Setting Standards

Colorado is re-examining its academic standards. Will it avoid the political turmoil seen in other states?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class.

Colorado’s in-depth review of its academic standards — what kids are expected to know in several subjects in each grade — has entered a new and potentially political phase.

About 180 Colorado educators, parents and community members have been split into committees reviewing standards in 11 subjects, along with standards for students learning English as a second language. They also will propose the state’s first academic standards in computer science.

The committees’ work, to be carried out over the 10 months, will help inform the State Board of Education, which must approve any changes to the standards by July 2018.

Other states have become embroiled in controversies over repealing the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado also adopted. But efforts to kill the Common Core in Colorado have not gotten serious traction. A recent state-sanctioned survey found both mixed reviews for the state’s existing standards and little appetite to overhaul them in a big way.

Colorado adopted its current standards in 2010. It was the first time the state had updated its standards since the 1990s. For English and math, it joined 45 other states in adopting the Common Core standards, which were developed by groups representing state governors and education commissioners.

“Our old ways of doing things didn’t put us competitively with the rest of the world,” said Joanie Funderburk, president of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics and co-chair of the math standards committee. “It didn’t allow every person to graduate high school prepared to do whatever they wanted to do.”

The Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and analysis and demphasizes memorization of facts. Supporters believe they are rigorous and if taught correctly prepare students for college and career in the 21st Century. Some critics say the standards either ask too much or too little of students depending on their grade level. Others call them a federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them.

Colorado’s standards update, which is required by state law, opens up the possibility of another round of public debate on the value of the academic standards.

“We’ve done a lot of preplanning to help this be a conversation about substance,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education. “But I don’t think we’re afraid at all to have (political) conversations. We don’t shy away from conversations that are important to have.”

Part of that work leading up to the committees’ first meeting last month included a perception survey and a chance for the public to leave comments on individual standards on the state’s education website. The education department also commissioned a research group to compare the state’s standards to internationally recognized high-quality standards.

The survey found that 49 percent of respondents, which included teachers, parents, and education advocates, had a positive impression of the standards. Similar to national trends, teachers that received more training on the standards liked them more.

About 350 educators, parents and community members left nearly 4,000 additional online comments about individual standards, the department said. The committees will review those comments.

“We didn’t get feedback that was calling for a big overhaul of the standards,” Colsman said.

Some state Board of Education members have strongly opposed the Common Core. Republican members Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Pam Mazanec of Larkspur have described the standards as federal overreach. Durham has bemoaned the move away from emphasizing mastery of facts.

Some states that dropped the Common Core ended up adopting nearly identical standards, just with different names.

In Colorado, the standards have enjoyed support from the governor, lawmakers from both political parties, the state’s education reform and business communities, and the state’s teachers union.

While other states fight over the Common Core, Colorado policy makers have spent their time reducing the number of high-stakes standardized tests, which are meant to measure students’ mastery of the standards.

The research group that compared the state’s standards to other high-performing states and counties found that Colorado’s standards were generally comparable — with some exceptions. In both math and English, the research group said other states and countries did a better job of providing additional background information and resources to help educators teach to the standards.

The standards are often written in technical jargon, and making them more accessible to teachers, students and parents is a key goal for the committees. But it’s unclear how far the state can go in providing additional resources.

The state’s constitutionally protected local control forbids the policymakers from creating a statewide curriculum.

“Bringing better clarity is definitely part of this work,” said Zac Chase, the curriculum coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District and co-chair of the English standards review committee. “But deciding how to use those standards to serve communities will always be the purview of the school district and school board.”

The committees are expected to meet regularly through April, and their meetings are open to the public. The education department is expected to release draft recommendations for more public input early next  year.

“Right now, the work is in the hands of the committees,” Colsman said. “We’ll feel like we’re successful if everyone feels like they had their voice heard.”

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.