Common Core in spotlight

Senate Education kills standards and testing timeout

The wide range of hopes and fears about academic standards and coming online tests were more than fully aired Thursday for the Senate Education Committee, which concluded its 6 1/2-hour meeting by voting 4-3 to kill Senate Bill 14-136.

The measure, drafted by concerned parents and sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, would have delayed by a year implementation of new online state tests, created a task force to review the Colorado Academic Standards (including the Common Core) and required the Department of Education to study the costs of implementing the standards and tests.

The hearing capped two days of events and lobbying at the Capitol that focused attention on issues that previously haven’t been as high profile in Colorado as in other states.

Defeat of the bill was expected, given that key Democratic legislators, state education officials and both mainline and reform advocacy groups generally have been supportive of Colorado’s program of new standards, tests and other education changes, which was launched in 2008 and still is being implemented.

The discussion, as chair Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, noted, was “very respectful.” That tone continued as members made their final comments before voting. All four Democrats voted to kill the bill.

“I heard a lot of things today that give me lots of things to think about,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, perhaps the legislature’s leading proponent of the standard education reform agenda. “I don’t think the answer is to pause on this.”

Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, a bit choked up, said she sympathized with concerns about over-testing but that “it’s a difficult thing” to put Colorado’s system on hold. “There will be discussions that will continue.”

The hearing, with long lists of witnesses organized by both sides (more than 40 total), spotlighted the variety of fears and criticisms that have been sparked by the Common Core standards and by the prospect of new online tests aligned to those standards. Some witnesses were emotional, and one broke into tears while speaking to the committee.

Bill supporters raise many fears

Marble previewed the arguments of bill supporters, saying, “This bill was not written by me, this bill was written by moms very concerned about the Common Core standards and the implementation of testing.”

Later in the hearing, Marble said that what she hears from parents is that “It’s the camel’s nose under the tent. … This is the first brick in the foundation to help the fed government take over our schools.”

Witnesses testifying for the bill raised worries about everything from too much testing, perceived loss of local control, one-size-fits-all instruction, lack of parent voice in the process, obscene textbooks and made multiple references to the supposedly sinister designs of Bill Gates.

“I’m a mother and a nurse and I’m really angry,” said Anita Stapleton of Pueblo in opening her remarks. Stapleton has been very active in the anti-Common Core movement.

“I truly speak for hundreds of educators and parents who are desperately trying to have their voices heard,’’ said Lis Richards, principal at Monument Charter Academy. “We will not align to those standards. … We’re not going to dip our colors for the Common Core Standards.”

Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins parent active in drafting the bill, said testing “is taking away so much classroom time.”

And Sunny Flynn, a Jefferson County parent, complained about “big business, big government and big data” and added, “It is time for Colorado to decide if the move to centralized education is good for our state.”

Stephanie Pico, who said she works as a computer technician in the Cherry Creek schools, said she feels schools and students in that district aren’t ready for online tests, saying, “It would be wise to press the pause button.”

Bill opponents try to stress the positive

Platte Canyon physical education teacher Elizabeth Miner said the Colorado Academic tandards “reflect real world skills and knowledge [and] were created by the best and brightest teachers.” Miner is 2014 Colorado Teacher of Year.

MiDian Holmes, with Stand for Children Colorado, said, “These standards are the next step in bringing quality education” to all students, including minorities.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, said, “Our teachers and students are drowning in testing” but said the teachers union still opposes SB 14-136. “We believe these standards are an issue of equity.” Dallman also complained about “the lack of resources in our eductin system right now.”

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said passing the bill “would halt the progress being made on our robust education system in Colorado. … Every year many kids in our system are falling behind. Students keep waiting for adults to become more comfortable with well-vetted change.”

The debate is expected to continue in a new forum on Monday, when the House Education Committee is scheduled to hear House Bill 14-1202, which would allow individual districts to opt out of state tests.

Roll call: Voting for the bill were Republican Sens. Marble, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker. Voting against were Democrats Johnston, Kerr, Todd and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada. The votes reversed on the motion to postpone the bill indefinitely.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Facilities

These 102 schools failed latest round of ‘blitz inspections’

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of 102 schools that will have to be reinspected.

Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that 102 schools will require reinspection for cleanliness before students return to class in the fall. The district has been conducting “blitz inspections” at schools to help address widespread concerns about filthy conditions, including rats and rodent droppings.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the year that complaints of a rodent infestation at a South Side elementary school had spurred an initial round of investigations, and that 91 of 125 schools failed them. The story brought citywide attention to the issue and raised questions about CPS’ decision to transition the work of keeping schools clean to two private contractors: Aramark, which is based in Philadelphia, and SodexoMAGIC, which is a joint venture between the French company Sodexo Inc. and Beverly Hills, California,-based Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Since 2014, the district has spent more than $400 million on contracts with the two companies.

CPS said in a statement Tuesday that it is “committed to carrying out a multi-pronged plan” that includes adding 200 additional custodians who are deep cleaning schools this summer. Of those, 100 custodians will remain with the district once the new school year begins. A district spokeswoman said monthly inspections will continue and that a “stronger facilities services structure” that employs one building manager to oversee janitorial and engineering services at each school will yield better results.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the additional custodians do little to make up for the mess. “(Mayor Rahm) Emanuel made a token commitment to increase full-time custodial staff by 100 next fall—about a tenth of the staff that was cut when (he) moved to privatize janitorial and facilities management services for CPS, and a fraction of what’s needed,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Schools that have not yet passed an inspection have received orders for actions, structures, and timelines for improvement, the district said. CPS does not inspect charter, contract, alternative, or options schools that operate outside of district-managed facilities.

Here’s a list of the schools that require reinspection.

ADDAMS
ALCOTT ES
ALDRIDGE
ASHBURN
AZUELA
BARTON
BELMONT-CRAGIN
BENNETT
CAMERON
CANTY
CARDENAS
CARROLL-ROSENWALD
CASTELLANOS
CHICAGO AGRICULTURE HS
CLINTON
COOK
COONLEY
CORLISS HS
CURTIS
DAVIS M
DUBOIS
DUNNE
DURKIN PARK
EARHART
EARLE
ELLINGTON
ERICSON
FAIRFIELD
FORT DEARBORN
FOSTER PARK
FRAZIER PROSPECTIVE
GALLISTEL
GARVY
GOETHE
HALEY
HARVARD
HAUGAN
HEARST
HEFFERAN
HOLMES
HOPE HS
HOPE INSTITUTE
HURLEY
IRVING
JACKSON M
JOPLIN
JORDAN
KENNEDY HS
KERSHAW
KIPLING
LANE TECH HS
LANGFORD
LAVIZZO
Lee Elementary
MARSHALL HS
MASON
MAYS
MCDOWELL
MCKAY
MORGAN PARK HS
MORRILL
MULTICULTURAL HS
NOBLE – COMER
NORTHSIDE LEARNING HS
NORTHSIDE PREP HS
NORTHWEST
OGLESBY
OTIS
OWENS
PARKER
PARKSIDE
PENN
PETERSON
POE
PRITZKER
PULLMAN
REVERE
RICKOVER MILITARY HS
RUDOLPH
RUGGLES
SCAMMON
SKINNER West
SMITH
SOUTH SHORE ES
SOUTH SHORE INTL HS
SPRY ES
SULLIVAN HS
SUTHERLAND
TAFT HS
TARKINGTON
TAYLOR
TELPOCHCALLI
THORP J
URBAN PREP – WEST HS
VOLTA
WASHINGTON H ES
WASHINGTON HS
WEBSTER
WELLS ES
WESTINGHOUSE HS
WHITNEY
WILDWOOD