seal of disapproval

State board votes down resolution supporting new ‘seal of biliteracy’ on high school diplomas

Graduates of DPS's Bruce Randolph School in 2010 (John Lebya, The Denver Post).

The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy, endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

The board voted 5-2 against the resolution, which would have applauded three Colorado districts that have adopted seals of biliteracy and encouraged other districts to follow suit. Four Republicans and one Democrat opposed it.

Several said they support biliteracy, but cited a litany of concerns that led them to vote no — from a lack of uniform standards for defining proficiency to questions about the movement’s origins and worries about data privacy.

“We are being asked to support as a board something that is without standards to be put on a diploma,” said Colorado Springs Republican board chairman Steve Durham, who initially urged the board to put off the vote.

Nothing is stopping districts from moving forward with seals of biliteracy; the resolution was primarily a gesture.

In interviews Thursday with Chalkbeat, superintendents from the three districts that have jointly developed requirements to award seals of biliteracy expressed disappointment the board rejected a nonbinding resolution recognizing students’ hard work toward gaining skills considered critical for success in a global economy.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Pat Sanchez, superintendent of the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district. “Not supporting this resolution sends the message that you don’t value bilingualism. The standards are well-defined and very clear. How is having two languages a deficit? …. It’s unfortunate these things become politicized and made into something else.”

By the numbers

More than 700 students from Adams 14, Denver Public Schools and Eagle County are either working toward or already have proven themselves worthy of a seal of biliteracy. District officials say the road is rigorous, requiring high scores on tests measuring English literacy and world language fluency — or other measures if good tests don’t exist for languages students have mastered.

Fourteen states have adopted seals of biliteracy since California became the first in 2011, and others are considering it.

Because Colorado is a local control state, decisions about adopting seals of biliteracy rest in districts’ hands. The three districts leading the charge in Colorado — all of which introduced the seals this year — envision their approach as a model for others.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County district, said the board’s rejection of the resolution will not alter that course.

“We don’t really want or need their approval to move forward,” Glass said. “I had some concerns that if the state started mucking around in it, they would start to over-regulate it and politicize it. We think the best thing for our kids is to leave our schools multilingual, and we think the seal of biliteracy is a great way of recognizing kids with those skills.”

State board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, proposed the board resolution, calling it an opportunity to honor kids and encourage schools and districts without investing any state money or creating new mandates.

Other board members, however, rattled off questions and concerns. Pam Mazanec, a Larkspur Republican, said that she supports biliteracy and the seal “probably has good intentions.” But she said she was unsure about “this particular movement” and was not ready to back the resolution. Groups in California have spearheaded the drive to bring seals of biliteracy to other states.

Parker Republican Debora Scheffel raised unspecified concerns about data, questioned how biliteracy is defined and noted that PARCC tests are one possible yardstick of English literacy. Scheffel vigorously opposes the tests, now entering their second year.

Democrat Val Flores of Denver — who like other “no” votes hailed the merits of biliteracy — said the issue was a local one.

Sanchez, the Adams 14 superintendent, dismissed board members who talk up biliteracy while voting down the resolution.

“What you say is one thing, and how you act is what shows what you really mean,” he said. “The walk doesn’t match the talk.”

Top languages DPS students are pursuing for seals of bilteracy |

  • Spanish – 434
  • French – 62
  • Chinese (Mandarin) – 19
  • Arabic – 13
  • Japanese – 12

Big push from DPS

No district is more invested in the seal of biliteracy than Denver Public Schools. District officials say 631 students have applied for the seal, and 81 have met the criteria and are ready to graduate with a seal and win recognition on honors night.

Not surprisingly, the largest single bloc of students are seeking seals in English and Spanish. But at least one DPS student is pursuing one in a Native American language, with the district relying on a tribal elder to help determine proficiency, said Darlene LeDoux, a DPS instructional superintendent who previously headed the district’s English learner programs .

The three districts working together researched seals of biliteracy adopted by districts around the country to make sure their standards were high, rigorous and achievable for students, LeDoux said.

“It takes a lot of work,” she said. “There is a lot to it. We are talking about students who have a very strong grasp of the language and the culture. It helps the students be better prepared for college and career. I know, you hear that all the time. But we have organizations coming to DPS asking us for people who can speak different languages so they can hire them now.”

That list of prospective employers includes health care providers, educational institutions, businesses and the FBI, which contacted the district looking for Chinese speakers, DPS officials said. LeDoux said the three school districts also are working with colleges on a formal agreement that would allow students to skip low-level language courses in colleges, saving families money.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said Thursday the district is disappointed in the board’s rejection of the resolution.

“It’s a missed opportunity for our state,” said Cordova, who is fluent in English and Spanish. “It’s unfortunate because Colorado has been a real leader in education. I’m disappointed we are not leading in this case.”

State board could revisit the issue

Durham, the state board chairman, said he may reconsider his position if more defined standards for seals of biliteracy are developed. He indicated state lawmakers may be working on a bill that would do so. No such bill has been introduced yet.

Legislation or not, about 70 students in the Eagle County district are pursuing a seal of biliteracy before graduation this spring.

Within a decade, the district hopes that 90 percent of its kids will know at least two languages, said Glass, the superintendent. The vote Thursday against a resolution supporting the work of those kids and the district will not change anything, he said.

“I’ve sort of given up trying to figure out what this state board is going to do,” Glass said. “They seem to make a lot of random and head-scratching decisions, and with any number of rationales to support those decisions.”

The three Colorado districts awarding seals of biliteracy have developed these requirements:

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.

Career readiness

Lee announces plan to beef up science, tech offerings in Tennessee schools

Gov. Bill Lee has proposed two legislative initiatives focused on K-12 education and workforce development in his first month in office.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday that he wants to expand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics offerings in Tennessee’s K-12 schools — and he’ll set aside $4 million in his proposed budget to pay for his so-called Future Workforce Initiative.

His proposal would launch new STEM-focused career and technical education programs at 100 middle schools and would triple the state’s number of STEM-designated public schools by 2022.

“The Future Workforce Initiative is a direct response to the emerging technology industry and making sure our students are first in line to be qualified for technology jobs,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

Lee also wants to grow the number of educators qualified to teach work-based learning and advanced computer science courses as Tennessee prepares to launch its first-ever computer science standards this fall for elementary and middle schools.

“[Fifty-eight] percent of all STEM jobs created in the country are in computing but only 8 percent of graduates study computer science in college,” Lee said. “By exposing Tennessee students to computer science in their K-12 careers, we are ensuring our kids have every chance to land a high-quality job.”

The legislative initiative is Lee’s second focused on K-12 education since taking office on Jan. 19. Last week, he announced a $30 million proposal to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students who are soon to start college or career.

In conjunction with that, Lee wants to expand postsecondary STEM opportunities in high school with greater access to dual credit, advanced placement courses, and dual enrollment.

The goal of Lee’s Future Workforce Initiative is to make Tennessee one of the top 25 states for job creation in the technology sector by 2022.

Last year, Tennessee was ranked 39th in the nation and fourth in the Southeast on technology job readiness, based on a composite index released by the Milken Institute, an economic policy think tank. When workforce was considered independent of other factors, Tennessee ranked 42nd.

During Lee’s campaign, the Williamson County businessman promised to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow by elevating vocational and technical education in public schools. He frequently pointed to the employee training program he started at his family’s $250 million home services company, which provides plumbing and HVAC work.