upcoming decision

How should Colorado respond to federal concerns about its testing opt-out policy? State board members don’t agree.

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protest state tests in 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

Divisions emerged Wednesday on the State Board of Education over how to respond to the federal government’s concerns about the state’s federally required education plan.

The most contentious issue involves how Colorado counts students who opt out of state tests. Students who opt-out aren’t considered part of the total number of test takers.

Federal officials, however, believe those students should be counted; they don’t want them excluded from calculations used to identify schools that need extra help through federal funds.

If the federal government doesn’t approve the state plan and finds Colorado out of compliance, the state could lose millions of dollars in federal funding — including Title I funds that are directed to schools with large numbers of low-income students.

Republican board member Steve Durham suggested there was no point in working to comply with the federal government’s guidance and called the idea that federal funding would be at risk a bluff.

Other board members suggested that there was no point in fighting the federal government and that it might not be a big ask to do as officials suggested.

No decision was made at Wednesday’s meeting. State officials are meeting next week to get more input from a committee that worked on the education plan, and the board will be asked to make a decision at its October meeting.

Staff from Colorado Department of Education told the board the state is allowed to keep its existing system in place for state accountability measures, while creating a separate calculation process to identify schools needing support for the federal government in a different way.

Schools identified under the federal calculation would have to write improvement plans, but state officials would still hold discretion about whether to direct funding to them or not, if they believe the calculations are providing accurate representations of the school’s performance and needs.

State officials also could choose to comply for now and ask for a waiver from the law after the plan is approved. The federal government told the state it would not consider waivers before plans are approved, state officials told the board.

The board could also choose not to change anything, as board member Durham suggested.

Other board members felt differently.

“I would be very worried about placing all of our Title I funds at risk,” said board member Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat.

Democratic board member Val Flores said she was prepared to vote Wednesday in favor of proceeding with creating a federal calculation that complies with federal guidance while keeping state systems intact, calling it “the wise thing to do.”

The board discussed other concerns — including that a full picture of student performance isn’t possible when students don’t test. Another worry is that schools identified as needing extra help under the federal calculations might cause panic for communities where schools might not otherwise be considered in need.

In Colorado, white, higher performing and more affluent students are more likely to opt out of tests. As a result, officials and board members suggested it is more likely that high performing schools that otherwise weren’t identified by the federal calculation would be, and that schools currently identified might not be excluded from the new lists. State education staff are running calculations trying to anticipate how many new schools might be identified or not identified based on opt-outs.

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.