This year was supposed to be a legislative session of sweetness, light and more money for Colorado’s colleges and universities.
Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $100 million increase for higher ed, both for institutions and financial aid, a significantly higher percentage increase than he suggested for K-12. (Total state dollar spending on school districts, of course, dwarfs higher ed budgets.)
Democratic lawmakers liked the idea so much they plucked it out of the governor’s budget and put it in its own bill, Senate Bill 14-001. That measure also includes a 6 percent cap on tuition increases in 2014-15.
A key part of the proposal is that all colleges will receive an 11 percent increase based on the current formula for distributing money to institutions. That formula is a combination of various old factors. Policymakers have been reluctant to tinker with that formula, which tends to disadvantage faster growing institutions, for fear of reigniting old intercollegiate battles over money.
While colleges are likely to get their money next year, those old feuds could be stirred by a bill being floated by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. The speaker, a genuine budget wonk, is serving his last term.
A draft of that bill was circulated to colleges on Monday evening, and it could stir old disagreements about funding shares.
State aid comes to colleges and universities in two forms. One is called the College Opportunity Fund (COF), and it’s supposed to represent stipends paid to resident undergraduate students to reduce college costs. The second is called fees for service, and it’s supposed to represent money the state pays to institutions for such “services” as graduate education, providing remote areas of the state and enrolling underserved students.
In practice, the dual system is primarily a way for the state to avoid having to count tuition payments as revenue that would be subject to limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Ferrandino’s proposal would more tightly define fees for service, and weight those payments based on such factors as institution size, research activity, graduate education, retention of students and degree completion. And it would set higher COF stipends for lower-income students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.
There’s a lot of other complicated math in the bill, which wouldn’t go into effect until 2015-16, if it’s introduced and passed.
There isn’t much reaction yet to the bill draft. State colleges and universities, ever vigilant about protecting their financial interests, employ squads of analysts and lobbyists to scrutinize proposals like this, and you can be certain those folks are doing just that. A period of negotiation over the bill’s provisions is the likely next step.
The higher education system, which doesn’t have the same constitutional cushions as K-12, has been hit with two periods of significant budget cuts since 2000. But colleges, unlike public schools, can charge tuition, and those rates have steadily risen in recent years as institutions have tried to stay afloat. Tuition now provides roughly 75 percent of revenues.
Read the draft bill here.
Paul Lundeen, chair of the State Board of Education, informed his colleagues Tuesday that he plans to ask them to vote next month on a resolution calling on the legislature to repeal a 2012 law that required Colorado to sign up with a multistate testing group.
Lundeen’s surprise (at least to some board members) came at the end of a daylong meeting, “I respectfully call for action by the General Assembly and the governor during this legislative session,” he said. “It is time to demand action from the General Assembly to repeal the statute” that led to Colorado committing to use of language arts and math tests being prepared by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
He said he’d ask the board to consider such a resolution during its April 9-10 meeting.
Lundeen made the announcement near the end of a 10-minute speech in which he criticized the Common Core Standards (“Colorado must remain true to its independent standards”) as “an increasing burden of standardized assessments.”
The 2012 “PARCC law” (only 14 lines of text in an education laws cleanup bill) was controversial then because lawmakers – led by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver – basically forced the board to join the multistate testing group. Earlier that session lawmakers rejected the board’s request for $26 million to develop new Colorado-only tests.
Testing and the Common Core have become even more controversial since then.
The effect of a board resolution – if Lundeen gets one passed – might be minimal. The board historically doesn’t have a lot of sway with lawmakers, particularly when the board is divided, as it would be on this issue. Johnston would be expected to oppose any change in the state testing system. And lawmakers likely would be reluctant to take up such a controversial issue with less than a month to go in the session. (They have to adjourn by May 7.)
Lundeen, a Republican, is likely a short-timer on the board. He’s a candidate for the state House from a safely GOP seat in El Paso County and has been endorsed by the incumbent.
Testing also came in for criticism at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, when Keith King, a Republican former legislator from Colorado Springs, appeared before the board to complain about testing – “there are just really too many mandated tests” – and warn that new standardized tests are threatening the autonomy of charter schools. King, an influential figure on education issues while in the legislature, operates an early college charter.
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board’s public comment session was taken up by the usual assortment of citizen witnesses complaining about or praising the Common Core. (This has become a fixture at board meetings since last summer.)
Sonja Semion, who heads Stand for Children Colorado, brought along a unique visual aid to show that group’s support for the standards – a printout containing more than 7,000 signatures from citizens who signed a Stand online petition supporting the standards.PHOTO: Chalkbeat ColoradoPetition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.
When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.
“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on’” angered parents, said Simms.
But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.
That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.
“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”
The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.
It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.
The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.Innovation schools
Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.
“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”
A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.
Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.
“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.
Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.
“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school's] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.How to have a conversation
District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.
“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”
It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.
At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.
“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.
For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.
“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.
Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”Innovation status as an afterthought
Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.
Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.
“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?’” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”
Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.
“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.
The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.
“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”
He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.Let’s try that again
For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.
Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.
“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.
With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.
“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.
The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.
“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.
Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.
“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.
For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.
“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”
A struggling school district’s quest to become the first to successfully appeal its low state accountability rating ended today when the State Board of Education voted 6-1 to deny their request.
Despite evidence of a continued effort to improve academic performance of its students, members of the board said the statewide consequences would be too great if they agreed to lift Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating.
Sheridan officials argued a bump in accreditation would more accurately capture the fruits of the intense turnaround efforts schools have undergone including lowering its dropout rate from 5 percent to 0.9 percent.
Officials from the Colorado Department of Education countered: If the board approved Sheridan’s appeal it would put the state’s accountability framework and processes of collecting and analyzing data into question.
The board agreed with the department.
“It’s clear you’re on the right track … In concept, I’m in support of you,” the board’s chairman, Paul Lundeen, told Sheridan officials. “But, in practicality, I can’t.”
State officials argued in order to bump Sheridan’s rating, the department would have had to allow the district to resubmit graduation rates after a statewide deadline for all schools. Allowing Sheridan to amend its data as it’s convenient to the district would create a precedent that would throw off careful timelines and procedures.
More importantly, state officials argued it would allow districts to retroactively manipulate their data if they weren’t happy with their school accountability rating.
“Sheridan is asking for CDE to create a unique framework that fits their needs,” said Keith Owen, the department’s deputy commissioner. “The state board has responsibility to safeguard the accountability measure.”
Debora Scheffel was the lone dissenting board member. She said she believes the district is supporting its students to the best of its ability.
“I feel [Sheridan] is doing a great job serving a very needy population,” Scheffel said. “The fact they could remove a service and increase their accreditation means they’re trying to serve their students.”
The crux of Sheridan’s argument was that it has more than a dozen students enrolled for a fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school who are concurrently enrolled at both its high school and Arapahoe Community College. Those students have met the qualifications for a standard diploma, but they are seeking an advanced “21st Century Diploma” that requires college courses.
Sheridan officials believes the state should not only track graduation rates, but should acknowledge the “success rate” of Sheridan students who are now taking college courses in pursuit of an advanced degree.
Districts, not the state, set the parameters for graduation requirements. It is also the local board of education and superintendent who certify those numbers to the state. Those numbers are then factored into the school’s annual rating. It is Sheridan’s policies, not the state’s, that have determined the district’s rating, department officials said.
The state board, at times, had trouble following the numbers and logic from both Sheridan and department officials. Questions during the two hour hearing ranged from exactly how many students Sheridan has concurrently enrolled — those numbers ranged from 19 to 24 — to the intricacies of school finance law.
“This is a case of ‘is or is-you-aint,’” said board member Angelika Schroeder. “And I think you’re saying they’re both.”
Sheridan Schools serves about 1,500 students, most of whom qualify for free- or reduced-lunch. The district earned a “priority improvement” ranking from the state’s department of education. The district believes it should be rated as an “improvement” district.
Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.
No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. But Sheridan Schools is one of 11 districts entering either year four or five of the accountability timeline. Sheridan will enter year four of the clock in July when state accreditation ratings take effect.
Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough said while he’s disappointed, he understands the board’s decision.
“I guess that’s what happens when you have 178 districts — and not just one — to worry about,” Clough said after the hearing.
Sheridan’s failed appeal was the second of its kind. Mapleton Public Schools unsuccessfully pleaded with the state board to raise its accreditation rating last year.
Officials from Denver Public Schools asked parents and teachers at a North City Park elementary school to trust them as they introduced the campus’ new principal Monday night.
Jason Krause, described by the district as a “proven school leader,” will become Columbine Elementary School’s fifth principal in seven years when he takes over in the fall.
Columbine is one of the district’s lowest performing elementary schools. Parents pointed to the lack of consistency in the principal’s office as a fundamental reason the school is struggling.
“I don’t want to be the guinea pig school anymore,” said Melissa Skrbic-Huss, Columbine’s PTA president. “I don’t know if I can trust you guys.”
District officials said they’ve heard the community’s concern and have a longterm commitment from Krause.
“Our goal now is to create a stable community with your help,” said Erin McMahon, a DPS instructional superintendent. “I’m OK if you don’t believe us right now. But let’s give it some time and figure [Columbine's future] out together.”
Krause will replace Beth Yates, who is currently leading Columbine for her second year. Some parents and teachers were shocked to learn of the district’s decision to swap leaders — again. Despite inheriting a school in free-fall, Yates has rallied her staff and the school was showing progress in both its culture and test scores, they said.
District officials agreed and acknowledged Yate’s successes Monday night. But those changes weren’t happening fast enough, Ivan Duran, assistant superintendent for elementary education, told Monday’s crowd of about three dozen.
“We really can’t experiment anymore,” Duran said, introducing Krause, who in three years as principal at Smith Renaissance Elementary School saw double-digit gains in proficiency scores. Smith’s enrollment, which determines a school’s budget, is also up, Duran said. (The district will launch a full principal search, including community input, to replace Krause at Smith.)
At Columbine, the district is trying to combat declining enrollment, Duran said. Moreover, the leadership change was also a requirement for the school to receive a school improvement grant from the state.
For Krause, who began his teaching career at Columbine, it was a bit of a homecoming. A college philosophy major, who speaks Spanish, he joined the school through an alternative teacher-licensing program in the late 1990s.
Krause was also among the last generation of DPS students who were bused under a court mandate to integrate the urban schools. He said, in retrospect, the experience was the foundation of his yearning to be in the classroom.
“It made me value diversity,” he said.
Krause said he hopes to be a part of the Columbine community for years to come.
“I am not the kind of person who wants to put a band-aid on the school and leave,” he said. “It’s really special to be back.”
As part of the transition, the district will form a steering committee at Columbine made up of teachers, parents and community members. There will be a two and a half day “vision” retreat at the end of May. Additionally, Krause and district officials will survey families living inside of Columbine’s attendance boundaries but have decided to send their children to other schools.
Fourth grade teacher Blake Hammond said he hopes the school will develop a culture of grit and celebrate thinking outside the box.
“Let’s do something exciting,” he said.
One parent, who said three generations of her family have attended Columbine, said she hopes the school can be returned to its glory days when more than 500 students filled the halls. Next year’s enrollment is projected at 172 students.
Other requests from parents included art and music classes.
One parent who said his family was committed to the northeast Denver neighborhood wondered aloud if DPS was as well.
“The concern of a lot of parents — what we talk about on the weekends — is not just Columbine,” Jonathan Hammond said. “It’s Columbine, Barrett [Elementary School], Manual [High School]. We want to know DPS’s plan for northeast Denver. … The schools are dismal. Our hope, our dream is beyond Columbine, a quality middle school and high school. We want to make sure all of the northeast Denver schools do well — that our schools are not just the armpit of DPS.”
Instructional superintendent McMahon said DPS shared his concern.
“Our longterm goal is to see kids through college,” she said.
A bill introduced Monday would give charter schools a greater voice in planning of tax override ballot measures proposed by their districts.
House Bill 14-1314, which — significantly — has bipartisan sponsorship, would require school districts to include charters in the planning for ballot measures that propose raising taxes to meet operating expenses. In additional to a variety of other requirements, if a district decided not include a charter in a ballot proposal, it would have to provide reasons in writing to the charter. The bill also would authorize districts to propose ballot measures just for charter schools. (Read the bill text here.)
A law passed several years ago requires similar consultation with charters on district bond proposals.
There are other charter finance bills floating around this session, although they deal with charter facilities costs. (See the Education Bill Tracker for information on House Bill 14-1187 and Senate Bill 14-139.)
There’s also money for charter facilities in House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, the “big bill” that’s on hold pending release next week of updated state revenue forecasts. (See this story on all that details on that bill and this year’s school finance battle.)
In other developments Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave 5-0 approval to House Bill 14-1152, which would set deadlines for government agencies to erase video recordings taken by “passive” surveillance cameras. (Thinks of cameras mounted on ceilings that record video continuously, or cameras on parking lot light poles.)
The bill would apply to local governments, including school districts. But districts contacted by Chalkbeat Colorado – and the Colorado School Safety Resource Center – indicated the bill wouldn’t have much effect on schools.
That’s because cameras have limited data storage capacity, and new video is recorded over old video after a relatively short period of time. For instance, the Denver Public Schools keeps 30 days’ worth of video, and because of overwriting video generally isn’t kept more than 120 days, according to spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong. DPS has about 2,500 such cameras, she said.
Also Monday, the House gave final approval to Senate Bill 14-112, which would give he legislature oversight over cash grants awarded by the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. The bill basically means that the General Assembly could set a ceiling on the amount of cash grants awarded annually. The measure, which now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, is one of several bills floating around this year that propose to tweak the BEST program.
The Capitol debate over school finance this year has reached a level of intensity not seen since 2010’s battle over teacher evaluations.
Facing off are school districts that want significant restoration of past budget cuts and lawmakers and education reform groups who are trying to save pieces of 2013’s comprehensive school finance overhaul. (That law isn’t in effect because voters rejected the tax increase needed to pay for it.)
Also looming over the debate is the tricky long-range financial question of whether putting more money into basic school funding this year will set the state up for budget problems in later years, and set school districts up for future cuts.
The battle is being fought over hard-to-read spreadsheets; an alphabet soup of acronyms like ADM, ELL and BEST and most of all over something called the “negative factor.”
At the eye of the storm is House Bill 14-1292, introduced late last month but in the works since last November after voters defeated Amendment 66. The bill went through lots of versions before it was introduced, and backers made significant concessions to critics before the 113-page measure surfaced officially.
But opposition to the bill and heavy pressure to amend it remain strong, and those voices were in full cry during a 6 ½-hour House Education Committee hearing March 3 (see story).
Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the panel and a prime sponsor of HB 14-1292, had announced ahead of time that the committee wouldn’t consider amendments nor vote on the bill at the meeting.
“We will do our very best to respond to what we heard tonight,” she said at the hearing’s close.
With most everyone’s views now on the public record, discussions about HB 14-1292 have returned to a long series of private meetings between lobbyists, interest group leaders and sponsors in an effort to find additional common ground before House Education again takes up the bill. Most observers expect that won’t happen until after March 18, when updated state revenue forecasts are issued.What’s driving the arguments
Why has the school finance debate reached this level of intensity?
The causes lie in the interplay of major education bills passed and K-12 budget cuts imposed over the past six years. Here’s a review:
Reform measures: The 2008 legislature passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which required new content standards, new tests, greater coordination between K-12 and higher education and other reforms. That was followed in 2009 by a new accountability and rating system for schools and districts, the educator effectiveness and evaluation law in 2010 and the READ Act, the early literacy program, in 2012.
Because most of the laws had long rollout timelines, most of them really only hit schools this school year, creating a stiff implementation challenge for many districts, particularly because most of the new programs didn’t come with extra state funding.Average per-pupil funding
Budget cuts: The 2008 recession shrank state revenues significantly, forcing lawmakers to cut K-12 funding in order to balance annual budgets without excessive cuts to other programs. They accomplished that by using a narrower interpretation of school finance law that applies constitutionally required annual increases only to part of K-12 funding, not the entire amount. That’s what’s called the negative factor, which is applied after the theoretical total for K-12 funding is calculated, thereby reducing the amount to what lawmakers feel they can afford.
“What’s the negative factor? The state gives us money and then takes it away,” is how John McCleary puts it. He is the superintendent of the 69-student Liberty school district in the northeastern plains community of Joes.
Total program funding has declined from a high of $5.58 billion in 2009-10 and has returned to only $5.51 billion this year. Over the same period average per-pupil funding has dropped from $7,078 to $6,652. (The low point was $6,474 in 2011-12.) It’s estimated K-12 funding this year is about $1.1 billion below what it would have been if the negative factor hadn’t been used.
High hopes in 2013: The major education debate last year was over Senate Bill 13-213, an ambitious overhaul of school finance law drafted by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. (A key feature of that bill was a significant shift of funding from wealthier districts to those with the highest percentages of at-risk students. That idea isn’t on the table this year because of cost.) Many districts and interest groups weren’t wild about Johnston’s bill but joined the effort because of hopes voters would approve the accompanying $1 billion annual income tax increase. They didn’t, leaving SB 13-213 unimplemented and schools with no new state revenue.
Recovering revenues: State revenues started growing again a couple of years ago, and the legislature also has tucked surplus money into the State Education Fund (SEF), a dedicated account used to both supplement annual state school support and for special programs. The fund now contains more than $1 billion.
The bottom line is that school districts, squeezed by cuts and frustrated by the lack of new revenues, see rising state revenues and a big balance in the SEF as ways to start reducing the negative factor.
“There’s tremendous passion among the districts around the state,” Brett Ridgway, director of finance for the Falcon district, testified during the House Education hearing.PHOTO: Boulder SchoolsBoulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo
“This touches every corner of the state,” Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger told a recent meeting of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research and advocacy group. “We aren’t going to allow this [the negative factor] to become the new normal.”
Messinger said that the effort has the support of every elected school board in the state. “If we don’t prevail it won’t be because we didn’t try,” Messinger said, calling on advocates of greater funding to “make people uncomfortable.”
Such feelings have forged unusual unanimity among mainline education lobbying groups and increased pressure on lawmakers from the squads of school board members, superintendents and teachers who’ve been descending on the Capitol weekly to buttonhole lawmakers on the issue.
“What’s remarkable is how superintendents in the state have come together to agree on some core principles,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
“I’ve never seen such uniformity of passion and interest,” notes Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.What they’re arguing about
The debate can be confusing, what with all the acronyms and the complicated math inherent in any school finance discussion. Here’s a look at the key elements of HB 14-1292 and the points of disagreement:Do your homework
Negative factor and base funding: HB 14-1291 would trim the negative factor by $100 million. (Early discussions among sponsors didn’t include any negative factor reduction, and a pre-introduction draft of the measure proposed only $80 million, so lobbying has had some effect.) The Colorado Association of School Boards has called for elimination of the negative factor over five years (so, $200 million a year), and virtually all the state’s superintendents have signed a letter calling for a $275 million reduction this year (see story).
“We do appreciate how far that conversation has come in the last eight weeks,” Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB told the education committee on March 3. “It doesn’t go far enough in our view.”
A really important – and really complicated – aspect of the discussion is the future impact of big reductions in the negative factor for 2014-15. Because such reductions would build base school funding, that would mean larger amounts of mandatory funding would be required in future years. (Amendment 23 in the state constitution requires base funding to increase annually by inflation and enrollment.)
Most of the growth in future K-12 spending would have to be borne by the state’s main General Fund, because budget experts assume the big balance in the SEF is a one-time phenomenon. Additional pressures also face the General Fund – other state programs like Medicaid and scheduled future transfers to transportation and even taxpayer refunds if future revenues hit certain trigger points.
Legislative leaders, budget experts in the Joint Budget Committee and the Hickenlooper administration are worried about those pressures – not to mention the next recession, whenever it hits. They fear too large a commitment to school funding would require – you guessed it – revival of the negative factor when times get tough.House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver
“We don’t want to get into a place … where in two or three years we have to cut schools again,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, told reporters during a recent briefing.
He also called the superintendents’ $275 million request “not sustainable,” adding, “I hope when the fiscal realities set in we can come to agreement” on a reasonable reduction of the negative factor.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, sounded a similar note. Speaking of district leaders, she said, “It’s their job to push for more money for education.” She added, “I think they’re starting to understand” the implications of buying down the negative factor. “These dialogues are starting to go in the right direction.”
Reform implementation: The bill includes $40 million to be distributed to districts on a per-student basis to help cover the costs of rolling out new standards, tests and teacher evaluations. (SB 13-213 also included this feature – with a lot more money.) This year’s bill also would earmark $5 million in state school construction funds for technology grants to districts. (Distributed to every district, the one-time funding would amount to $47 per student.)
While districts have griped for years about lack of state financial help to pay for state-imposed programs, their desire this year is for more money with no strings.
“Continue to work on this bill to ensure that we have operating revenue that isn’t earmarked,” testified Kirk Banghart, superintendent of the Moffat district in the San Luis Valley. ”We need it without earmarks.”
English language learners: The bill proposes to use $35 million to upgrade the state’s programs for English learners, including extension of students’ eligibility to five years. Many Democrats and Republicans – and educators and advocacy groups – support this idea in concept. But, again, districts this year want money without strings. Some bill supporters argue the ELL money is a modest way to help some at-risk students. Leaders from districts with lots of at-risk students who aren’t English language learners aren’t impressed with that argument.
Early literacy: Another $20 million is in the bill to help districts pay cost for the READ Act, which requires individual literacy plans for K-3 students who lag in reading. (The READ Act was one of the few reform bills of recent years that had funding from the start, but costs have been greater than expected.)
Kindergarten construction: The state school construction fund is projected to receive $40 million in revenue from recreational marijuana taxes. HB 14-1292 proposes taking $30 million of that for kindergarten facilities construction, plus the $5 million for technology mentioned above and $5 million for charter school facilities. Supporters of the Building Excellent Schools Today program want the money for that program and argue the diversion may even be unconstitutional. This has become one of the more contentious parts of the bill.
Charter facilities: The bill also proposes a $13 million boost in the $7 million in annual funding charter schools now receive to help defray facilities costs. There’s agreement in many quarters that charters are squeezed on building costs, and this is a part of the bill strongly backed by legislative Republicans.
Enrollment and transparency: Two recycled proposals from SB 13-213 are sections of HB 14-1292 that propose converting the state’s one-day enrollment count system to what’s called average daily membership (which involves multiple counts) and creation of a state website that would provide school-level spending information. The total cost would be $15 million. Some legislative Republicans like these ideas, and they’re pet issues for some reform groups, who believe the current system doesn’t get funding to the students who need it most. District interests are pushing back hard on these two proposals, claiming they would impose more paperwork on districts and that the money would – again – be better used in reducing the negative factor.
(See this chart for more details on the cost of the bill’s elements.)Undercurrents in the debate
While much of the rhetoric over HB 14-1292 is about adequate funding, there is a bit of tension about education reform in the debate.
Interestingly, that surfaced at the House Education hearing during an exchange between two Douglas County Republicans.
Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker was sympathetic to witnesses’ pleas for local flexibility, saying legislators “need to stop breaking what we can’t fix.”
That brought a quick retort from Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, a leading GOP figure on education issues and a co-prime sponsor of HB 14-1292.
“I have to take exception, Rep. Holbert. There are many children that are failing in this state,” she said. Legislators and the state “definitely have a role. … I’m not ready to back off on those children who are being left behind.”It’s not just about one bill Impacts of the negative factor The Colorado School Finance Project recently surveyed districts about how they would be affected by a $200 million buy down of the negative factor or by no change in the factor. Some 80 districts responded. Under the first scenario, some districts reported they could rehire teachers, unfreeze salaries, rely less on reserves and even buy buses and fix some buildings. Without a buy down, most districts predicted further cuts and continued use of reserves.Read the responses here.
It will take more than HB 14-1292 to set next year’s school funding.
The main state budget bill, not yet introduced, will carry the base funding for districts. A second measure, House Bill 14-1298, is a vehicle for additional funding. In its current form the most notable portions of that measure (also known as the school finance act) are:
House Education is expected to consider HB 14-1298 at the same time it takes up the Student Success Act again.What happens next
The two sets of revenue forecasts that will be issued by state economists on March 18 will be key for school finance (and the entire state budget) because they will give a more refined estimate of how much money lawmakers have to spend next year.
Ferrandino said, “It’s definitely possible” the negative factor buy down could be less than $100 million if the revenue estimates are down.
That will affect the negotiations over HB 14-1292 and how the bill may be amended in House Education.
The bill has wide – if perhaps superficial on the part of some members — support in the House, with 35 sponsors from both parties.
Some observers expect the bill could see significant changes in the Senate, whose members haven’t been as deeply involved in the discussions. So far the bill has only one Senate sponsor – Johnston.
As a Manual High School alum and community member who has been deeply involved in Manual for years, I feel a sense of responsibility to share some insights based on past (and recent) experience as the community and district work to determine – yet again – the future of Manual and its students.
While many may see this most recent round of problems at Manual as a déjà vu moment all over again, I know bold and right decisions can be made now that will chart a new course for the Manual community, one that will do right by the students today, and long into the future. After all, it is long past time that we finally get this right.
During the closing and reopening of Manual under Superintendent Michael Bennet, I had the privilege of working for Denver Public Schools as the liaison to Manual. We had high hopes about what the school could become, even in the wake and turmoil of the failure of the small schools initiative. Despite deep heartache and skepticism surrounding the closure, there was also a great deal of optimism about the future – because there was an abiding belief and obsessive optimism that Manual could be a great school.
There was progress for some years under Principal Rob Stein. However, after a more recent round of failed strategy and leadership, many are shaking their heads and throwing up their hands, dubious as to whether anything can work, or searching for the next experiment to try, at Manual.
Neither route is right.
Because despite the failure of all the adults (including myself), the Manual community and students are capable and deserving, and resilient. And ready – and hungry – for success. We have already lost too much precious time – and failed far too many deserving students. We cannot wait any longer to get Manual right. This latest failure creates the chance for a fresh start. But this MUST be the last start.
In an effort to seed success and help inform the work of the Manual community, I offer a few insights:
The Manual Community Council (a group of over 30 leaders that was formed during the closure of Manual) produced a report that broadly represented what they wanted in the future of Manual. Although this is a new time, there are many core concepts in this document that could serve as a starting point for the current group tasked with the future of Manual.
There is an opportunity to do right by past, current, and future Manual students. No more experiments. Only proven leaders or proven providers. It is way past time to get things right. And that commitment should be a primary focus for all stakeholders.
Manual represents deserving and capable students, and is a beautiful facility in the heart of the city surrounded by a diverse and passionate community. We can make it a cultural and educational centerpiece again. And we must.
If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.
This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?
There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:
“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity. They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”
If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.
Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.
Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.
A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.
Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.
However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.” Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.
It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.
So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.
As Daly wrote:
“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”
The three- and four-year-olds at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette were busy playing at the water table, painting letters, and pretend grocery shopping on a recent Tuesday morning.
Terri Stowell was just as busy, madly writing notes on a sheaf of papers as she examined toys and books, monitored hand-washing routines and observed teachers as they talked and played with students. Stowell, lead quality rating specialist for the non-profit Qualistar, spent more than three hours at the preschool collecting much of the information she would need to award the center a rating of one to four stars.
It was the first time the center had sought a Qualistar rating, which is a well-respected but voluntary program that costs providers about $1,000 per classroom. Director Leana Zlaten, who secured grant money to pay the fee, was hoping for at least two stars, and maybe three. In May, she will get her answer.
And then in July, everything will change.
That’s when the state is expected to launch a free mandatory rating program to replace Qualistar’s 14-year-old system. While Zlaten’s stars should transfer seamlessly into the new five-level rating system, the vast majority of the state’s preschool and child care providers will find themselves in a place they’ve never been before.
That is, with a public rating indicating their facility’s quality.What’s the point?
Until now, child care providers, whether “centers” or “family child care homes,” were required to be licensed by the state but nothing else. Unless they pursued a Qualistar rating on their own or parents did a lot of legwork, there wasn’t much to distinguish one from another.
On a national level, “Quality Rating Improvement Systems,” often called QRIS, have been the trend over the last decade and experts herald them for improving the quality of early childhood programs and better informing parents how local child care facilities stack up. In Colorado, there is both excitement and confusion about the new system, which has been in the works since 2010.Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children’s hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center’s Qualistar rating.
“We are all in favor of continuing to march toward quality,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.
Still, like other early childhood advocates interviewed, she said the new system represents a huge undertaking with an ambitious timeline.
“People are definitely concerned because there’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “It’s still a system in flux.”
With less than three months to go before the launch, many questions remain. For example, it’s unclear whether the system’s name will change from its working title, “Next Generation Quality Rating Improvement System,” or whether child care providers will earn stars, numbers or something else.
Another unanswered question is which contractor—Qualistar or Simplydigi.com Inc. —the state will choose for a $2.5 million contract to conduct some of the new ratings. With these and several other decisions pending, there’s also a possibility the launch date could be pushed back.
While state officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which has authority over the new system, agree that there still many unknowns, they are taking an optimistic tone.
“I am feeling so excited at the moment,” said Karen Enboden, child care QRIS manager for CDHS. “I think this is absolutely the right step for Colorado.”Racing to the top
The Next Generation system, which is being funded with part of a $44 million federal Race to the Top grant, will roll out in two phases. Starting in July, center-based programs will be the first group of providers to earn ratings. These programs, which include non-profit and for-profit preschools and child care centers as well as early childhood classrooms run by school districts, represent 86 percent of licensed capacity for children 0-5.
Possible ratings: Level 1-5
Components: (for levels 3-5)
1. Workforce Qualifications and Professional Development
2. Family Partnerships
3. Leadership, Management & Administration
4. Learning Environment
5. Child Health
6. Optional (includes points for home language, additional professional staff, professional leadership)
Possible ratings: Provisional and 1-4 stars
1. Learning Environment
2. Family Partnerships
3. Training and Education
4. Adult-to-Child Ratios and Group Size
5. Program Accreditation
Family child care homes, defined as home-based sites serving two or more unrelated children at the same time, will have the option to participate in the new system this year, but it won’t become mandatory until July 2015.
While many experts laud Qualistar for being one of the pioneers of early childhood quality improvement, they also note that the organization never was able to capture a critical mass of the child care sector because its ratings are costly. Currently, less than 10 percent of licensed providers in Colorado have Qualistar ratings, according to Gladys Wilson, the organization’s executive director.
“They never reached that tipping point,” said Thurber.
Many providers with Qualistar ratings receive funding from foundations or other funders to cover the fees. Not many providers raise the money themselves.
It was clear from Stowell’s half-day visit, which she planned to follow with a return visit to meet with Zlaten the next day, why ratings aren’t cheap. They represent a complicated and time-consuming process, well beyond the more basic considerations of licensing. They weigh student-teacher ratios, teacher credentials, parent surveys and even questions like how the walls are decorated, whether toys reflect age, race and gender diversity and whether teachers use language to help children develop reasoning skills.Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristina Maginot about the preschool’s schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.
Enboden said ratings will be free under the new system, at least until the federal grant expires at the end of December 2016. In addition $7-8 million of the grant funds will be available to help providers improve their facilities and practices so they can obtain better ratings.
Under the current Qualistar system and perhaps under the new system as well, the motivation to improve often comes before the rating as well as after. For example, Zlaten and her staff made several changes before Stowell’s visit, which occurred unannounced during a one-month window. They moved furniture around the large classroom, opening up a sunny area near the windows for free play and circle time.
At the same time, there were some things they couldn’t easily improve. They knew the playround, which Stowell said is a problem area for many facilities, would cost them some points. While it appeared perfectly acceptable to a casual observer, Stowell found several issues as she measured equipment spacing and looked for hazards like easy-to-open gates, protruding bolts and wide gaps between rails.
“The inside, that’s what we focused on,” said lead teacher Cristina Maginot.
Overall, the facility, which provides scholarships to about a quarter of its students, had much to recommend it — small class sizes, conscientious teachers and a lots of engaging activities.
Enboden said the goal is for 20 percent of the state’s licensed child care facilities to earn a rating of three, four or five by the end of 2016. A state-run parent portal where families can look up Next Generation ratings could be up by January 2015.Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.
“My hope is that parents will have more information so they can make informed decisions,” said Wilson.
Like many early childhood advocates, she said most parents decide where to send their children based on cost, convenience and word of mouth recommendations, not necessarily provider quality.
The City and County of Denver, which has hundreds of Qualistar-rated facilities, may be somewhat of an exception. That’s because the Denver Preschool Program, which provides preschool subsidies to families of four-year-olds, has put a premium on preschool quality and pays for Qualistar ratings as well as improvement measures.
“Denver’s far ahead of the rest of the state,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.Embedded in licensing
One of the biggest differences between Qualistar and the Next Generation QRIS is that the rating system will now be embedded in licensing. In other words, all center-based and family child carehome providers with a valid license, which requires basic health and safety measures, will automatically get a rating of one.
There will be no requirement to pursue a two, three, four or five, but some observers believe providers won’t want to settle for the lowest score once they see their competition attaining higher levels of quality.
“Peer pressure,” said Thurber.
Providers will be able to advance to a level two if their staff members complete state-approved online trainings and enroll in the state’s professional development information system. In addition, providers will have to complete a self-assessment of their program and create an improvement plan. The Department of Human Services will oversee awards of ones and twos.The “ECERS” manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the “ITERS,” is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.
To earn a level three, four or five, providers will go through a process similar to the current Qualistar process, which includes a site visit like the one Stowell recently conducted. Depending on the outcome of the contract award, it’s possible that Qualistar’s ten rating specialists will continue to rate programs seeking one of the highest three ratings.
One differences between the Qualistar system and the Next Generation system will be the scoring methodology for the three higher ratings. In addition, while Qualistar raters look at every classroom in a facility, the new system will look at 50 percent of classrooms. Finally, Qualistar ratings typically last for two years while Next Generation ratings will extend for three.Grandfather me in
While some center directors are no doubt nervous about their new obligations under the Next Generation system, some can rest easy during the first year or two. That’s because providers with existing Qualistar ratings will keep their existing numerical rating under the new system. In addition, providers that are accredited by yet-to-be-determined national bodies, as well as Head Start sites that have undergone federal reviews, will also transition into the new system with scores of either three or four depending on whether they meet certain criteria.Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.
The grandfather provision, officially called “Alternative Pathways” in the new system, is part of the reason some providers are choosing to get Qualistar-rated this spring. Not only will they avoid the uncertainty of a new system in its roll-out phase, they have the opportunity to come in with high rating from day one.
Thurber said a number of providers in Larimer County have worked to get Qualistar ratings this year for that very reason. In Zlaten’s case, it helped that the Qualistar system was a known quantity.
“We know what Qualistar is like. We don’t know what the state’s [rating system] is like, so we thought, ‘Let’s do Qualistar,’” she said.
Denver school officials have selected a new leader for struggling Columbine Elementary School. Parents will be able to meet with the school’s new principal at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
Jason Krause, who taught at Columbine before entering the district’s leadership pool, will return to the northeast Denver school next year as its principal, according to a letter to parents provided to Chalkbeat Colorado. He will be the school’s fifth principal in seven years.
Krause will replace Beth Yates. The current principal’s supporters were shocked when she announced the district was going to replace Yates, whom teachers and parents described as “relentless.”
Erin McMahon, an instructional superintendent, noted, in her letter to parents, the improvements Yates has made at Columbine this year. But McHahon went on to say student achievement has not improved enough.
“There have been modest improvements in academic achievement this year, which are a great starting point,” McMahon wrote. “However, this work must be deepened and accelerated.”
Some parents argued the lack of consistency at Columbine has been the reason for low test scores.
Krause is a proven school leader that has boosted test scores at Smith Renaissance School, McMahon said.
As part of the transition process, Denver Public Schools will form a steering committee to work with Krause through the spring.
Here’s the letter that was sent to parents announcing the school’s new leader:
A lawsuit that claims Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights violates federal constitutional guarantees of representative state government can proceed, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The suit, Kerr v. Hickenlooper, was filed in 2011, but the case has been focused on procedural issues up to now. The Friday ruling settles some of those.
The eventual outcomes of the case – which could be years away – could have important implications for state government operations and for school funding, the focus of intense debate during the current legislative session.
The TABOR amendment, passed by voters in 1992 and requires (among other things) voter approval for tax rate increases. The plaintiffs argue that violates provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the 19th century law making Colorado a state that guarantee a “republican” form of government, one in which elected representatives make legislative decisions, including on taxation.
The 32 plaintiffs include legislators, former lawmakers, other elected officials and private citizens. Some interesting names in the group include Lakewood Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee; influential former GOP lawmaker Norma Anderson of Jefferson County and State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver.
While the case has been pretty much below the public radar, it has drawn a lot of interest from public policy and advocacy groups on both the left and right. Among groups filing friend of the court briefs were the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado PTA.
Only two legal questions were at issue in the ruling – whether the plaintiffs have legal standing to file the suit and whether the case is a “political” matter that can’t be decided in court.
The appellate panel found the plaintiffs have standing and that the case isn’t automatically a political issue that should be thrown out at this point.
Read the ruling here.
WESTMINSTER — When Pam Swanson learned the State Board of Education was interested in hearing directly from leaders of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, she volunteered to go first.
“We have some promising things to share,” said the superintendent of the Adams 50 school district.
So at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Swanson, her board of education president and other district officials will have a chat with the state board about Westminster schools’ successes and struggles as the northwest metro school district enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock.
Since 2010, the state has linked the accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.
The conversation, scheduled for 40 minutes, will be the first of many for the state board. The seven member panel has plans to meet each of the 11 school districts nearing the end of the clock between now and June.
No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. What could happen if and when a district hits the end of the clock is still open to debate. The state board of education heard a list of possible consequences and remedies from the Colorado Department of Education in November, which spurred the idea for the forthcoming conversations.
The aim of these meetings, as well as other supports the state has offered the districts, is to help forestall those interventions. However, the state board is also trying to tease out what sort of ramifications these interventions would have on school districts.
State board chairman Paul Lundeen hopes these meetings will provide the governing body, which is responsible for approving a school district’s accreditation, more context about each individual school district’s rating and provide feedback on how the state can better assist the state’s neediest schools.
“It’s more than window dressing,” Lundeen said. “We really hope to seek out the nuances so we can be helpful.”A qualitative view
The first thing the State Board of Education wants to hear from district leaders during their turnaround conversations is what’s working.
In the four years since the state began rating schools and districts, Adams 50 schools have done an almost entirely about-face.
During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 75 percent of Adams 50 schools were ranked among the bottom two categories — “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” Today, none of the Adams 50′s schools are classified as “turnaround.” And less than 25 percent of its schools are considered “priority improvement.”
In fact, the Westminster school district has a smaller percentage of low performing schools than Denver Public Schools, which last year was rated as an improving school district and no longer has to fear state intervention.
Swanson, who was appointed to lead the district in 2012 after serving as interim-superintendent since April 2011, points to a systematic overhaul and consistency as key components of the district’s success.
In 2009, Adams 50 abandoned the traditional grade-level approach and adopted a competency-based system. The district has kept teacher and leadership turnover low. There’s a new online program and an innovation school. Parent-teacher conferences have also been overhauled in partnership with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. And this year the district adopted a new math program that allows teachers to analyze proficiency in real time.
Swanson’s presentation will kick off with a seven-minute video highlighting several of these changes with the hope it will give the state board a qualitative view of the district’s efforts, she said.
These changes, she said, take a long term commitment. “Probably longer than the five years the state’s accountability clock suggests,” she said.Holding the momentum
Holding the momentum and staying focused is perhaps Adams 50′s greatest challenge, Swanson said.
And there are several obstacles the district will have to overcome to continue on its path toward better student achievement, she said.
First, the district is still tinkering with its districtwide model of competency-based learning. There’s a continued effort to streamline and benchmark its standards to the Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a greater need for better data management, which can be overwhelming to teachers and students alike.
The district is also expected to trim its budget as school improvement grant money runs out. Adams 50 did ask voters to approve a mill levy in the fall, but that effort failed.
“No matter how you slice it, it’s going to cost more money to educate students in poverty,” Swanson said. Adams 50 students overwhelmingly qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.
And there’s the matter of state- and federally-mandated tests. Swanson would like to reverse the trend of districts needing to plan instruction around assessments, not the other way around.
“We used to have an assessment window,” Swanson said. “Now we have an instructional window.”
Because nearly 50 percent of Westminster students are identified as English language learners, instructors are finding themselves having to administer more tests. More than 700 students at Westminster High School alone were required to take an individual oral exam in January.
Those assessments, coupled with other mandated tests, devour instructional time, Swanson said.
“We know the students who need the most instruction time have the least of it [because of the number of hours devoted to assessments],” she said.“Something’s not right”
No one from Team Westminster plans to critique the state’s accountability rating system. But if the issue comes up, they’ll be prepared to share their concerns.
“Something’s not right” in the accountability system, Swanson said.
Swanson — along with officials in many other school districts — is concerned about the different measurements the state uses to hold individual schools and districts accountable. Another widely held criticism is that the accountability measurements are a “one-size fits all” approach in a local control state where school districts’ needs and challenges vary widely. And now, officials are concerned that a proposed bill that would freeze a portion of the state accountability framework for two years will make it more difficult for them to prove to the state that they are making progress.
Board chairman Lundeen said while the intent of the conversations isn’t to rewrite the law governing school accountability, he thinks districts meeting with the state board should air their concerns about the frameworks, which he said can be challenging.
He hopes to learn through the next three months how district-specific nuances are bouncing-off state mandates and measurements.
“There are some minimum lines — thresholds — we do not want to cross,” he said. But, if school districts are proving consistent achievement, he’d entertain certain “earned flexibility.”
Regardless of the merits of the school accountability framework, Swanson said she’s looking forward to going beyond the data with the state board.
“We’re ready to share our story and get input from the board on how we can improve outcomes faster,” Swanson said.
The Colorado High School Activities Association today released 13 student-produced videos from every region across Colorado as part of its “You Can Play, Colorado!” contest—a program focused on stopping bullying and delivering messages of inclusion and acceptance for all students participating in high school activities such as sports, speech, music and student leadership.
Students, parents, school supports and, well, every Coloradan are welcomed to vote for their favorite. CHSAA encourages school communities to vote early and often for their hometown video candidate. Each school submitting a video is eligible to receive prize money, with the grand prize school receiving $2,500. One Fan Favorite from each CHSAA classification will receive a $500 prize. On-line voting begins Friday, March 7 and closes Wednesday, March 12. The winning student videos will be announced and highlighted at the March 15 state basketball championships at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“You Can Play, Colorado!” is part of the “We Are CHSAA” positive leadership campaign, an educational experience—in partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, You Can Play and the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado—dedicated to ensuring that all students are encouraged to participate and be accepted for what they bring to a team or activity, and not excluded for what some might see as differences. To learn more about the “You Can Play, Colorado!” contest and to view the videos and vote, please visit CHSAANow.com/leadership/youcanplay.
Chalkbeat is happy to feature each of these videos, showcasing Colorado students’ diversity, creativity and compassion.
Center High School, Center
CIVA Charter School, Colorado Springs
D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School, Denver
Dolores High School, Dolores
Global Leadership Academy, Denver
Grandview High School, Aurora
Holyoke High School, Holyoke
JeffCo Public Schools
Liberty School Joes
Mofatt County High School, Craig
Monarch High School, Louisville
Pagosa Springs High School, Pagosa Springs
ThunderRidge High School, Highlands Ranch
For those waiting to see who might apply to take over Denver’s struggling Kepner and Manual campuses, the wait’s over.
The list of potential new schools coming to Denver in 2015-2016 is now public, with 24 individuals or organizations submitting letters of intent to Denver Public School’s “Call for New Quality Schools.”
Among those vying for a spot at Manual is Andy Mendelsberg, the principal at East High School. As anticipated, Mendelsberg submitted a proposal for a ninth grade academy at Manual, with a focus on STEM education.
Manual’s current principal Don Roy submitted a proposal as well. The vision layed out does not significantly deviate from the school’s current format, stating it would be a comprehensive high school with a vision to educate “the scholars and revolutionaries that our society needs to abolish inequalities.”
Only one other application explicitly mentioned Manual–a proposal for a technical academy focused on STEM education, with the option for students to receive an associate’s degree.
Two letters expressed interest in Kepner. One, submitted by Kepner’s current assistant principal Mark Harmon, proposes a bilingual, “bi-cultural” school for the campus.
The other letter, submitted by Denver charter network STRIVE, indicates that they will determine whether to submit a final application based on community feedback. STRIVE also submitted applications for two other schools, which would bring the network’s total to 12.
The letters are non-binding but indicate those who may interested in the campuses. Completed applications for most (excluding Manual and Kepner) are due March 14, with final approval or denial coming in June.
The complete list, which is available here, also includes applications for two KIPP schools in the Far Northeast as well as several for elementary schools in near northeast Denver.
Sen. Mike Johnston is introducing a bill that would allow districts to not use student growth data when evaluating principals and teachers during the 2014-15 school year.
The proposal would be a significant – if temporary – change in the system created by Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law that the Denver Democrat successfully steered through the legislature four years ago.
The SB 10-191 system requires that principals and teachers be evaluated every year, half based on “professional practice” and half based on student academic growth as shown by scores on both state tests and a variety of local tests.
The law also requires that teachers rated as ineffective or partially effective for two consecutive years lose non-probationary status.
District systems that conform to the law debuted statewide this school year. But it’s a “practice” year in the sense that low evaluations don’t start the clock for teachers.
Under current law, the system is set to go into full effect in the 2014-15 school year.
Johnston’s bill, expected to be introduced shortly, would give districts the option of using or not using academic growth next year. So districts could choose to make growth count for half of evaluations, or they could base evaluations solely on professional practice. Districts also could choose to use growth data for any percentage below 50 percent.
Teachers’ professional practice is rated by evaluators (usually principals) based on six quality standards (such as content knowledge and classroom environment), each of which has multiple detailed elements. It’s a common misconception that the student growth portion of teacher evaluations is based solely on results of statewide tests. That’s not the case, given that most teachers teach subjects not covered by statewide exams. So student growth is measured by a variety of assessments, which can vary by district.
Under Johnston’s new bill, teachers who receive ineffective or partially effective evaluations would be docked for one year toward loss of non-probationary status, as is currently scheduled.
Under the bill, the original SB 10-191 system would go back into effect in 2015-16, with teachers and principals based half on professional practice and half on student growth.
Johnston told Chalkbeat Colorado that a key reason for the proposed change is the coming switch in state tests from the current TCAP system to the new CMAS system, which will include multi-state PARCC tests based on the Common Core Standards in language arts and math.
Those tests will first be given in the spring of 2015, but results won’t be analyzed and available until at least the autumn of that year. That makes it difficult to use those results for evaluations of teachers in the 2014-15 school year.
The change in tests also will create a gap in growth data, which is built from student test results across multiple years.
Johnston also said the system just needs more work in order to effective and fair for teachers.
In an email sent to his Senate mailing list, Johnston wrote, “In every district – no matter the size, the resources, the geography, or the demographics – I have heard incredible stories about the effort our educators have put into implementing this legislation. … With meaningful evaluations has come meaningful development, and educators have consistently praised their administrative teams for sparking some of the best professional conversations of their careers.
“At the same time, I have heard deep anxiety about the confluence of new standards, new assessments, and new educator evaluations, all of which come online in the next school year. While there has been growing support for the quality standards linked to the new evaluations, there has also been legitimate worry about the implementation of student growth measures in the midst of a transition to a new state assessment.
“I share these concerns. And after long, thoughtful conversations with hundreds of practitioners across the state and the Department of Education, I believe we must give educators the time and space they need to succeed.”
Johnston has the support of the Colorado Education Association for the bill and has bipartisan sponsorship, including Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, who was a cosponsor of SB 10-191. CEA strenuously opposed that bill but has been actively involved in helping build the new evaluation system.
The data gap also affects that state accountability and rating system for districts and schools. An earlier piece of legislation, House Bill 14-1182, proposes a method for handling the problem without stopping the “accountability clock” for low-performing districts and schools that will face state intervention if they remain in the lowest rating categories for five years. (See this story for background on that bill.)
Johnston said discussions about the accountability bill alerted him to the possible need to tweak the evaluation system.