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CDE, State Board sort through homework assignments

How would you feel if your teacher gave you nearly two-dozen homework assignments and then left school for the next seven months?

That’s kind of the spot the Department of Education and the State Board of Education are in with the work assigned to them by Colorado legislators, who finished their 2014 session more than a month ago and won’t be back at the Capitol until January.

The state board was briefed Wednesday on all those tasks, which range from significant policy work like writing new regulations for English language learner programs to little stuff like organizing a way to award trophies to high schools with high academic growth.

“It’s heavier relative to last year,” department lobbyist Jennifer Mello told Chalkbeat Colorado. She also said there’s a “big difference in the number of new programs [and] program expansions.”

The legislature “always puts a load on us,” said education Commissioner Robert Hammond, but he feels CDE can handle it. “I think we’re fine.”

The new laws provide about $6.6 million in new money to CDE – most of which will go out in grants to districts and payments to contractors – and authorize 6.2 new department positions, Mello told the board.

Board member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction commented that legislators like “pet projects.”

“I’m sure the school districts would have been very pleased to see a bigger reduction in the negative factor” rather than spending on special programs, she said.

Mello focused on the bills she said would “create the most work for the department.” They include:

  • The Student Success Act (House Bill 14-1292), primarily its provision that the state create a website containing information about district spending, broken out by school. “It’s going to take some work to get there,” said Mello, even though an outside vendor will be hired to gather data from districts and build the website. The department got $3 million for this project.
  • The portion of the School Finance Act (House Bill 14-1298) that overhauls state law on and CDE supervision of ELL programs. “There are a lot of changes the department has to make,” Mello said. The bill provided an additional $17.5 million for districts to run ELL programs. Among other tasks, the state board will have to approve two new sets of regulations for the program.
  • A $1.9 million measure (House Bill 14-1102) that requires CDE to review district plans for gifted an talented students and to run grant programs for districts that want to screen all students for G&T and hire qualified administrators to oversee their programs. CDE got an additional staff member out of this bill.

Depending on how one parses the new laws, CDE got assignments from 23 bills passed by the 2014 session, including 14 that include funding and provide new staff or money for contractors. Another nine legislative mandates for the most part require tinkering with existing laws and programs, without additional staff or funding. And the new laws will require CDE lawyers and the board to draft and deal with nine sets of rules and regulations.

(By the way, state bureaucrats aren’t unhappy when lawmakers go home for the year, just like kids don’t necessarily miss the teacher. Ask most anybody at CDE or any other state agency how they feel when the legislature adjourns, and the universal reaction is relief.)

See the full list of and details on CDE’s homework here.

Berman wants to make sure testing group has Dems

Another 2014 law, House Bill 14-1202, creates a 15-member task force to study testing issues (details in this story).

Members of the task force will be appointed by a variety of legislative officers and by SBE chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument who has three picks.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat from Denver, raised the issue with Lundeen during Wednesday’s meeting, saying, “I know you have not consulted with the board … it is my expectation that one of three would be a Democrat. I’d like to hear what your thinking is.” (The board has a 4-3 Republican majority.)

Lundeen said, “It’s early in the process” for the selections (even though the appointment deadline is July 1) and that “applications are coming in to the speaker’s office.” (The speaker of the House is coordinating the appointments and convening the task force.)

“It’s a foregone conclusion that it [the task force] will be Democrats and Republicans,” Lundeen said.

HB 14-1202 doesn’t specify party representation on the group, but it is highly proscriptive about the interest groups to be represented. The task force has to include three administrators, two school board members, two teachers, two charter school representatives, two parents, one student, two business people and a representative of the PARCC testing group. The usual interest groups suspects – Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Education Association, etc. – also are supposed to be represented by some of the members.

Neither Lundeen nor Berman – the board’s ideological polar opposites – will be around next year to receive the task force’s recommendations. Berman isn’t running for re-election from the 1st District, and Lundeen is running for the legislature in a heavily Republican House district. Once he’s elected he’ll have to resign from his 5th District seat on the state board.

New testing labels

For years Colorado students have borne the labels of “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory” based on their scores on CSAP and TCAP tests.

That – and a lot of other things – apparently will change after the new online CMAS tests (including multi-state PARCC tests in language arts and math) roll out in 2015.

“We’re looking at new labels,” state testing director Joyce Zurkowski told the state board Wednesday during a briefing on how the state’s new science and social studies tests will be scored.

The new labels could be “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.”

See Zurkowski’s presentation on science and social studies scoring here. Because those two tests were new this spring, a panel of teachers and testing experts still have to set the “cut points” that will determine whether a kid had “distinguished” or “limited” command. Those cut points will be developed this summer and considered by the board in August.

If the board approves the eventual plan, students and parents will get their scores in September, Zurkowski said.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.