‘identity politics?'

Vote on Colorado education plan erupts into war of words over which kids benefit

PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham

The State Board of Education on Thursday unanimously approved Colorado’s federally required education plan, but not before two of its most outspoken members questioned whether it would make any difference and clashed over which students would benefit.

“Unless you’re poor or a minority or from another identity politics group, there is nothing in this plan that will benefit you,” said board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican. “There’s nothing in this plan to improve the education of your children.”

Democrat Val Flores, though, had a conflicting view. Echoing some of the state’s education reform advocates and civil rights groups who sounded alarm about the plan, Flores said it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the needs of Colorado’s most at-risk students.

“There are these monies that should be going to a special category of kids — and we’re not being creative about how we could solve these problems,” she said.

Ultimately, the board agreed to send the 145-page plan to Washington, D.C., for approval.

The document — required by the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act — took 15 months to complete. It outlines how the state will spend federal dollars to raise test scores, help students who are learning English as a second language and better train teachers.

Durham said the only reason he approved the plan was so the board could move on.

“I’m glad this is off our plate,” he said.

Colorado’s public schools serve about 905,000 students. About 42 percent qualify for free or discounted lunches, a proxy of poverty. A similar proportion of students are non-white. Both populations are growing in the state.

Education reform and civil rights advocates criticized Durham’s portrayal of the state’s plan.

“It’s unfortunate that board member Durham seems to view education as a zero-sum game,” said Jack Teter, a research director for Democrats for Education Reform. “As the title would indicate, the Every Student Succeeds Act exists to ensure that we are educating all students — not just the ones who look like Steve Durham.”

Sean Bradley, president of the Urban League of Denver, sat on a committee with Durham that helped craft the plan. He said he was disappointed in the comments of the former board chairman.

“Poor kids and minority kids are not political identity groups,” Bradley said. “They’re historically underserved in our public education system. What’s political is that a person in a position of power is trying to pit more affluent families against families that have barriers to success.”

Most federal money the state receives is meant to help at-risk students. The laws that established these sources of funding — including Title I — were created during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

In Colorado and across the nation, wide achievement gaps separate white, middle- and upper-class white students from poorer students of color.

About 47 percent of white third-grade students in Colorado were at grade level on state math tests in 2016, while 23 percent of Latino third-grade students and 22 percent of black students met that mark.

While 51 percent of white students met or exceeded the state’s expectations on the eighth-grade English test, only 27 percent of black and Latino students did. That’s a 23-point gap.

“The gaps in achievement, and in opportunity, are real and pervasive across the state for today’s students of color, students living in poverty and students with special education needs,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “By focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable, we lift the bar of education equity higher for all students.”

The state’s federal education plan does heavily focus on Colorado’s most at-risk kids. However, part of the plan calls for statewide academic goals for all students.

One of the state’s goals is to improve its graduation rate for all students to 90 percent. The 2016 statewide average was 78.9 percent. The average graduation rate for white students was 84 percent, while the rate for students of color was 72 percent.

One change to the state plan — about how the state rates its schools — drew praise from conservative education policy watchers.

In the past, the state awarded schools points based on how many students met or exceeded the state’s standards on English and math tests. Moving forward, the state will measure schools based on the average test score.

Advocates for the change believe this will incentive teachers to focus on accelerating learning for all students, not just those who are near proficiency.

Durham said that federal intervention hasn’t done enough to improve learning for students, and he said the state didn’t do enough to take advantage of freedom given under the new federal law to try to improve it.

He said he plans to send ideas to the state education department staff about how to improve the plan later. During the meeting, Durham suggested the state should have been creative with how it uses federal dollars to replicate high-performing schools and charter networks.

Under the new law, the state can amend its plan regularly.

Colorado did not need to alter its education plan dramatically because state laws largely were already in harmony with the new federal law, which President Obama signed into law in 2015.

One change involves the inclusion of a new way to measure school quality. Starting next year, schools will be measured in part by how well they increase student attendance.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.