First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Colorado applies again for Race to the Top funds

Colorado’s completed application for the latest round of Race to the Top money was delivered to the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday morning.

Though state officials are confident that chances of winning are good in this round, they also say that merely preparing the application was beneficial. Read more in the Denver Post.

DPS launches task force to discuss alternate school start date

This week, Denver Public Schools will convene a Start Date Task Force to continue a dialogue with parents, teachers, principals, students and community members about the possibility of alternate school start dates.

DPS logoThe Start Date Task Force is charged with designing, running and reviewing the results of a public survey. Upon completion of the survey analysis and a discussion of the pros and cons of a calendar change, members of the Task Force are expected to provide a final report to the DPS Board of Education in mid-December. These conversations will inform the Board of Education calendar decisions.

“There has been lots of discussion this school year about potential solutions to the problems posed when Denver experiences unusually high temperatures in late August. One of those proposed solutions has been to move back the start of school,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We are open to that idea. I look forward to hearing feedback from our community on a later school start date and what our community feels is best for our students.”

Comprised of about 20 people, the Start Date Task Force will meet for the first time on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the DPS Board Room. Members will meet four times from this week through the month of December.

  • Wednesday, Nov. 2, 5:30-7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30, 5:30-7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Dec. 7, 5:30-7 p.m.

The public survey is expected to be launched the week of Nov. 7 and will be available at and on the DPS Facebook page. All DPS parents, principals, teachers and community members are encouraged to participate in the survey.

State implements new teacher and principal evaluations

Colorado is starting to roll out its new model to evaluate teachers and principals and change how teachers get and keep tenure. 15 school districts from across the state are part of a pilot project that will test the measurements. The issue has deeply divided state lawmakers and some Democrats worry it’ll end up being unfair to teachers and fail to improve student learning. KUNC’s State Capitol reporter Bente Birkeland has more. Learn more at KUNC.

Archuleta partners with UNC for $1.8 million project

Archuleta Elementary will partner with University of Northern Colorado on a $1.8 million grant project titled “The Mathematics and Science Teaching (MAST) for English Learners.”  Archuleta is one of only four elementary schools in Colorado selected to participate.  This program will prepare elementary teachers to deliver high-quality mathematics and science instruction to K-5 English learners in schools around the state.

The goal of this project is to increase K-5 English learner achievement in mathematics and science by implementing culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and assessment practices.  Partnering with UNC will allow Archuleta teachers to develop long-term relationships with university experts as they research and model effective teaching practices.

Dr. Darlene LeDoux, Archuleta principal, stated, “The teachers at Archuleta are amazing.  I am confident that they will be exemplary role models for pre-service teachers.  Our students at Archuleta will benefit greatly from this mathematics and science partnership.”

Not all Aspen math scores adding up

ASPEN — Reacting to what one Aspen school board member termed an “alarming” trend in standardized math test scores at certain grade levels, the Board of Education is taking a close look at the district’s performance in the subject area. Read more in the Aspen Times.


First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede