First Person

Voices: Watch the spin with Denver's school ratings

Alexander Ooms, senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, compares the district-issued School Performance Framework press releases from 2011 to 2012 and finds some interesting omissions. This piece was originally published on his blog, Ooms With A View.

Denver Public Schools has released its 2012 School Performance Framework, also known as the SPF. There is a lot of data, but I find there is a useful shorthand to compare progress.

When you look at the data from this year to last, also compare this year’s press release with last year’s press release. If the numbers to which an organization is drawing attention shift – and particularly if there was something highlighted last year that is suddenly absent this year – there is probably a certain amount of spin.

Part of my larger issue with the SPF is the focus on the number of schools instead of the number of students in those schools. It’s simply not good policy to say that a great school with 300 kids should carry the same weight as a bad school with 700 or vice versa.

So let’s start by looking at the total number of students at each rating level. As a quick note, since Beach Court’s scores were invalidated by the Colorado Department of Education for last year, I have eliminated them for both years, except in the total as noted:

The number of students is about the same – an increase of 330 and note these do not count alternative schools or AECs – and I have also included the percentage of total students in each category.

Is there some spin here?  The second piece of hard data in the 2011 press release stressed the increase in the number of schools in the top rating category “distinguished” or blue, a statistic which the 2012 release does not mention.

Well, in the past year, the number of blue schools grew from 14 to 15 (provided you remove Beach Court from the 2011 total). And this includes splitting the DSST 6-12 campuses into separate middle and high schools, which is a new policy.  So the number of blue schools is essentially flat and a little opaque.

Far better is to look at the numbers of students in blue schools – which declined in 2012 (and if you include Beach Court, they would have fallen even further).

Everybody passes but with a lot more D’s than B’s

Several of the best new schools are in their initial years of operation and are growing one grade at a time. There are two DSST campuses and High-Tech Early College, which have between them just 381 students. Perhaps these will sustain their performance as they grow, but it’s not a given.

And several formerly distinguished schools dropped lower in the ratings as their enrollment grew. So one might understand the shift in emphasis between press releases.

For the 2012 release prefers instead to focus on the increase in the number of schools at the top two levels, or blue and green. And the number of students in these two categories has grown somewhat impressively, by 1,169 students or 1.6 percent of total students. But this increase is mainly reflective of having more students at the bottom of a large range than at the top.

The green “meets expectations” band covers schools with scores from 51 to 79.  On the 2012 SPF there are 6,067 students in schools at the top of the band – those with scores between 70-79 – while 13,253, or over twice as many, in schools at the bottom of the band  with scores between 51 and 60.

In other words, everybody passes, but with a lot more “D’s” than “B’s.” And an increase in D’s is an odd foundation on which to claim improvement, particularly when the number of students in distinguished schools has declined as well.

The bar for getting into this larger group is quite low, and there is a very big difference in quality between the bottom and the top in what is essentially the 50-point range that encompasses all blue and green schools.  Should each of these schools count the same?

This year’s press release skips schools in the red

What is even more revealing is that the 2011 press releases also emphasized, with its own devoted paragraph, a decline in the number of schools in the bottom category, or  “on probation” or red.  The 2012 release is completely silent on this statistic. Why?

No doubt because there are now 18 red schools, up considerably from the 12 listed in 2011. But even that is not the whole story, for of the 12 red schools in 2011, two were closed all together – Rishel and PS1.  Of the remaining 10 red schools from 2011, three got a little better and 11 existing schools were newly added to the red category for 2012.

That’s right: DPS essentially doubled the number of schools in the lowest category. So one can understand why this statistic vanished in between annual press releases, for there are 2,065 more students in these lowest category red schools now than a year ago.

In fact, there are over 3,700 more students in schools in the worst two categories, and 235 fewer students in schools in the best category. Now that should make your head spin.

So did DPS make progress in the past year?  They sure say they did.

Are more students better off than last year? Once you stop spinning the kids, I think the numbers pretty much speak for themselves.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. 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.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.