Setting Standards

Colorado is re-examining its academic standards. Will it avoid the political turmoil seen in other states?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class.

Colorado’s in-depth review of its academic standards — what kids are expected to know in several subjects in each grade — has entered a new and potentially political phase.

About 180 Colorado educators, parents and community members have been split into committees reviewing standards in 11 subjects, along with standards for students learning English as a second language. They also will propose the state’s first academic standards in computer science.

The committees’ work, to be carried out over the 10 months, will help inform the State Board of Education, which must approve any changes to the standards by July 2018.

Other states have become embroiled in controversies over repealing the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado also adopted. But efforts to kill the Common Core in Colorado have not gotten serious traction. A recent state-sanctioned survey found both mixed reviews for the state’s existing standards and little appetite to overhaul them in a big way.

Colorado adopted its current standards in 2010. It was the first time the state had updated its standards since the 1990s. For English and math, it joined 45 other states in adopting the Common Core standards, which were developed by groups representing state governors and education commissioners.

“Our old ways of doing things didn’t put us competitively with the rest of the world,” said Joanie Funderburk, president of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics and co-chair of the math standards committee. “It didn’t allow every person to graduate high school prepared to do whatever they wanted to do.”

The Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and analysis and demphasizes memorization of facts. Supporters believe they are rigorous and if taught correctly prepare students for college and career in the 21st Century. Some critics say the standards either ask too much or too little of students depending on their grade level. Others call them a federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them.

Colorado’s standards update, which is required by state law, opens up the possibility of another round of public debate on the value of the academic standards.

“We’ve done a lot of preplanning to help this be a conversation about substance,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education. “But I don’t think we’re afraid at all to have (political) conversations. We don’t shy away from conversations that are important to have.”

Part of that work leading up to the committees’ first meeting last month included a perception survey and a chance for the public to leave comments on individual standards on the state’s education website. The education department also commissioned a research group to compare the state’s standards to internationally recognized high-quality standards.

The survey found that 49 percent of respondents, which included teachers, parents, and education advocates, had a positive impression of the standards. Similar to national trends, teachers that received more training on the standards liked them more.

About 350 educators, parents and community members left nearly 4,000 additional online comments about individual standards, the department said. The committees will review those comments.

“We didn’t get feedback that was calling for a big overhaul of the standards,” Colsman said.

Some state Board of Education members have strongly opposed the Common Core. Republican members Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Pam Mazanec of Larkspur have described the standards as federal overreach. Durham has bemoaned the move away from emphasizing mastery of facts.

Some states that dropped the Common Core ended up adopting nearly identical standards, just with different names.

In Colorado, the standards have enjoyed support from the governor, lawmakers from both political parties, the state’s education reform and business communities, and the state’s teachers union.

While other states fight over the Common Core, Colorado policy makers have spent their time reducing the number of high-stakes standardized tests, which are meant to measure students’ mastery of the standards.

The research group that compared the state’s standards to other high-performing states and counties found that Colorado’s standards were generally comparable — with some exceptions. In both math and English, the research group said other states and countries did a better job of providing additional background information and resources to help educators teach to the standards.

The standards are often written in technical jargon, and making them more accessible to teachers, students and parents is a key goal for the committees. But it’s unclear how far the state can go in providing additional resources.

The state’s constitutionally protected local control forbids the policymakers from creating a statewide curriculum.

“Bringing better clarity is definitely part of this work,” said Zac Chase, the curriculum coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District and co-chair of the English standards review committee. “But deciding how to use those standards to serve communities will always be the purview of the school district and school board.”

The committees are expected to meet regularly through April, and their meetings are open to the public. The education department is expected to release draft recommendations for more public input early next  year.

“Right now, the work is in the hands of the committees,” Colsman said. “We’ll feel like we’re successful if everyone feels like they had their voice heard.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”