game plan

Does Colorado’s state education plan fall flat? Some who helped write it think so.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver.

While Colorado’s federally required education plan is being celebrated by national observers for changes to the state’s school accountability system and an extensive community engagement process, some advocates who helped shape the document say it falls short of pushing schools forward.

After more than a year of work, the state education department later this month is expected to submit the 145-page document detailing how it will spend federal dollars to better student learning, increase graduation rates and improve teacher quality.

Colorado will be one of the first states to submit such a plan, which also will provide new details on how the state will adhere to requirements under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, the law was designed to give states more authority. Many education officials in Colorado felt the law didn’t fulfill that promise.

Because Colorado was already operating under a waiver from the previous federal law, Colorado classrooms probably won’t notice much change. Many of the state’s reform efforts since 2008 already comply with the new law.

However, the department and State Board of Education are pushing back against one provision of the federal law that requires 95 percent of students take an annual standardized test in English and math.

Colorado law allows parents to opt their students out of those tests. The state board directed the department to inform federal officials that the state could not guarantee that it would be able to comply with that requirement.

It’s unclear how the department will respond. Observers expect the U.S. education department of Secretary Betsy DeVos to give states more leeway than the department during the Obama administration.

A coalition of Colorado education reform and civil rights groups is not happy that the department isn’t holding schools accountable to the testing requirement.

In a letter to the state education department, the coalition said it fears a lax approach to testing will incentivize schools to encourage some students who might not perform well on the tests to skip them.

“The 95 percent participation provision of federal law originated to protect students with the most barriers to success, specifically students with disabilities, by ensuring their inclusion in statewide testing,” the coalition wrote. “As such, we recommend the state count every student in participation rate calculations, including all nonparticipants to increase transparency and demonstrate a concerted effort to assess and report meaningful data about every child.”

That state law provides parents the right to opt out — something the state department doesn’t have authority to change — isn’t justification for the coalition.

“We believe that part of the department’s role is to elevate that conversation and to push on the importance of the 95 participation rate,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The coalition is also concerned about changes to how the state measures how many students are at grade level, and how well students are learning English as a second language.

Starting last year, the state began measuring school quality by the average of student scores on the math and English test instead of how many students met or exceeded expectations. That practice is going to continue.

“We’re saying that as long as you’re not doing far worse than everyone else, you’re good,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, a nonprofit education reform group. “We’ve lowered the bar.”

Schoales said using the mean score could be beneficial, but it should be accompanied by how many students are meeting the state’s expectations.

Colorado’s plan lacks long-term goals for English language learners. That’s because the standards for English proficiency and the tests that measure how well students are learning the language are changing.

Those goals are expected to be established in the next year or two.

Going forward, schools will be required to test kids in core content areas who’ve been in the U.S. less than a year if they know English well enough. If they don’t know enough English, they won’t be tested in English or math. Right now, that decisions is left to school districts. ESSA requires practice to be consistent, thus it was part of the plan development.

That, however, could lead schools to test students who aren’t ready in the hope they’ll show greater academic growth the second year they test.

“The process of going through a high-stakes test can be challenging and frustrating for a student,” said Luis Poza, a board member of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education. “It can be fairly harmful to their self-esteem.”

One of the more robust debates during the formation of the plan was how the state should spend federal money to improve schools. The committee that helped draft the plan was split on whether the funds should be handed out on a formula basis or through a competitive grant process.

The education department, searching for a compromise, developed a new application that is designed to match a school’s need with the appropriate support — which could be monetary or not.

Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the hybrid approach is a step in the right direction but the state could have gone further.

“We had an opportunity to take that money and really place big bets on strategies that can really work,” he said.

Pat Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the state education department, said the department received nearly 500 comments on the state plan and 21 letters from a variety of interest groups. He said the department updated the plan where it could, but said some suggestions were either outside the scope of the department’s authority or weren’t allowed under the new federal law.

“I know not everyone is going to be thrilled,” Chapman said. “But I do think it’s a good plan. And we’re considering it a living, breathing document. We plan to keep working with folks to develop the details.”

The department expects to file the plan to Washington after it receives feedback from the governor’s office and the state board takes a formal vote on the plan at its April meeting.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that school districts have discretion over how English language learners are tested.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana is working on a plan to make sure every school — not just white, affluent ones — has high-quality teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

Even though several years of teacher evaluation data have shown the vast majority of Indiana teachers are highly rated, poor students and students of color are still more likely to have ineffective, inexperienced teachers than their peers.

Indiana is examining how teachers are divided up among schools as part of its work on a new education plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law focuses more on on equity and inclusivity, something civil rights advocates and state officials have praised.

“We have a lot of kids in Indiana who don’t have access to quality teachers,” said Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas. “ESSA says we have to specifically address that.”

According to the state’s education plan, poor students and students of color in Title I schools (those that receive extra federal aid based on rates of poverty) are more likely than their affluent, white peers to have teachers who are ineffective, inexperienced and don’t meet Indiana certification requirements.

Here’s how the data breaks down.

  • Poor students are 3.7 times more likely to have ineffective teachers; Students of color are 8.5 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly more likely to have teachers who don’t meet certification requirements;
  • Poor students are 1.54 times more likely to have inexperienced teachers; Students of color are 1.63 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly less likely to have highly effective or effective teachers.

Despite the relative differences in teacher experience and quality in the list above, it’s worth noting that 88 percent of Indiana’s 68,386 teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” in 2015 (the most recent data available), with just 0.38 percent rated “ineffective.”

State officials said there could be many reasons why low-rated teachers tend to be more present in high-poverty, predominantly non-white schools. Those schools might not be able to pay teachers as much or offer them as much support, making it harder to attract more experienced educators.

But groups of educators, policymakers and community members who worked with state officials to draft the plan focused on issues of training and support, leading the state to develop a number of strategies to pursue going forward that could help keep good teachers in the classroom. Those strategies could include extending student teaching, overhauling performance evaluations to focus more on improvement rather than simple ratings and helping districts access funding to improve ongoing teacher training.

This struggle is not new to Indiana — teacher-related discussions for the past several years have focused on recruiting and retaining teachers. So far, legislative progress has been slow. Some bills championing prospective teacher scholarships and mentoring programs have won approval, but they have received relatively small amounts of funding, if any.

By 2023, Indiana education officials have a goal to cut the inequitable rates of teacher experience and quality in half.

The Indiana Department of Education submitted the ESSA plan to Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this week. He can choose whether to lend his support. Either way, it is due to federal officials in September.

This story has been corrected to better reflect Holcomb’s role in the state ESSA plan. 

the secretary speaks

In departure from Trump, Betsy DeVos calls out ‘racist bigots’ in Charlottesville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos condemned “white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots” in an email to her staff Thursday — without mentioning President Trump, whose equivocal stance on the racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend has drawn widespread criticism.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” DeVos wrote.

The letter was more pointed — describing the racist views as “cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong” — than DeVos’ initial tweets on the events. She has been silent since those posts until now.


In her email to staff, she emphasized that individuals, and schools, had a part in combating hatred.

“We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear,” she wrote.

But DeVos did not specify what role, if any, the department’s policymaking would play. She has received persistent criticism from civil rights groups for proposed federal budget cuts, her stance on discrimination of LGBT students, and her appointment to head the Office of Civil Rights. (DeVos specifically notes that, “Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.”)

Meanwhile, criticism of Trump and Devos from education advocates has intensified in recent days.

New York City charter school leader Eva Moskowitz — who was initially considered for the job DeVos now holds, and who led Ivanka Trump on a school tour — released a strongly worded letter condemning the Trump administration (though she did not mention DeVos). On Twitter, Kevin Huffman, the charter-friendly former Tennessee education commissioner, called on DeVos to resign, saying, “It is not viable to serve all kids under a POTUS who defends and encourages white supremacy.”

This is on top of persistent hostility from many left-of-center charter advocates, including one of DeVos’s predecessors, Arne Duncan, who called bumps in federal spending for charters “blood money” if they came alongside to Trump’s proposed cuts to education.

The note was sent to staff, rather than posted as a press release. DeVos has not been shy in the past about weighing in on topics beyond education — she quickly issued a statement praising Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement, for example.

Here’s the text of her letter:


I write today with a heavy heart for our country. While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past.

There is fear, pain, anger, disappointment, discouragement and embarrassment across America, and I know, too, here within the Department.

Last weekend’s tragic and unthinkable events in Charlottesville, which stole three innocent lives and injured many more, were wholly unacceptable. The views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal. We all have a role to play in rejecting views that pit one group of people against another. Such views are cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong.

This is what makes our work so important. Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.

Our own difficult history reminds us that we must confront, head-on, problems when and where they exist with moral clarity and conviction. Our nation is greater than what it has shown in recent days.

Violence and hate will never be the answer. We must engage, debate and educate. We must remind all what it means to be an American, and while far from perfect, we must never lose sight that America still stands as the brightest beacon for freedom in the world.

My hope is that we will use this as an opportunity to show that what unites and holds America together is far stronger than what seeks to divide and draw us apart. We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear.

Our work is truly the bridge to a stronger future. Let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring the future is brighter for all.