First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

DPS hears 11 new school proposals

Proposals for what would be Denver Public Schools’ first all-boys schools were among the 11 presentations made Wednesday night to school board members under the district’s “call for quality schools” process. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Pueblo schools find more in reserve

PUEBLO – The Pueblo school district’s board of education learned Tuesday that the district will end up with more money in its reserves because of unanticipated changes in general fund revenue. Read more in the Pueblo Chieftain.

school busBrighton, Adams County districts debating bus fees

DENVER – Two more Denver metro-area school districts are debating whether to create and or raise bus fees to help offset budget cuts. Watch the 7NEWS report.

Boulder Valley educators learn inclusion strategies

The research from classroom observations that California inclusion expert Richard Villa presented was sobering. Clear learning objectives were few, worksheets were a staple and higher-level learning was sparse. But, he said, the job of today’s teacher is to provide a quality classroom experience for students with a wide range of needs and backgrounds. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Sixth- and ninth-grade academies jump start student success

DENVER – Thousands of Denver students are getting a head start on middle and high school this summer through the Denver Public Schools Sixth Grade Academy and Ninth Grade Academy programs.

The programs combine learning, leadership development and team-building activities to give students the confidence to achieve academic success throughout their middle and high school years.

High school students having an examThis is the fifth year that incoming ninth-graders across the city have had the chance to spend a couple of weeks over the summer on campus, getting acclimated to a new school environment and taking part in academic and school-readiness classes.  Early results – based on approximately 4,500 students attending Ninth Grade Academy over the past four years – have shown that participation in the program improves students’ future attendance and overall performance.

Based on the program’s success, DPS extended the summer-academy program two years ago to include incoming sixth-graders for the summer.

To register for Ninth Grade Academy, parents may e-mail [email protected] or leave a message at (720) 424-8277. Parents must provide the student’s name, student ID, address, phone number and the school he/she will be attending for the 2011-2012 school year.

To register for Sixth Grade Academy, parents must call the school their child will attend for the 2011-2012 school year. Transportation is provided for students who live beyond the walk zone.

Pilot programs help DPS fine-tune teacher-evaluation system

Feedback provided by teachers in 16 pilot programs is helping Denver Public Schools retool its new teacher performance framework as it prepares to try it at more schools.

“We’re very happy to see overwhelming support for the system,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We look forward to even more constructive feedback.” Read more in the Denver Post.

Virtual learning could eliminate school snow days

Could the Internet mean the end of snow days? Some schools think so, and they are experimenting with ways for students to do lessons online during bad weather, potentially allowing classes to go on during even the worst blizzard. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Boulder-area schools intrigued by virtual snow day idea

School districts and universities across the country are replacing snow angels and hot cocoa with online algebra and English during snow days and other school cancellations. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Some teacher jobs uncertain in Far Northeast Denver

One in five teachers in schools affected by the dramatic turnaround underway in Far Northeast Denver are without district jobs for the coming school year. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Hall Passages: A year inside Missoula’s schools

The best way to get to know Missoula’s schools is not by showing up to school board meetings or reporting on the latest round of teacher negotiations, or even talking to the people who run the schools themselves.

The best way, it turns out, is to walk through the school doors and witness what happens inside the classroom walls, where teachers and students engage with each other 180 days out of the year.

That was the philosophy behind the Missoulian’s yearlong series “Hall Passages,” where the newspaper visited 28 separate schools and school districts throughout the year, from schools ranging in population from one to 1,300. Read more in this in-depth series in the Missoulian.

Standards mean more math for youngest students

STERLING  – After much discussion, revised preschool through 12th grade math frameworks were approved by the RE-1 District Accountability Advisory Committee (DAAC) at a special meeting on Wednesday. Read more in the Sterling Journal-Advocate.

Denver schools train teachers for diverse classrooms

In its first two years, an innovative “teacher residency” program has placed 55 teachers with special training in hard-to-staff Denver classrooms. All the teachers are trained to teach children for whom English isn’t their first language. Read more in the Denver Post.

Douglas County voters support teacher pay-for-performance

CASTLE ROCK – A new poll released by the Douglas County School District on Friday shows that 62 percent of voters in Douglas County support initiatives that tie a teacher’s performance to their pay.

The poll, commissioned by RBC, shows even more voters support the work DCSD teachers are doing in the classroom (73 percent) and agree with providing higher salaries for great teachers (66 percent).

Based on those results, it is clear Douglas County voters support the work currently being done by DCSD. The district unveiled its strategic plan in March, which included a pay-for-performance and an assessment system for educators. The goal of these programs is to provide professional and competitive salaries for DCSD teachers, in an effort to celebrate and retain those who are doing a great job, while also encouraging the recruitment of new, innovative educators.

Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen is planning on recommending a bond election and mill levy override to support the pay-for-performance program, as well as other initiatives.

Several scenarios are being considered for the election, all of which would cost an average homeowner $7.60 a month.


First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.