around text-dependent questions, so we can really guide teachers through.” Elementary English language arts teachers have gotten new guided reading books for their students. A literacy newsletter has suggestions about how to tie lessons to the new standards.

“Great resources in the hands of less-than-well-trained teachers don’t have anywhere close to the same impact as well-trained teachers using resources you’d hoped to replace and upgrade over time,” she said.

But weaving old materials together with new additions aimed at making lessons more rigorous or aligned with the new standards isn’t always easy.

“They do provide us with a lot of resources,” said Margaux Rowley, a second grade teacher at Ellis Elementary, in southeast Denver. “But sometimes you’re getting so much—it’s, ‘do this with the scope and sequence,’ ‘do this with the standards.’ It’s a lot of information.”

Rowley said that making sure the lesson plans and instructional materials she uses in class line up with the standards, and with how other grades in the school are interpreting the standards, is a challenge.

Theresa Winslow, a fifth grade teacher at Ellis, said that math materials are more up-to-date than language arts. “In literacy, we’re still tied to the lesson guides from ten years ago.”

Frustrated board

At a meeting of the district’s board in November focused on academic programs and teacher and leader training initiatives, board member Arturo Jimenez said he was concerned about the delay. “If we don’t have the curricular materials chosen and implemented and ready to go, it’s difficult to see the logic that we’re focusing on teacher leadership development, evaluation and incentives,” he said. He compared it to sending paratroopers into battle without parachutes.

The Denver school board discusses academics, including curriculum, at a meeting in November.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
The Denver school board discusses academics, including curriculum, at a meeting in November.

“How do we focus teachers without planning and practice guides, without curriculum that’s focused on the Common Core? It seems like we’re doing it backwards,” he said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said while he understood the concern, “we have kids on the ground who desperately need our teachers. Are not going to say we’re not going to coach or develop them?”

Whitehead-Bust described the district’s efforts to “bridge” between old materials and new. “Many districts are in our position,” she said. “It’s frustrating for teachers.” She said there would likely be an update to the timeline for finding resources as the district develops its new strategic plan this winter.

Board president Happy Haynes said she was surprised to hear that materials appropriate for English learners were hard to come by. “I don’t know why it took [publishers] so long to figure out that that’s an extraordinary need—but we need to keep the pressure there in order to get the materials we need.”

Challenges for English learners

Ellis Elementary educates students who speak more than 20 different native languages.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Ellis Elementary enrolls students who speak more than 20 different native languages.

States and districts have been developing ways to make sure the standards are accessible to English learners, according to the CCSSO’s Phillips. The state of New Jersey, for one, has developed scaffolding guides for English learners. The school district in San Diego has translated all of the standards into Spanish. The Council of the Great City Schools released a “user’s guide” for districts looking to find instructional materials tailored to English learners’ needs this August.

In 2013-14, 35 percent of Denver’s public school students were English learners.

District chief schools officer Susana Cordova said the new standards highlight an already-existing challenge: “It’s difficult to find material in Spanish in general–and even more difficult to find material that’s been revised and aligned to the rigor of the Common Core.” The district offers several Transitional Native Language Instruction, or TNLI, in programs, in which Spanish speaking students spend some time learning in their native language.

She said there also aren’t enough materials with features that make it easier for students who are learning English to process text (such as on-page definitions for tricky words). She said the Common Core standards’ emphasis on informational text and problem solving in math means that English learners are confronted with more technical language and, in math, just more language than ever before.

And even resources that are advertised as aligned don’t always live up to the hype, she said. When the district reviewed one publisher’s Common Core-aligned materials, Cordova said, eight of the ten lessons built for English learners focused on idioms. “That’s not the bulk of what English learners need to learn,” Cordova said.

The district adopted a new program called E.L. Achieve, intended to be a more effective literacy program for English learners, earlier this fall.

At Ellis Elementary, where more than 24 languages are spoken and fewer than a third of students speak English as a first language, “we didn’t get the new standards and think, oh my goodness, how will we teach our English learners,” said Linda Miller, the dean of instruction at Ellis. “It was, how will we get STUDENTS to show that they have mastered or are where they should be with the standards? So now it’s this aftermath—so now we’re going to use E.L. Achieve. How will that support teaching the standards as well?”

“We’re working as hard as we possibly can to teach all our students,” Miller said. “A large majority happen to be English learners. But that hasn’t changed.”

Teachers were most concerned about how students, especially English learners, would fare on PARCC, the state’s new computer-based, Common Core-tied assessment, which, they said, is very text heavy. Even the instructions for how to navigate the online exam—drag and drop, or figuring out which box is an answer box—can trip up students, especially those who are still translating in their heads.

“A lot of our English learners are brilliant,” Winslow said. “But the test isn’t really going to show you what they’re capable of. And then it looks like we’re not doing our jobs.”

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.