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New standards a blessing, curse for Colorado schools

In the three years since Colorado adopted new academic standards, teachers in Thompson School District have started examining their instruction in a much more granular way.

“What are students supposed to know, understand and be able to do?” they ask themselves regularly, said Diane Lauer, executive director of instruction for the Thompson School District. More importantly, “how do we know students are proficient? What do we do about those who aren’t? And how do we push those who are further?”

While teachers have been asking themselves those questions in a variety of ways for decades, the new standards have prompted the district to create a shared way of talking about the standards and how to measure students growth on a daily basis, Lauer said.

To support those changes, the district has provided training for teachers, developed new curriculum models teachers can adapt to their classrooms and is in the final stages of evaluating classroom materials, Lauer said. The work has been underwritten in part by an implementation grant from the state.

But a little more than 300 miles away, Lauer’s Western Slope colleague Laurie Pascoe is having very different conversations.

Pascoe’s district, Montrose and Olathe Schools, is cash-strapped and pinching every penny to find much-needed time for professional development and resources to help teachers align their work to the new standards.

“We’re just barely creeping out of this economic downturn,” Pascoe said. “Funding has been slashed by a tremendous amount, leaving us crippled to do what we really need to do around standards. We’re in the very infancy stages of planning.”

The contrast of these two districts provides a snapshot of how far apart many Colorado school districts are in their implementation of the new standards and in preparing for the high-stakes tests that accompany them.

Earlier this month, critics of the new standards and assessments suggested lawmakers delay the full implementation of the standards and tests, nearly five years in the making.

Siding with opponents of the Senate Bill 163, who believe Colorado has come too far in implementing the standards to turn back now, the Colorado Senate Education Committee killed the bill on a party line vote.

Districts and educators, prepared or not, will now be held accountable to teach those standards. The first round of tests, aligned to social studies and science standards, will be administered in April.

Greater clarity

The Thompson School District, which was an early adopter of the new standards and a pilot district for a training program to implement the standards, has capitalized on the opportunity to rethink student learning.

The district is in its final stages of fully implementing the standards. Officials there manifest the kind of relief that follows the a consistent and through implementation — like a cool-down jog after a marathon.

While implementing the new standards hasn’t been without hiccups, Lauer said that moving away from standards that were written last century has given the district the opportunity to create new infrastructure.

Colorado’s previous standards, adopted in 1993, were written for groups of grade levels, leaving the expectations for what students should know at each individual grade ambiguous. For example, early childhood standards had been grouped K-4, Lauer said. What should have been taught per grade level was left to the individual districts and schools. What was being taught in the second grade in one district could very well have been taught in third grade in another.

“Greater clarity with regards to grade-level expectations was one of the things educators asked for in the design of the new standards,” Lauer said.

That means teachers will be able to adapt the standards to the need of their individual classrooms while still meeting a system-wide expectation. Lauer predicts teachers will spend less time deciphering the standards meaning more time to innovate, she said.

“Teaching [the same standard] could be very different, even across a school system or a school,” Lauer said. “But, I think, part of what makes us strong is what we do to work together as a system.”

The last immediate challenge for the Thompson School District, Lauer said, is to complete a review of classroom material and to prioritize textbook needs.

Because Colorado issued new standards in 10 different content areas, from math to health, the process to identify new textbooks has been the slowest and most costly step in implementing the standards, Lauer said.

But the district is already thinking years down the road about what kind of updates the science standards, which are likely to need updating more than others due to its nature, might need.

Lauer hopes the state’s new standards will be updated more frequently. According to law, the Colorado Department of Education must review and revise the standards as needed every six years.

“Regardless of how the standards shift, we need to provide our students with a great education, and we’ll continue to do that,” she said.

Eye of the storm

If the Thompson School District is running the last leg of the race to implement Colorado’s new standards, Montrose and Olathe Schools has just crossed the starting line.

Pascoe said the district has prioritized the K-5 reading standards as the most critical to get right the soonest. The district is searching for standard-aligned materials, designing a districtwide framework for curriculum, and developing new teacher training programs. Teachers need to understand the new standards, Pascoe said, and the district needs to make sure classroom leaders are supported.

“When I look at [the new standards], I see more clarity at what they’re asking students to know and be able to do,” Pasoce said, echoing Lauer.

But Montrose hasn’t had the same support from the state as Thompson, which was a recipient of an integration grant that asked districts to pilot several of the state’s recent reform efforts including the standards and teacher evaluations, Pascoe said.

While Montrose is participating in one of the state’s efforts to ease the implementation of the standards, in which teachers from all corners are gathering together to design adaptable teaching units, Pascoe said it isn’t enough and the support isn’t coming fast enough.

Those model units, which have been in development since the summer, will be released just one month before students are tested on social studies and science standards.

“We’re waiting with baited breath,” Pascoe said. “Its seems a little bit late. Our teachers are like our troops, we’re sending them out to do this important work and we’re not sending them out with the tools to do it.”

A delay in the implementation of the new standards and the assessments would have been a welcome relief for Montrose, Pascoe said. But that isn’t happening now.

“We hope funding is going to increase, we’re just scraping by being able to do what we need to do,” Pascoe said.

Building capacity

Since 2008, the Colorado Department of Education has been trying to be less of a rubber stamp and more proactive in its support to districts, said Melissa Colsman, executive director of the teaching and learning unit.

The fruit of those efforts, which districts can use, include a website, regional field directors, content specialists, and regional technical assistants who specialize in early childhood literacy, Colsman said.

The aim is not for the state to create more top-down mandates but to help districts build their own capacity to implement the standards in a way that’s best for them.

In addition to looking to the state for resources and support, districts can also look to their neighbors for support as the Northeast BOCES has done, Colsman suggested. They decided the loss of some autonomy was worth greater capacity.

“[Implementation] is hard,” Colsman said. “But the payoff is going to be really good. Two years from now, we’re gonna look back and say, ‘wow that was hard, but it was worth it.’”

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