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Clock ticking faster for struggling schools

Colorado needs to prepare quickly for the challenge of fixing schools that haven’t improved within the five-year window allowed by state law, the authors of a new study told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

“The state board and the department have a huge opportunity to change the lives of 82,000 students in struggling schools,” said former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, the current head of Get Smart Schools, one of the groups behind the report.

The study, titled “Turnarounds in Colorado: Partnering for Innovative Reform in a Local Control State,” was prepared by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver.

The document is intended to offer guidance to the state board and the Department of Education as they look ahead to a tough assignment – possible closures or conversions of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

A 2009 law established an accreditation and rating system for districts and schools. That system requires the state board to impose consequences on districts and schools that remain stuck in the two lowest rating categories for five consecutive years. Those two categories are “priority improvement” and “turnaround.”

Consequences include replacement of school leadership, conversion to a charter school, designation as an innovation school or closure. The system enters its fourth year starting July 1, which means the clock is ticking for some schools stuck at the bottom. In the case of failing districts, the board could order reorganization or consolidation.

The board also can intervene earlier for some schools that are stuck in turnaround status.

“This is going to be coming pretty fast and furious for you,” said Kelly Hupfeld, one of the CU researchers who prepared the report.

A central conclusion of the report is that failing schools need “tough love” (in the words of a CU news release), not incremental attempts at improvement.

“Turnaround is substantially different from thinking about school improvement generally,” Hupfeld told the board, saying the kind of incremental steps that can improve student achievement at most schools don’t work at turnaround schools.

“Turnaround schools can be best understood as dysfunctional organizations,” she said. “It really takes dramatic action. Turnaround is very hard.”

The report analyzed Colorado’s capacity to deal with turnaround schools. The study listed a credible accountability system, a good balance between state and local responsibilities and appropriate timelines as strengths.

But, the report said, the Colorado system doesn’t offer appropriate autonomy for turnaround leaders, has cumbersome processes for district consolidation, lacks funding, doesn’t have pipelines for developing turnaround leadership and lacks processes for finding outside operators to take schools over. The state also needs a way to set priorities for which schools and districts to focus on, and there is a wide variation in district capacity and willingness to handle changes.

Teacher of the year honored

The board Wednesday honored Amanda Westenberg of Rangeview High School in Aurora, the 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Westenberg has been in education for eight years and serves as the social studies department chair at Rangeview. According to a CDE document prepared for the board, Westenberg “feels her mission is to enable students to become literate thinkers with the skills to succeed in their post-secondary pursuits. Westenberg believes education must be rigorous, relevant and engaging. She has developed a supportive classroom community grounded in positive teacher-student relationships. She feels it is teachers’ obligation to students, parents, and society to provide the highest quality education.”

Senate Bill 10-191 update

Near the end of a long agenda, board members got an update on implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the law that created a new evaluation system for principals and teachers.

The system is being pilot tested in a couple of dozen districts this school year. Next year all districts will evaluate their staff under the terms of the law, which requires that 50 percent of evaluations be based on student academic growth. Evaluations in 2013-14 will not count against teachers in terms of losing tenure. That doesn’t happen until 2014-15.

Board members asked if the first set of evaluations might show that a very high percentage are proficient, as has happened in other states that have rolled out new evaluation systems. (See this EdWeek story for details on that phenomenon in Michigan and Florida.)

Katy Anthes, the lead CDE executive on teacher effectiveness, said, “I think we are going to see a skew toward proficiency” when the first teacher evaluations are released.

Jill Hawley, another top department official, told the board that the first statewide teacher evaluation data won’t be available until the spring of 2015. “We expect those will look wacky,” she said. Both Anthes and Hawley said they expect the evaluation system will balance out over time and yield more realistic data about teacher effectiveness.

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