Are Children Learning

Teachers seek clarity, training at Common Core summer sessions held by state DOE

Renia Williams and Jeffery Mister participated in the summer common core training.

Renia Williams waved her blue-painted finger nails in the air at a training in Memphis last week as she shared her classroom experience teaching Common Core with fellow middle school teachers.

“Common Core is forcing kids to think,” she said, eliciting finger snaps from the other teachers in the room, like at a poetry jam.

Williams is an eighth grade teacher at Treadwell Middle School in Memphis. She was one of 187 teachers trained at Ridgeway High School last week as “learning leaders,” who will go back to their own schools and train other teachers how to teach Common Core standards. About 14,000 teachers in all will be trained in sessions held by the state department of education this summer at 40 sites across the state.

Common Core  is a series of baseline reading and math standards Tennessee adopted in 2010 that determine what children should learn in each grade. Unlike standards used in the past, Common Core emphasizes that students build critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills that often require a different style of teaching. Instead of  children calculating math problems and presenting their answer, for example, they instead must now show how they arrived at their answer.

Initially adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, the standards have been subject to political controversy in recent years, with many states  passing laws that have repealed or weakened their impact. This past spring, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the use of PARCC, a national test designed specifically with the standards in mind.

Teachers have complained that the new standards come at a time of more pressure to boost test scores.  They have pointed out that, with districts’ constrained budgets, professional development opportunities have decreased while standards have increased.

Last week’s training offered by the state department was geared toward providing teachers with pedagogy skills such as encouraging students who don’t pick up new skills right away or helping students organize their thoughts while preparing to write an essay.

The teachers did not receive compensation for attending the three-day training sessions. The department’s spokesperson, Ashley Ball, could not provide the cost of the summer trainings.

Williams considers teaching math her destiny. She had dreamed of being a math teacher from the age of four, inspired by a devoted kindergarten teacher and her late mother who was a math teacher. She opted out of more lucrative career options her engineering and computer science degrees proffered to go into the classroom.

Williams had been teaching for almost two decades when Tennessee first rolled out the Common Core standards as a way to boost student achievement.

She said she felt like she was good at her job, and already knew what her students needed to succeed without Common Core. The new standards seemed an unnecessary departure.

“At first I was reluctant to even deal with it,” she said. “They’ve been throwing Common Core out here, but not helping people realize where the pieces fit.”

But at the recent training, Williams displayed the zeal of the converted.

She said she has grown to appreciate the Common Core Standards after realizing that it helped her teach more like the teachers  who had instilled her love of math, by connecting skills in the classroom to real-world problems. She said her “Aha!” moment came when she received her students’ TCAP scores after the first year of Common Core, and they had improved – despite the fact that she didn’t teach to the test at all.

This summer’s training made the state’s expectations and the national standards clearer.

The content of this summer’s trainings build on the learning from previous summers, but target the areas of greatest need for continued support, which department officials felt were writing and math, Ball said.

“Last year was to make sure teachers understood what the standards were,” said LaShanda Simmons, the site leader for training at Ridgeway and a literacy coach for Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that academically rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state. “Now, we can go deeper.”

During last week’s session, elementary English teachers practiced modeling essays for their students and were introduced to a writing strategy called Self-Regulated Strategy Development, for the first time. Teachers use the strategy to give students a “road map” of six stages, including various levels of planning, writing, and revision, that they can use to be successful writers.

Coaches in both the math and English sessions emphasized that harder work must be paired with a culture of encouragement.

“If [a student] sees all zeroes, he’s not going to fix anything,” a literacy coach told teachers. The coach urged the teachers in her session to find things to praise kids for, even when they’re struggling with reaching most standards.

The math teachers worked on a technique where students derive their own mathematical equations from word problems. At least three teachers volunteered that their students found the teaching method frustrating.

Williams said that the key to giving her students such difficult assignments was establishing that she believed they could do it. She attributes her students’ high TCAP scores to high standards and expectations. Talking about how to help guide her students through challenging math concepts was helpful, she said.

“Words can’t describe what I got out of the first day,” she said. “It made me realize we’re on the right path.”


Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Indiana A-F grades

Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Because Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School became an innovation school last year, the state uses a different scale to grade it.

A-F grades for schools across Indiana were released Wednesday, but in the state’s largest district, the grades aren’t necessarily an easy way to compare schools.

An increasing share of Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, last year about 20 percent, are being measured by a different yardstick than others, creating a system where schools with virtually identical results on state tests can receive vastly different letter grades.

The letter grades aim to show how well schools are serving students by measuring both how their students score on state tests and how much their scores improve. But as Chalkbeat reported last year, new schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth. Schools in the innovation network are part of the district, but they are run by outside charter or nonprofit operators.

Of the 11 out 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state, eight were graded based on growth alone. They included a school in its first year of operation and seven innovation schools.

At the same time, traditional neighborhood and magnet schools with growth scores as good as or better than the scores at A-rated innovation schools received Bs, Cs, and even Ds.

Of the 13 innovation schools that received grades for last school year, eight received As, two got Bs, two got Cs, and one got a D. Only Herron High School was graded on the same scale as other schools. (For high schools, grades incorporate other measures including graduation rates.)

The result is a system that most parents don’t understand, said Seretha Edwards, a parent of four children at School 43, a school that received a failing grade from the state but would have gotten a B if it were measured by growth alone.

“I just think it’s kind of deceiving,” she added. “I don’t think it paints a fair picture of the schools.”

Indianapolis Public Schools deputy superintendent for academics Aleesia Johnson said the growth scores show schools are on a good trajectory.

“If you see that kids are making progress in terms of growth, that’s a good sign that you’re on the right track,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that “there’s still a lot of work to do” to get students to pass tests and show proficiency.

Johnson pointed out that often-changing standardized tests and different A-F grades can cause confusion for families, and those measures don’t provide a complete or timely picture for families who want to assess their schools or choose new ones. “I don’t think it gives a lot of valuable information,” she said.

Advocates have said the growth only model makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

“The concept behind the growth-only model was that we measured newer schools based off of what they are able to do for their students, rather than taking them where they received them,” said Maggie Paino, the director of accountability for the education department. “You’re taking strides to get toward proficiency.”

The situation is even more muddled than usual this year. Schools across the state received two letter grades. One was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan the state uses to comply with federal standards.

In addition to helping parents choose schools, years of repeated low letter grades from the state can trigger intervention or takeover. But the state has deferred in decisions about intervening in low-rated schools to IPS in recent years.

Back in 2012, the state took over four chronically low-performing Indianapolis schools. Since Superintendent Lewis Ferebee took over, IPS has taken aggressive steps to overhaul struggling schools by “restarting” them as innovation schools with new managers. Other struggling schools have been closed.

School 63, which received its sixth consecutive F from the state, might have faced state intervention in the past. But the school is unlikely to face repercussions because IPS restarted the school by turning it over to an outside manager. The Haughville elementary school is now managed by Matchbook Learning.

Shaina Cavazos and Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.