Soft touch

Report: Colorado takes a hands-off approach when schools don’t serve students well

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

When Colorado schools don’t do a good job educating certain groups of students — like students of color or those learning English — state education officials can suggest ways to improve student performance and help districts find funding for new programs and training.

But Colorado largely leaves it up to school districts to choose their approach — and it doesn’t levy the same consequences on these schools as it does for those that are deemed low-performing under its state accountability system.

This hands-off approach leaves students at risk, according to a new report from the Collaborative for Student Success and HCM Strategies that examined how states are implementing their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind.

The law requires every state to have a plan that lays out how it will measure student achievement and what it will do to improve performance among groups of students who aren’t meeting academic goals. That system uses different criteria and different interventions than the state system, a disconnect that the report said undermines efforts to improve schools so that they serve all students.

The Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit education advocacy organization that supports test-based accountability systems, worked with partners to evaluate the implementation of plans in 17 states, including Colorado. Funders of the Collaborative for Student Success  include several organizations that also fund Chalkbeat: Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gave a lot of authority back to the states when it comes to improving low-performing schools, but Nakia Edwards, a peer reviewer who worked on the study, said with that authority comes responsibility. States like Colorado that put a lot of emphasis on local control may end up doing students a disservice.

“It really is about civil rights protections,” she said. “The law was originally written toward this notion of equity and making sure all students are served well in public education, so there has to be oversight.

“If we believe that states are the right level for that civil rights protection to come from, it is my opinion that states have to be willing and able to step in if a local community is persistently not meeting the needs of some students. Who is there to protect the students?”

In releasing the analysis, the organization is trying to keep pressure on states to do more to improve academic performance, particular for students of color and those from low-income families. It comes as Colorado is wrestling with how to handle schools that have not improved under its own accountability system. One school district and three schools had hearings Wednesday before the State Board of Education after earlier rounds of intervention did not produce results.

“Having dual state and federal accountability systems, where the state has one system to identify a school for intervention and another to meet federal law, undermine the ability to drive change and improve outcomes,” the report said. “Discrepancies between the two accountability systems could result in confusion and negate the impact of school improvement efforts.”

The state system looks at the overall performance of schools and districts, while the federal law puts more emphasis on whether schools are doing a good job educating students from traditionally disadvantaged groups. The state system relies more heavily on measures of how much academic progress students are making, while the federal system looks at whether students are meeting certain expectations. 

Schools identified as low-performing under the state system eventually end up in front of the State Board of Education if they don’t improve. The state board can order actions that range from giving schools more flexibility to try new things to charter conversion or even closure. Schools flagged for not serving certain students under federal law might have a good rating under the state system and never face the same potential for consequences.

Colorado education officials wanted to preserve the state system as they worked to develop their plan under the federal law, and this insistence held up approval of the federal plan for months.

The report suggests that Colorado should incorporate measures of how certain subgroups are performing into its state accountability framework so that schools and districts understand how important it is to serve all students equally. Denver, a district that has been plagued by persistent gaps in academic performance and graduation rates between more affluent white students and others, recently started incorporating those gaps into its own school ratings.

Reviewers gave Colorado high marks in several areas, including strategic use of funds, engagement with community members and parents, and building capacity at the local level. And they called out the system the state education department uses to explain options and funding to districts.

“Colorado provides a very robust menu of supports for districts and schools identified for improvement,” the report said. “These resources are presented and explained clearly, packaged in a way that will enable local leaders to take advantage of them. The multiple routes districts may use to make improvement is also a strong example of local autonomy being balanced against state-level priorities.”

Read the full report here.

Read the analysis of Colorado’s ESSA plan below.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.