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.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.