Rallying cry

How Colorado stacks up on national union leader’s priorities

The flag hangs over the convention of the nation's largest teacher union

On the eve of Independence Day and the election that will determine the leadership of the nation’s largest teachers union, the outgoing president, Dennis Van Roekel, had a message for the thousands of gathered educators: take charge of reforming schools. And he has some suggestions for how to do it, some of which Colorado is already pursuing.

“We allowed the politicians to define the solution and their solution was No Child Left Behind,” Van Roekel said, referring to the 2001 law passed under former President George W. Bush which set out strict accountability for schools based on test scores.

Yesterday, Van Roekel and other union leaders kicked off an anti-testing campaign yesterday, after months of turmoil over the nationwide rollout of tests tied to the Common Core State Standards. Van Roekel predicted the entire system of standardized testing would crumble. And when that happens, Van Roekel said educators will have an opening to define the future of public education in the U.S.

“I figure there will be a vacuum, a void for one nanosecond,” Van Roekel said. And at that moment, he said, “we the educators must define the solution and we must lead.”

His declaration, during a lunch at the union’s national conference being held this week in Denver, received noisy support from the gathered educators, as did the statement that departing from the current system did not mean reverting to old ways. Van Roekel reeled off a list of fixes ranging from dollars for schools to early education which could define union priorities for the coming years.

“What he mentioned is either in line with what we are attempting to do or are ongoing conversations,” said Henry Roman, in an interview following the speech. Roman heads up the Denver teachers union.

So how does Colorado stack up against Van Roekel’s proposed initiatives? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

School readiness

Van Roekel’s first suggestion: early education for all.

No one doesn’t want their children to be prepared to enter school, Van Roekel said. “Why don’t we believe it’s important for other people’s children, for all children?” he said.

Colorado legislators, including many of those most supportive of education reform, have pushed for universal preschool and full-day kindergarten. Denver, in particular, has been at the forefront of providing access to all families, at affordable levels. And the efforts have received support both from reformers and the local teachers union.

“Kindergarten, who could say no to that?” said Roman. Denver leaders plan to go to voters this fall to ask for additional funds for the city’s preschool program.

Early childhood received a funding bump this year in the state education budget, although not as large as initially proposed.

Still, early education efforts haven’t been universally popular. In the state’s second largest district, Jeffco Public Schools, a new school board majority curtailed a program to expand full-day kindergarten.

More on Colorado’s early childhood education initiatives here.

Dollars for schools

Among the most popular suggestions Van Roekel listed was to bolster money for classrooms, not tests.

“Instead of spending billions on toxic tests, spend it on the learning conditions of students,” he said. “To those people who say learning conditions don’t make a difference, you’re just wrong.”

Recession-era cutbacks to school spending are still in place for Colorado, even as the state’s finances have improved. School finance proved to be the defining education issue of this year’s state legislative session, with school administrators, teachers, and boards of education across the state banding together to defend money for schools without strings attached. They got some of what they asked for, but many school leaders remained dissatisfied with the outcome and some districts still faced six-figure cuts to spending.

And a recent lawsuit suggests the fight isn’t over. A group of school districts and parents filed suit against the state to abolish the practices that maintain recession-era cuts. The lawsuit promises to fuel the fire in the fight over school finance for the coming year.

See more on Colorado’s school finance practices here.

Preparing the next crop of educators

His final proposal: raise the bar for entering the teacher profession, so every new teacher is “profession-ready” on day one.

“What kind of crazy world do we live in that we let in anybody?” Van Roekel said. In an indirect reference to a recent legal decision striking down California’s teacher tenure laws, Van Roekel said that it should be harder to become a teacher, rather than easier to fire one.

Teachers without licenses and without extensive preparation are placed in the highest-need schools, Van Roekel said. Some research suggest low-performing students are placed in the classrooms of inexperienced teachers more often than their higher performing peers.

The state department of education is likely to roll out an accountability system for teacher preparation programs, based on teacher performance, in the next couple years. But efforts to alter how teachers are licensed have stalled out. A committee charged with coming up with recommendations for potential legislation couldn’t come to agreement over whether to tie teacher licenses to the results of the state’s evaluation system.

Another sticking point? Whether to allow alternate licenses in hard to staff positions, especially in rural areas — a particular area of vitriol for Van Roekel, who said all teachers should have to clear a high bar to enter the profession.

For more on the laws governing the teaching practice in Colorado, see here.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.