Who Is In Charge

Kit Carson wins SB 191 waivers

The State Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday to grant an innovation application from the Kit Carson school district. A key feature of the plan grants the district waivers from some provisions of Senate Bill 10-191, the landmark educator evaluation and tenure law.

The vote is noteworthy because board members faced a seeming conflict between the 2008 Innovation Schools Act and last year’s educator effectiveness law.

In effect, the board decided the innovation law trumped the effectiveness statute in this case. The decision was doubly interesting because regulations for implementing the effectiveness law won’t be voted on by the board until later this year. In effect, Kit Carson was asking for exemption from rules that don’t yet exist.

Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of education, also warned the board that granting Kit Carson’s request might set a bad precedent by tempting other districts to seek similar waivers. “The department does believe that the potential negative consequences to student achievement across the state outweigh the potential benefits to Kit Carson.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of SB 10-191, in essence contradicted that, saying Kit Carson has unique circumstances that few other districts could copy. Board member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, agreed with that analysis.

Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe
Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe

Kit Carson, about 150 miles southeast of Denver, has 109 students in all grades and 17 teachers on a single campus. Although several schools have sought and gained innovation status, Kit Carson is the first district to apply. Under the innovation law, a school receives waivers from a wide variety of state requirements, including those governing employment, but a school must meet a high standard for teacher, parent and community support for the change before it can apply.

Johnston indicated he thought it would be hard for a district with more than one school to jump those hurdles.

He was the surprise “witness” at the hearing, showing up with aide Greg Carter just as the board started its deliberations very late in the afternoon after a long day of other business.

The senator’s comments sparked a lengthy legal discussion about whether it’s possible to waive SB 10-191 provisions on annual educator evaluations and how teachers can lose non-probationary status.

“The goal was for [the law] that to be a statewide system,” Johnston said. Evaluation and tenure provisions “were never meant to be waived.” Only sections on mutual consent and forced placement were written to be waived, he said.

But Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe and district lawyer Kristin Edger said the innovation act allows broad waivers and allows the state board to reject an application for only two reasons – if innovation status would harm a district’s finances or threaten student achievement.

The waivers “are appropriate and permitted,” said Edger, who works for the Boulder firm of Caplan and Earnest, which has extensive experience representing school districts. She also argued that SBE was legally bound to just consider the impact on Kit Carson, not any possible statewide implications.

The legal riddle was confusing to some board members. Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, even asked that the vote be delayed a month for more legal research and advice.

Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, wasn’t persuaded, saying, “My sense is we ought to vote today. … I don’t see much ambiguity” in the innovation law.

In the end, Berman voted yes. The only no vote was cast by Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District.

Kit Carson plans to set up its own evaluation system to make it easier to recruit and retain teachers in the tiny, remote Eastern Plains district. The proposal includes a longer probation period for new teachers, longer time spans between evaluations than in SB 10-191 and multi-year teacher contracts. The Kit Carson system does follow the mandate that 50 percent of evaluations be based on student growth. The innovation application also includes exemption from teacher licensing laws, but that provision wasn’t part of the legal dispute.

Read the application, part 1 and part 2, and see the CDE staff critique.

Keefe, a longtime advocate for the special needs of rural districts, was elated with the decision, calling it “A great day for democracy and the Innovation Schools Act.” He said he’d expected a closer board vote and was happy the board “had the courage to follow the guidelines of” the innovation law. He also said that if SB 10-191 had contained a rural schools section it probably would have looked a lot like his innovation application. (Previous story on Kit Carson.)

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and aide Greg Carter
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and aide Greg Carter

Johnston told Education News Colorado later, “I’m not overly concerned” by the board vote adding, “I don’t think it’s a scenario we’re every likely to see again.” He said he believes the state board is committed to the overall goals of SB 10-191.

The final irony to the whole issue is that the Innovation Schools Act was pushed by Democratic former Senate President Peter Groff, who held the District 33 seat before leaving to take a job in Washington. Johnston was appointed to fill that same seat and elected to a full term last November.

Asked about that, Johnston laughed and said, “I was going to text Peter Groff and ask him if the innovation act lets you out of SB 191.”

Charter appeals go 1-1

The board voted 6-1 to uphold the St. Vrain school board’s denial of a charter for the Lotus School for Excellence at Longmont. Lotus currently operates a school in Aurora. The St. Vrain board cited concerns about financial practices, parent and community support, and facilities in denying the application

Following an afternoon hearing, the board voted 6-1 to grant an appeal by the Youth and Family Academy, an alternative education charter in Pueblo. The Pueblo City schools wanted to close YAFA after the end of this school year. The decision sends the case back to the Pueblo board for further consideration. A large crowd of students, staff and school supporters jammed into the boardroom for the hearing and applauded politely after the vote.

Resolution urges districts to think creatively

After a fair amount of back and forth, the board voted 7-0 for a non-binding resolution calling on school districts to be innovative in the face of steep budget cuts and consider such changes as streamlined administration, competitive contracting, digital learning, enhanced education options and “performance-based compensation systems.” The resolution originally was proposed by Schaffer.

Arrest reporting rule debated

The board also burned a lot of time discussing a regulation proposed by Schaffer that would require school districts to report arrests and charging of school employees to parents. The board has been fussing over this issue for more than a year and defeated a similar rule last spring. The board will take it up again in April. Text

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.