game plan

Does Colorado’s state education plan fall flat? Some who helped write it think so.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver.

While Colorado’s federally required education plan is being celebrated by national observers for changes to the state’s school accountability system and an extensive community engagement process, some advocates who helped shape the document say it falls short of pushing schools forward.

After more than a year of work, the state education department later this month is expected to submit the 145-page document detailing how it will spend federal dollars to better student learning, increase graduation rates and improve teacher quality.

Colorado will be one of the first states to submit such a plan, which also will provide new details on how the state will adhere to requirements under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, the law was designed to give states more authority. Many education officials in Colorado felt the law didn’t fulfill that promise.

Because Colorado was already operating under a waiver from the previous federal law, Colorado classrooms probably won’t notice much change. Many of the state’s reform efforts since 2008 already comply with the new law.

However, the department and State Board of Education are pushing back against one provision of the federal law that requires 95 percent of students take an annual standardized test in English and math.

Colorado law allows parents to opt their students out of those tests. The state board directed the department to inform federal officials that the state could not guarantee that it would be able to comply with that requirement.

It’s unclear how the department will respond. Observers expect the U.S. education department of Secretary Betsy DeVos to give states more leeway than the department during the Obama administration.

A coalition of Colorado education reform and civil rights groups is not happy that the department isn’t holding schools accountable to the testing requirement.

In a letter to the state education department, the coalition said it fears a lax approach to testing will incentivize schools to encourage some students who might not perform well on the tests to skip them.

“The 95 percent participation provision of federal law originated to protect students with the most barriers to success, specifically students with disabilities, by ensuring their inclusion in statewide testing,” the coalition wrote. “As such, we recommend the state count every student in participation rate calculations, including all nonparticipants to increase transparency and demonstrate a concerted effort to assess and report meaningful data about every child.”

That state law provides parents the right to opt out — something the state department doesn’t have authority to change — isn’t justification for the coalition.

“We believe that part of the department’s role is to elevate that conversation and to push on the importance of the 95 participation rate,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The coalition is also concerned about changes to how the state measures how many students are at grade level, and how well students are learning English as a second language.

Starting last year, the state began measuring school quality by the average of student scores on the math and English test instead of how many students met or exceeded expectations. That practice is going to continue.

“We’re saying that as long as you’re not doing far worse than everyone else, you’re good,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, a nonprofit education reform group. “We’ve lowered the bar.”

Schoales said using the mean score could be beneficial, but it should be accompanied by how many students are meeting the state’s expectations.

Colorado’s plan lacks long-term goals for English language learners. That’s because the standards for English proficiency and the tests that measure how well students are learning the language are changing.

Those goals are expected to be established in the next year or two.

Going forward, schools will be required to test kids in core content areas who’ve been in the U.S. less than a year if they know English well enough. If they don’t know enough English, they won’t be tested in English or math. Right now, that decisions is left to school districts. ESSA requires practice to be consistent, thus it was part of the plan development.

That, however, could lead schools to test students who aren’t ready in the hope they’ll show greater academic growth the second year they test.

“The process of going through a high-stakes test can be challenging and frustrating for a student,” said Luis Poza, a board member of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education. “It can be fairly harmful to their self-esteem.”

One of the more robust debates during the formation of the plan was how the state should spend federal money to improve schools. The committee that helped draft the plan was split on whether the funds should be handed out on a formula basis or through a competitive grant process.

The education department, searching for a compromise, developed a new application that is designed to match a school’s need with the appropriate support — which could be monetary or not.

Ross Izard, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the hybrid approach is a step in the right direction but the state could have gone further.

“We had an opportunity to take that money and really place big bets on strategies that can really work,” he said.

Pat Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the state education department, said the department received nearly 500 comments on the state plan and 21 letters from a variety of interest groups. He said the department updated the plan where it could, but said some suggestions were either outside the scope of the department’s authority or weren’t allowed under the new federal law.

“I know not everyone is going to be thrilled,” Chapman said. “But I do think it’s a good plan. And we’re considering it a living, breathing document. We plan to keep working with folks to develop the details.”

The department expects to file the plan to Washington after it receives feedback from the governor’s office and the state board takes a formal vote on the plan at its April meeting.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that school districts have discretion over how English language learners are tested.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”