Who Is In Charge

Truancy bill gets cold shoulder

It may only be September, but education bills already are starting to take shape for the 2013 legislative session.

Colorado CapitolA case in point is a truancy reduction measure being floated by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora.

Fields presented the bill draft Wednesday to the Educational Success Task Force, a panel of six legislators and 25 public members that has the power to propose bills for the 2013 session.

But the idea ran into the familiar objections about being a top-down state mandate and an infringement on local control. The legislator members of the task force voted 3-2 against endorsing the bill.

Asked after the meeting if she will introduce the bill next year on her own, Fields said, “Yes, I am.”

But, she said, the meeting “was a good opportunity for a trial balloon” and that the discussion gave her some ideas about how to “tweak” the measure.

The draft version of the bill would:

  • Require schools districts to monitor student attendance.
  • Include excused absences in the calculation of truancy, defined as four absences in a month or 10 in a school year.
  • Require districts to use “best practices and research-based strategies” to improve the attendance of truant students and work with parents and social-service agencies.
  • Allow districts to take a truant to court only if other interventions don’t work.
  • Limit to five days the amount of time a truant could spend in juvenile detention. Fields said the average detention now is 18 days.
  • Make it easier for students in detention to get GEDs and set new requirements for the instruction districts have to provide to students who are in detention.

Fields said she definitely wants to limit the amount of time students have to spend in detention and to improve district services and procedures for truants.

While the task force didn’t endorse the bill, it still spent more than an hour chewing on it.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, was uncomfortable about adding excused absences to the definition of truancy. Lame-duck Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, shared that view and also was concerned that the bill was a little vague about the details of intervention methods.

Judy Skupa, superintendent of the Thompson school district, said she and colleagues were concerned the bill infringed on local control.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, supported that view: “Our school districts are just inundated with a ton of requirements from us.”

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Castle Rock, picked up the same theme: “What makes me nervous is requiring the districts to do this.”

Task force members discussed various amendments to the draft, but in the end decided not to endorse the bill in any form. The value of having a bill endorsed by an official between-sessions study committee is that the bill won’t count toward the prime sponsor’s five-bill limit. But Fields stressed she’s going to introduce a bill on her own.

The committee also declined to endorse a bill that would have added two elements, student completion of Individual Career and Academic Plans and student attainment of the “21st century skills” that are part of state content standards, to the definition of postsecondary and workforce readiness.

That definition, which now includes graduation and dropout rates and ACT scores, is part of the accreditation system the state uses to rate high schools and districts.

“I think this dilutes the three existing standards that are there,” King said.

The task force did endorse drafts relating to the creation of new community college programs that would combine basic skills and vocational training, accelerated high school graduation and tracking of adult education students.

Convening of the 2013 legislative session is about four months away, and the question of which party will control the House and Senate is up in the air until after the Nov. 6 election.

But that doesn’t mean lawmakers, interest groups and lobbyists aren’t already working on education bills for 2013. In addition to truancy, school finance and teacher licensing are issues that are under study now.

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

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.