State Board of Education presses for more clarity on Westminster’s improvement plan

Following some heated discussion, the Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday directed Westminster Public Schools and state education department staff to refine a plan that would let the district get outside help to improve student performance.

The corrective action plan district and state officials presented Thursday — calling for the district to partner with two companies — would give the district’s unique academic model a chance to take hold and avoid more drastic changes the state could order.

The 10,000-student district is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face an accountability hearing after more than five years of low performance. Westminster is the only district in the state, and one of few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. That model allows the district to move students through levels when they prove they’ve learned a concept instead of through age-based grade levels each year.

State board members Thursday questioned the district on the track record of the companies that will partner with the district, on how the competency-based system works for the district’s diverse students and on how teacher turnover affects the district’s rollout of the model.

But some discussion focused on comments made at another hearing last week, in which district officials challenged the latest state quality rating that landed them in the position of facing state action.

The district’s school board has voiced concerns with how the state board dismissed the district’s appeal of the state performance rating. Westminster board president Dino Valente opened the hearing this week taking issue with the district being labeled a failure and with the state board members’ criticism that Westminster was using student demographics to make excuses about poor performance.

Westminster officials say they are still considering “all legal options” in response to the appeal loss.

State board member Steve Durham, the only one to vote against the plan Thursday, questioned why the district shouldn’t be called failing after six state ratings determined the district was low-performing. Durham said districts need to take responsibility and “put some skin in the game” by “voluntarily giving up some management control.”

“You don’t admit you have a problem, then it’s going to be darn hard to solve,” Durham said. “Nobody wants to admit there’s a problem, but the reality is you have to have some standards. This management proposal in my opinion is not meaningful.”

The board passed a resolution supporting the plan, but asked for a final version to include more details about each company’s role and responsibility with the district.

District officials said after the meeting they believe the plan already clearly defines the companies’ roles and responsibilities.

Under the plan, AdvancEd, a consultant the Westminster district hired last year to review the district’s competency-based model, would help the district diagnose problems interfering with the proper rollout of the model and other achievement problems at each underperforming school.

Denver-based Marzano Research would partner with the district to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model.

Marzano would create a Marzano Academy in the district to open in the 2018-19 school year as a lab school to be run based on Marzano’s research, with a goal of finding a way to give teachers a credential to teach in the model.

Officials from each company, emphasized they would hold the district accountable, saying they will pull out from the work if the district doesn’t meet their requirements.

AdvancEd officials said they can, and will, pull their own accreditation of the district if certain requirements aren’t met.

Robert Marzano, the cofounder of Marzano Research, said that in order to open the lab school in the district they have already asked for authority over several aspects of running the school as a condition of the work.

Westminster leaders said they are waiting for results from this spring’s tests to identify which schools AdvancEd might focus on.

State board members have increasingly voiced concerns this spring with how much authority external partners should have in low-performing schools or districts and with figuring out how the districts, which have failed themselves, could hold the outside groups accountable.

Julie Tolleson, an attorney for the state said during the hearing the department believes in a management partnership that helps districts build their own skills, rather than a model with a company taking over. Tolleson added that she is confident the model complies with state law and with the intent of the state’s accountability law.