Gun shy

Some Colorado officials wanted fourth-graders to learn about the benefits of guns. Here’s why it won’t happen

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Luciano Martingano works on answering questions on a worksheet during a social studies class at Meiklejohn Elementary in Arvada.

Colorado fourth-graders won’t be asked to demonstrate their understanding of the possible benefits of gun ownership as part of their unit on conflict resolution.

Republican members of the State Board of Education had proposed adding language to state standards that spoke to the benefits of gun ownership for self-defense. But on Wednesday they decided against pressing the issue with their Democratic colleagues. The discussion came at the tail end of months of work to update Colorado’s academic standards, including health and physical education standards. The state reconsiders these requirements every six years.

The new health standard in question says that Colorado students should be able to “demonstrate skills necessary to prevent a conflict from escalating to violence.” They should be able to describe situations that could escalate to violence, explain positive alternatives to using violence to resolve conflicts, and “explain the potential dangers of having weapons at home, in school, and in the community.”

But some board members felt that last requirement, an “evidence outcome” in the parlance of the state standards, was too one-sided. They said it was not appropriate to focus only on the dangers of firearms — since parents might have guns at home, security officers might have guns at school, and police have guns in the community. The previous health standards talk about conflict resolution but are largely silent on the issue of firearms.

Board member Deb Scheffel suggested adding to the health standard the phrase “and benefits for self-defense” and board member Joyce Rankin, aiming for a middle ground, wanted to add just the phrase “and benefits.” Rankin said it was not appropriate to focus only on the dangers.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, the State Board of Education sets standards, but local districts maintain complete control over curriculum. They will decide how to implement the standard on conflict resolution, along with other aspects of the new health and physical education standards. There is no state assessment on these topics, as there is for math or reading.

Community norms around guns vary tremendously around the state, with some districts supporting students in advocating for more gun control even as some rural districts adopt policies to arm teachers.

Members of the committee that developed the new standards had already added an “inquiry question,” intended as guidance for teachers to prompt deeper discussion, in response to community feedback that reads: “How can the use of guns and other weapons be positive?” This question “could be used to guide a discussion about self-defense in the event a school community feels that it is appropriate.”

But the committee members, in a written statement responding to the proposed amendment on “benefits” of firearms, said that they do “not agree that adding self-defense to the evidence outcome is appropriate for fourth grade.”

Members in the characteristic red shirts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which advocates for stricter gun control laws, filled the small hearing room to tell board members that a positive message about guns had no place in elementary school curriculums.

“This is supposed to be a unit about conflict resolution and avoiding violence,” said Denver Public Schools teacher Rachel Barnes, a member of Moms Demand Action. “This is like having a unit on fire prevention and then asking: What is the benefit of playing with matches in a drought-stricken forest?”

Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old student at Slavens K-8 in Denver, said evidence doesn’t support the benefits of guns for self-defense,

“People exaggerate the benefits of having a gun and underestimate the consequences,” said Haven, who has previously spoken out publicly on climate change and social justice issues.  “I don’t want to hear how guns are safe in people’s houses when kids are bringing those guns to school and killing us.”

Her younger sister, Anna, who is entering fourth grade, told Chalkbeat that talking about guns in a positive light scares her and invites violent escalation of conflicts.

“If their mom or dad has a gun, they’ll think it’s okay and they should bring it to school if they have a bully,” Anna said. “They’re telling us that it’s how you solve conflicts, that you’ll definitely win.”

New state standards on health and physical education discuss guns in the context of conflict resolution.

And Deronn Turner, the parent of four former Denver Public Schools students and a member of Our Voice, Our Schools, said putting the benefits of guns into a state standard is “silly” when children of color don’t have adequate access to curriculum that teaches their history or to teachers of color.

“If we can’t even teach children about their own history, why would we put something in the curriculum about the benefits of guns?” she asked.

With Democrats holding a majority on the state board, the amendment was not likely to gain enough support to pass. No member made a motion to change the standards. On a 4-3 party line vote, with every Republican voting no, the Colorado State Board of Education adopted the new health standards without any language about the benefits of guns, but with the prompt to ask students how guns might be positive.

Rankin said that if schools only talk about dangers, that has the potential to scare children unnecessarily. She supports language in the standards that urges younger children to not touch and tell an adult if they find a gun, but she said any other mention of guns should wait until high school and be accompanied by a discussion of the Second Amendment.

Republican board members said they also think the health standards focus too much on mental and emotional health, and not enough on physical health, particularly obesity.

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”