Who Is In Charge

Ed bills jump first hurdle

Legislative leaders Tuesday cleared six proposed education bills for introduction in the 2012 legislature, but they’ve all got a long way to go, especially two of the more interesting ones.

Pencil on test paperThe bills were proposed by three legislative study committees and therefore required approval of Legislative Council, the leadership group that handles various administrative tasks for the General Assembly.

Any bill approved by the council has to go through the full legislative process after the session starts in January so runs the same risks as any bill. The advantage of council approved bills is that they don’t count against the five-bill limit imposed on legislators.

The council usually approves bills unless members feel a proposal doesn’t fit under a committee’s stated assignment. But, the council review process sometimes provides hints of questions about support for and potential weaknesses of individual bills.

Here’s a rundown on what happened Tuesday, organized by study committee.

Educational Success Task Force

This group, a hybrid legislator-citizen group, proposed four bills. (See this Education News Colorado story for details.) All were approved by the council with only a couple of stray no votes on two bills.

The most interesting proposal in the package is a bill pushed by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, that would require school districts to administer the Accuplacer test at least once high school students.

King’s proposal would have the state pay for the tests, but he hasn’t come up with a source of money yet. Funding for a new program could be tough next year, and King publicly said for the first time Tuesday “We may have to scale this back to a pilot program.”

The other three bills approved would direct development of a system for adult students to gain academic credit for work experience, create a way for some students to earn associate degrees with credits earned at four-year colleges and encourage school districts to develop programs to identify middle school students who are lagging behind and provide help for them. (See task force webpage for links to bill texts.)

Legislative Task Force to Study School discipline

This panel of lawmakers and education, advocacy and law enforcement representatives forwarded only one bill, a proposed overhaul of state laws related to school discipline. The overall thrust of the measure is to roll back the zero tolerance philosophy that has dominated the subject in recent years.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton / File photo

But, some council members raised concerns after panel chair Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, noted that the measure isn’t in final form and that members still are meeting with interest group representatives to hammer out another version. (See this EdNews story about the panel’s final meeting.)

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he was worried that the final version of the bill might end up exceeding the task force’s assignment.

The council went back and forth about whether a decision could be delayed but eventually voted and approved the proposed bill 11-7. All the no votes were Republicans.

Part of the bill’s back-story is that some district and administration interests aren’t happy with all of its provisions, and that’s part of the continuing negotiations Newell mentioned.

She told the council she expects “to come to the first committee [hearing] with a hefty amendment.”

Early Childhood and School Readiness Interim Commission

This all-legislator panel is proposing a bill that would create a new office of Early Childhood and Youth Development in the state Department of Human Services, consolidating several programs and funding sources now scattered across multiple state departments. (Read bill text.)

The bill actually originated with an executive branch advisory group, the Early Childhood Leadership Commission, and the idea is a legislative priority for the Hickenlooper administration. The state’s recently filed application for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds includes a promise to consolidate disparate programs.

Legislative Council approved the bill 13-5. All the no votes were Republicans. Even though she voted for the bill, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Gilpin County, said she believes the new agency might be better placed in the Department of Public Health and Environment rather than in human services.

Legislation also in the air at Leadership Council

Third-grade literacy, another education issue that’s expected to be key during the 2012 session, was a central part of the discussion earlier Tuesday at the second meeting of the governor’s Education Leadership Council.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, is planning to introduce legislation that, among other things, require that some third graders be held back if they don’t meet certain standards of literacy.

Improving reading performance by third graders also is a key 2012 initiative for the Hickenlooper administration and some education interest groups.

Holding students back is a touchy subject for many educators, and some of that concern was reflected in the council discussion.

Five council members gave brief presentations on the issue before general discussion opened up.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, both expressed support for the idea, citing the experience of a 10-year-old program in Florida.

Watney said nearly 30 percent of Colorado third graders score below proficient on CSAP reading tests and that 8-10 percent of third graders are functionally illiterate.

She said the children who are held back shouldn’t be put through the same third-grade curriculum a second time but need other support, a view echoed by several council members.

Christine Scanlan
Christine Scanlan / File photo

Christine Scanlan, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “We are aware of the competing data that is out there” about holding students back, “and we know the fiscal impact is real.” She also noted the difficulties such a policy could create for small districts.

“Retention would be a last resort,” Scanlan said. “I think Tom [Massey] is in the same place.” (Massey is a member of the council but wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting.)

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the council, said Hickenlooper “doesn’t yet have a position on this.”

Council member Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, commented that “intervention in the third grade is about four years too late,” saying children with language and reading problems need to be identified and helped much earlier.

Deputy Education Commissioner Diana Sirko said about 2.4 percent of Colorado students currently are held back each year, mostly in kindergarten and first grade. “The results are mixed on those.” Sirko attended the meeting as an observer.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.