Five takeaways from Chalkbeat’s legislative preview discussion with lawmakers

Colorado lawmakers at Chalkbeat's 2018 legislative preview event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Less than a week before legislators head back to the state Capitol, four lawmakers who work on education issues shared their thoughts at a forum Thursday morning as they prepare bills to introduce this session.

The event, hosted by Chalkbeat, featured four panelists: state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican; state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat; and state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Here are five quick takeaways from the discussion:

On the teacher shortage issue: No minimum wage for teachers
Legislators lauded the state-prepared report on how the teacher shortage is playing out in Colorado, but said there are still many ways for them to take those suggestions to change laws.

The four panelists discussed how pay, principal leadership, and accountability rules affect teachers.

“Is it absolutely imperative that we evaluate excellent teachers every single year, or not?” Zenzinger asked.

All four panelists said there is no appetite for setting a minimum wage for teachers. There may still be other ways to talk about increasing pay, however.

Lundeen said he would like to see increased flexibility at the school level and a reduction in unfunded mandates that steer money away from teacher pay.

In discussing pension reforms, he also noted that reforming the state’s pension system is important to do soon because while current teachers need a raise, money from the districts is increasingly going to teachers who already retired.

On school funding: Agreement that a lot needs to change, but it’s early in the process
Lawmakers discussed various inequities in the system and McLachlan highlighted disparities for rural communities.

Last year, lawmakers created an interim legislative committee to study how the state funds its schools and recommend changes. Two panelists, Zenzinger and Lundeen, are on the committee.

Zenzinger said that the group is looking at many aspects of school funding, but that she wants to go back to the basics.

“To me it’s a little frustrating we just kind of made an assumption that the base amount is adequate,” she said. “How did we come to that base amount in the first place?”

Lundeen said the discussions first have to be around values.

“We are just now approaching the difficult conversations we need to have around our values,” he said. “What do we care about? Is stability more important than innovation or not?”

On the state’s READ Act: It’s still causing problems
Zenzinger said some teachers who have students flagged for reading problems don’t have help from their schools or districts to better teach students to read.

She said — and McLachlan agreed — that the system needs to be evaluated to see what’s working and what’s not.

“I agree there needs to be tweaks,” Priola said. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On funding kindergarten: One possible solution would be to decrease funding for some high school students
Priola said a bill he’s working on would increase the amount of money districts get for kindergarten students so they may expand full-day kindergarten classrooms. To make the bill more likely to survive, he said, the bill would not require new money because it would also decrease the amount of funding districts get for high school students if they are no longer attending school full-time.

Schools would still qualify for full funding for students not attending full-time if it’s because they are enrolled in college classes through concurrent enrollment programs, he said.

“That’s our hope to keep the bill revenue neutral, but to provide those structural changes to encourage better outcomes, and discourage outcomes that are, in my opinion and others’, not the best use of our resources,” Priola said.

On accountability: “You can’t legislate everything”
An Aurora high school teacher asked lawmakers how students and parents might be held accountable for test scores. She said, as a teacher, she is held accountable for the test scores of students who sleep during tests because they, or their parents, don’t take the tests seriously.

Lawmakers said that’s an issue of culture that needs to change, but can’t be legislated.

“At the end of the day it still comes down to students and parents caring,” Priola said.

Said Zenzinger: “You can’t legislate everything.”

You can watch a Facebook Live recording of the discussion here:

Future of Teaching

Indiana lawmakers want a renewed focus on workforce in schools. What role should counselors play?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For years, Indiana lawmakers and education leaders have grappled with a major shortage in school counselors, and this week that conversation will dovetail with one of Indiana’s favorite topics lately: workforce.

A committee of lawmakers is set to discuss on Thursday how Indiana can improve how it counsels students for life after high school, a topic that neatly aligns with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent push to get more people trained and ready for available jobs. Legislators urged discussion of workforce counseling in an education bill passed during the last legislative session, where workforce issues were central, even to education.

This focus on counseling comes amid a major shift in the state’s graduation requirements, which now include new “pathways” that aim to offer students more ways to show they’re ready to leave high school and pursue college or jobs. As part of those changes, also included in the overarching education bill, lawmakers were asked to explore how the new graduation pathways rules could affect counselor workloads and what current funding levels are like for counselors.

Rep. Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman and the bill’s author, has been a strong proponent of initiatives bridging workforce issues and education, especially ones that mirror programs he’s observed in other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland.

“The rest of the world does a much better job in terms of leading (career and technical education) than what the U.S. does,” said Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “The reality is that kids only know what they know, and if they don’t know what the universe is out there, they are much less likely to choose that.”

Behning said that on a recent trip to Switzerland he talked to an American woman living there who said her 11-year-old nephew was already deciding on a job-shadow opportunity. When Behning came back to the U.S. and participated in a mock job interview at a local charter school, he was struck by the difference in how American students and European students thought about future jobs.

In the school’s mock interview group of eight 12-year-olds — five boys and three girls — all but one of the boys wanted to be basketball players, he said. It was a signal that Indiana needs to do more to support how schools counsel students and help them discover their options, including ones that might not necessarily lead to a four-year college.

“When I was in school, factory work … you were working in dirty, hot conditions,” Behning said. “A lot of that has changed, and our perceptions haven’t. How do we help coach these students so that they might be better prepared for that kind of job?”

In Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-15, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor — more than the recommended 250 students per counselor according to the American School Counselor Association.

Indiana’s counselor shortage has been well-documented and the focus of major donations over the past several years. The Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy, launched the Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students in 2016. The more than $50 million-effort aims to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

In the past, when legislation about increasing school counseling staffs has been brought up, it’s been tough to move any of the policies forward. Part of that stems from the complicated nature of what school counselors are expected to do — they are part social-emotional support, part college advisor, and often a catch-all for other school tasks, such as standardized testing planning and oversight.

Many counselors said in their Lilly Endowment grant applications that they were so caught up in social-emotional issues that it was difficult to find time to focus on students’ futures.

But this conversation, which could result in recommendations for lawmakers to consider next year, isn’t just about giving schools the means to hire more counselors, Behning said. He hopes the discussion includes brainstorming about how to more efficiently use existing counselors and thinking about how new career-oriented counselors could function.

In Switzerland, Behning said, “career coaches” are based in different regions, not in individual schools. They travel and talk with employers to learn about what kinds of options are available for students. And they then work with students to figure out how to get there.

Behning said both areas — future planning and wraparound support — are important, and he’s aware of the fact that educators probably don’t need one more new thing to be responsible for. That’s why he’s hoping this week’s discussion, which will include presenters from Ivy Tech Community College, can move beyond what counselors are already expected to do.

“Today, with the serious concern over school violence and over the things that have occurred in our schools, the role of counselors, social workers, and psychologists are probably elevated even more,” Behning said. “To assume that you can just say, ‘OK, you have this role and we’re going to dump another thing on you,’ may be more than what is appropriate. But I think that’s one of the reasons we’re studying this.”

Lawmakers will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday in Senate Chambers at the Indiana Statehouse.


Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.