Turn in your badge

Digital “merit badges” coming to Aurora Public Schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Public Schools bus picks up students after school.

Digital merit badges — think of a cross between a report card and a Girl Scout badge — are coming to Aurora Public Schools.

The district is planning to introduce the online credentialing system to 19 APS schools this fall and to all schools by 2016. The badges, which students earn by demonstrating skills in the areas of collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, invention and self-direction, are displayed online through student profiles. The idea is that colleges and employers could then access the profiles to see students’ skills when making hiring and admissions decisions.

The idea of awarding students digital badges was developed at a Mozilla Foundation conference in 2010 and has since spread to some higher education programs and, less commonly, K-12 schools. Badge proponents argue that the online tool helps integrate academic and soft skills.

Chalkbeat spoke to Charles Dukes, the director of Postsecondary Workforce Readiness for APS, and APS Director of Educational Technology Kevin Riebau, who explained how the badges will work and why the district is choosing to use them.

What is the simplest way to describe “digital badging”? 

Dukes: Digital badging is an online platform that documents and records students “soft skills” or what we call 21st century skills: critical thinking, invention, self-direction, collaboration, and information literacy.

Riebau: Another word you might use is “micro-credential.” It really is a skill currency used to open up opportunities because you earned the badge, you can cash the badge in for opportunities otherwise maybe not available if you didn’t have the badge.

What is the step-by-step process for a student to receive a badge? 

Riebau: So the student will be made aware of the digital badge and will see what the criteria is for earning that badge. Then, what the student will do is familiarize themself with the criteria and they will set out to fulfill the criteria. What we’re asking for is the student to provide the evidence that they have fulfilled the criteria, so they might  choose to take a picture or a video, or link to a blog that they write…any kind of multimedia or some sort of product they have created that is uploaded and attached to the badge that shows they have fulfilled the criteria. It’s their evidence. When they’ve done that then the teacher who issues that badge takes a look at the evidence and says “yes” or “no” to if they have met the criteria. If it has met the criteria, then the teacher will issue the badge to the student. All of this takes place online, by the way. We have a badge platform that allows for the designing, issuing and earning of badges so then the student is filling out their digital repository of badges, they have an account and they start to populate it with badges they’ve earned.  Then because the student has earned the badge now, the badge is a skill currency, so they should be able cash that badge in for an opportunity. For instance, if they’re in high school, attached to that badge (because you’ve earned it) that unlocks an opportunity to have an internship with one of our partners during the summer. They can show that they have that badge and then get be bumped to the top of the list or just given the internship.

It’s different for different grade levels. For middle schoolers, it might be a job shadow, elementary might be a visit by somebody from the company- it just depends.

How does a student benefit from this if the badge doesn’t apply to a participating company or organization?

Dukes: The goal for the whole initiative is that we have a lot of partners that belong to all of our Colorado career clusters , so we open doors for multiple partners from business to agriculture. If a student receives a badge and we don’t have a partner for the specific badge, it still gives the student the criteria they need to know to be successful in the workforce, so they’ll have a better understanding of what they need to do be to be successful in their specific field and they can plan toward that.

What distinguishes a badge from a skill listed on a resumé? How are these two things different? 

Dukes: The big difference is on a resumé you may have the language “I’m a critical thinker” but on a badge you have the evidence that shows you’re a critical thinker. So when you post your badge on say LinkedIn…a student can show examples of them demonstrating critical thinking.

Riebau: It’s that added level of accountability because there’s evidence and it’s not just words you put on a resumé, it’s action.

What factors will you measure at or what will you look at to determine if digital badging is succeeding at APS?

Dukes: We’ll look at the type of badges that are earned and how badges are being used. And how these badges and the use of badges are having a positive impact on behavior, attendance and ultimately graduation and college matriculation or workforce matriculation.

Riebau: Also, we’ve established a feedback loop with our business partners where we get input for them. For instance, say a student got an internship because they cashed in certain badges, then we can put from the industry partner who says…the student has demonstrated these skills and they are an asset to our company and we would eventually like to hire them.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.