First Person

Editor's blog: New website grades every Colo. public school

Grades. How we love ‘em. They tell us if we’re worthy. An A makes you feel good, doesn’t it? A B? Now you’re feeling a bit mediocre. C? Yuck. D? Let’s not talk about that.

In light of this national fixation, Colorado parents may be interested in a new website that grades the state’s public schools. This may be especially helpful during the current open enrollment period.

North High SchoolUnveiled today by a range of education-oriented organizations, Colorado School Grades tallies grades for all the state’s public schools based on standardized test data and student improvement in core subject areas.

I like data, and this site definitely provides some relevant information – particularly the growth data.

However, I caution parents against overreliance on data and grades. If a school in your neighborhood gets a C does that mean you should scratch it off your list? Not necessarily. There are so many nuances that won’t be reflected in these grades. Think of a school’s special programs, for instance, or that rock star art teacher.

I did a quick test of the system by plugging in my zip code. Turns out my kid is enrolled in a solid B school. Ironically, the number one school that pops up in Boulder – earning an outstanding A+ –  is a charter school, Horizons K-8, which, as I understand it, doesn’t put much emphasis – if any – on letter grades.

The problem with that school, and the other great schools in Boulder and beyond, is that they’re very hard to get into. More often than not (at least in Boulder) they’re charter schools, which means you’re at the mercy of the lottery system. (I addressed this issue in a previous post on open enrollment.)

All this data can make your head spin. By now, I think we can all agree that academic proficiency data tells you only so much – primarily it tells you about the demographic mix of a school building.

Why growth data matters

More interesting to me is the growth data. The key is to find out whether the school’s students are on an upward academic trajectory. Even in high-achieving schools, students should be improving.

In the growth category, my daughter’s school ranks very similarly to the very high-achieving neighborhood school a few blocks away. My daughter’s neighborhood school is 21 percent Hispanic or Latino; the school down the street is far less diverse, with only 10 percent of students identified as Hispanic or Latino. Both have 22 percent low-income students.

My daughter’s school gets a B; the school down the street gets an A. Yet I happen to place a value on the diversity factor – especially being in  Boulder, which just isn’t very diverse at all. Yet, that is something – along with my daughter’s school’s awesome Garden to Table program, its Boltage bike and walk to school program, or its outstanding art teacher and multiple after-school clubs –  that are not reflected in this nifty new data tool. Nor is the fact that our school has ranked consistently higher on school climate surveys than other area schools, which also happens to be important to me. (Key lesson here: Sure, check out all the data you can; but always visit a school you are considering to learn more).

How the grading is done

The Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs calculated the grades for Colorado School Grades using the same variables and weights as the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework, also known as SchoolView. That data includes indicators such as a school’s academic achievement, academic growth, academic growth gaps and, for high schools, college/career readiness.

Colorado School Grades then crunched the data through a forced grading curve that ranks schools from top to bottom. The top 10 percent of schools were give an A grade (A+, A or A-), the next 25 percent were given a B rating, the next 50 percent were given a C rating, the next 10 percent were given a D rating, and the bottom 5 percent were give an F rating.

For parents, the grading system makes sense compared to the arcane language now used by the state in determining school ratings.

What to do with the info

However, now I’m left with the information that my daughter’s school is not A material. So, what can I do? She’s in fourth grade, so, for many reasons, it’s too late to switch. I volunteer when I can. And yes, I’d love it if my daughter’s school was more like Horizons K-8, a charter school with a well-earned reputation for greatness that features mixed age groupings, multiple forms of assessment other than just grades, individualized goal setting, student-led family conferences, and small class sizes. I have visited this school and marveled at the quality and creativity evident in the student art on the walls.

But my daughter’s neighborhood school has 600-plus students. How in the world do you make systemic change in a school like that? Like many public schools and colleges, bureaucracy is entrenched.

And there are certain factors that cannot be ignored: Horizons K-8 is 88 percent white; has only 7 percent low-income kids; and 2 percent Latino or Hispanic students. Perhaps more importantly, Horizons has half the number of students my daughter’s school has  – and three more grade levels. Waiting lists are lengthy. How can we replicate these sought-after schools so that every child really has a chance of attending one? How can we – as parents – help to transform the culture of large, public neighborhood schools?

That’s personally what I’d like to know. Meantime, check out Colorado School Grades, and check out the state’s SchoolView system. I will say, the former is much easier to navigate and understand than the latter if you’re short on time – although it doesn’t provide links to actual schools, which would be helpful. I still like SchoolView, however, because of its engaging visual interface, which clearly shows you whether a school is both performing at a proficient level and improving. (Click on Colorado Growth Model, then View Data).

But don’t forget that data is simply that, data. Get out there and visit schools in person. Ask questions based on your own values regarding what constitutes a quality education. For starters, check out this school checklist courtesy Colorado School Grades.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.