Staking out positions

Testing task force starts getting into the nitty-gritty

Members of Standards and Assessments Task Force met with representatives of a group (left) who raised issues with the panel's lack of diversity.

The task force studying the state’s K-12 testing system gathered for a third time Monday and finally started surfacing some of the tough issues facing them as the panel tries to develop recommendations for the 2015 legislative session.

The first two meetings of the 15-member Standards and Assessments Task Force, one in July and one in August, were taken up largely with informational briefings and organizational matters, producing little discussion of interest.

The clock is ticking for the group, which for now has four more full meetings scheduled before the Jan. 31, 2015, deadline for a report and recommendations on what’s probably the most contentious issue in Colorado education.

John Creighton, a task force member who sits on the St. Vrain Valley school board, suggested that the group needed to start discussing some key issues while it waits for a testing cost study and gathers public comment.

“We’re about halfway through our timeline,” Creighton said. “Given the amount of time we have together … do we think we want to have some of that conversation in parallel with public input and waiting for the studies?… I would suggest we need to move more rapidly.”

The task force kicked around a number of issues Monday but spent much of its time on the question of whether districts could be given greater flexibility in what tests they use.

(House Bill 14-1202, the law that created the task force, started out as a Republican bill to give districts significant testing flexibility. As a political compromise, the Democratic majority quickly amended into the task force study.)

Tony Lewis, a member of the Charter School Institute board, kicked off the discussion by raising the question of whether the state should be testing all students with standardized exams or if the state should use results of local tests for its purposes, primarily district and school accountability.

“I struggle with the state’s need for individual student assessment,” he said.

That prompted a dialog that hinted at the varying views of task force members.

“We don’t want 164 different versions of assessment,” cautioned Donna Lynne, chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. (Colorado actually has 178 school districts.)

Alana Spiegel, who represents the parent group SPEAK, said, “As a parent I do want 160-some different assessments. … As a parent I want less of a burden” of state tests.

Others were cautious about too much flexibility. State standardized testing has brought “significant value in highlighting achievement gaps,” said Bill Jaeger of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “We’ve had more significant discussions about gaps in the last 10 years than we had in the previous 50 years.”

Teacher Dane Stickney of Strive Prep Charter said, “I really do enjoy having that standardized testing data every year” for insights into his mostly low-income students. “I really worry about going to all-local testing.”

Dan Snowberger, Durango schools superintendent and task force chair, noted, “Rural districts don’t have the resources to devise a local system. There’s a lot of value to a state assessment system.”

Syna Morgan, chief academic officer for the Jeffco schools, said she wasn’t arguing for “all local” testing but that “There’s a feeling of overburden at every level” and that districts need some flexibility. “I’m for balance.” (Morgan previously was system performance officer for the Dougco schools. That district’s board last January passed a resolution urging districts be allowed to opt out of state testing requirements.)

Members also discussed what changes in testing could mean for the Colorado Growth Model, which tracks student academic growth based on multiple years of test results.

“To me growth is the true report card,” said Jay Cerney, principal of the Cherry Creek Academy charter in Englewood.

“Growth is very important,” said Stickney, and Jaeger said, “I’m still in a place where I feel the statewide assessment should measure growth.”

Monday’s comments could be taken as the opening statements in what will be a recurring debate as parent and some district representatives like Morgan urge more testing flexibility while education reform and business members urge caution. Other task force members seem to be somewhere in the middle.

“It’s a critical conversation, and I think it gave everybody a chance to learn a little bit about where we stand,” said Snowberger, summing up. “It’s only the beginning.”

“It is not that people want to radically change the assessments,” said Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability officer for the Aurora schools. “There is a perception that testing has grown and mushroomed to be unmanageable.” What the legislature wants the task force to do, she said, is offer ways “that will bring the system back into balance.”

Task force make-up politely questioned

Later in the meeting, the task force met with representatives from a group named COAT (Community Organizations Aligning Together).

In a letter to legislators last month, the group wrote, “We are concerned about the lack of representation of organizations, and/or individuals who represent the leadership, strengths and experiences in communities of color. We feel very strongly that the appointed individuals, who will be making decisions that will impact the future of a large portion of the students in our state, should include representation from individuals of organizations that have well established and trusted relationships within communities of color.” (Read the full letter here.)

Task force members were appointed by five people – the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and the chair of the State Board of Education – and were supposed to represent various education interest groups. Fourteen task force members are white; one is Native American. Some 4.7 percent of Colorado students are black; 32.8 percent are Hispanic, based on 2013 state enrollment figures.

“How are those voices and that perspective to be brought” to the task force, asked Jennifer Bacon, a COAT representative who’s with Teach for America. She was among four people who spoke to the group.

Task force members were sympathetic to the group’s concerns while noting they didn’t appoint themselves. Snowberger said he would talk to legislators about the possibility of adding an ex-officio minority member to the group and having that person formally added to the task force after the legislature convenes in January.

That issue led into a broader discussion of whether the task force is set up to get a wide enough range of public comment about testing. (Morgan said she was concerned that parents of all kinds might not be able to express their views. “Numerous groups” want their voices heard, she said.)

The task force agreed to look into setting up additional roundtable-type meetings, perhaps outside the Denver area, as a way of getting more public views.

The group already has set up an email address for public comment – 1202taskforcefeedback@gmail.com – and is working to set up an online survey. (Read the comments received to date here. Most are critical about the current testing system.)

The task force isn’t completely under the radar. Monday’s meeting at the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce attracted an audience of more than three dozen, including education lobbyists, CDE and legislative staff, parent activists and others.

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