making friends

As opt-out debates continue, state’s top education officials work to stay united

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

New York state’s top two education leaders are on the same page. They promise.

One day after Regents Chancellor-elect Betty Rosa made waves by saying she would opt her own child out of state tests, the state’s education commissioner told regional superintendents that the two had had a “productive conversation” about assessments in an email outlining their “shared view” on state tests.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s message indicates her desire to reassure educators that the state’s top education officials are united in their quest to revamp state assessments, which one in five eligible students opted out of last year. Meanwhile, Rosa said in a radio interview that she is on board with how Elia has publicized new changes to those tests.

“It’s not a surprise to anybody that the commissioner and the department would want to refocus people’s attention,” said Jay Worona, the deputy executive director for the state’s School Boards Association.

Worona thinks the two women are more unified on test policy than the headlines from Monday’s press conference have lead people to believe. But Elia has said it is “unethical” for educators to encourage the testing boycott — though Rosa seemed to endorse the impulse earlier this week.

Elia has also been on a campaign to inspire test-taking. She often emphasizes changes the department has made to the tests in the last year, including giving students unlimited time to complete the exams and shortening them altogether.

Rosa refused to say she wanted to see the number of opt-outs decrease, but complimented Elia’s work during a radio interview this week.

“I think that this commissioner, in a short period of time, has done an incredible job,” Rosa said to WCNY’s Susan Arbetter.

The Board of Regents oversees the state education department, which means Rosa and Elia will have to work closely to overhaul the state’s learning standards and assessments. In her email, Elia said she and Rosa agree they must continue to ensure that assessments accurately measure student learning and make sure the tests are not too long or too stressful.

It also reflects a note of compromise. Elia gives a nod to parents’ right to have their children boycott the tests, but in the same breath outlines the changes that the state education department has already made.

“The decision of whether a student should take the State assessments is ultimately for that student’s parent or parents to make. But in making that decision, we want to be certain that everyone has all of the information they need to make an informed decision,” the email reads.

The email was sent to BOCES district superintendents, who sometimes act as liaisons between the state education department and school districts. Many of those officials shared the information with other superintendents and principals, state officials said.

It remains to be seen whether opt-out organizers, who have endorsed and celebrated Rosa, will continue to support her if she remains satisfied with the commissioner’s positions. They have already dismissed Elia’s testing changes as meaningless tweaks.

But so far, neither their disdain for Elia nor their confidence in Rosa has diminished.

“Under Dr. Rosa’s leadership, Commissioner Elia has an excellent opportunity to regain the trust of both parents and educators,” Bianca Tanis, an elementary school special education teacher and co-founder of the New York State Allies for Public Education, wrote in an email.

Rosa will also have to work with the city’s schools chancellor Carmen Fariña, who said earlier this year she is “not a fan” of opt-out. Education department officials said that Fariña has been in touch with both Elia and Rosa since Rosa’s election, and that the city schools chancellor looks forward to working with them in the future.

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.