First Person

Pre-results post-mortem

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children

Alan has asked bloggers for their thoughts on the election as part of a post-mortem.  I find this rearview mirror perspective usually boringly obvious, as it’s far easier to ascribe cause once one knows the effect.  So I’m sending in my quick thoughts in advance of the election results (although probably published afterwards). If I am wrong it will be painfully obvious and if right you’ll have to trust me that this was in early.

First is Prop 103.  I thought the best summary was provided by Eric Sondermann.  I just don’t see how this passes, and I doubt it is at all close.  This initiative never had enough high-powered backers or an effective coalition, and faced a strong economic headwind. All true criticisms, but I also think a proposal as unspecific about how the money will be used would have trouble even in a different economic climate.

Most taxpayers, with justification, see education as a black hole where money enters and little changes.  This proposition exacerbated that claim, and has all the mechanics of a a feel-good proposition that many people could support in its doom without having to engage in the far harder work of crafting something specific which could have drawn broader support.  “We tried” will be the mantra — but a try that was designed to never be a serious threat. More is the pity.

Most interesting will be the district-specific vote tallies as a precursor to future bonds.  Denver voters approved a $454M bond back in 2008 by a 2:1 margin, while nearby Jeffco voters voted down a similar proposal.  The appetite of voters for Prop 103 will be an imprecise but early indication of bond issue potential in 2012, so watch for the district-by-district tally — particularly since suspense on the initiative itself is unlikely.

Denver school board.  This is the only board race I’ve followed closely, but I confess I find the attention it has garnered compared to next door’s Douglas Country surprising — the latter’s shameless cliff-dive into voucher territory is far more controversial.

What happens?  I think that both the at-large and District 1 elections won’t be very close.  For the at-large seat, no coalition came together to challenge the name recognition and track record of Happy Haynes. Four years ago Theresa Pena won a three-way race with 34,103 votes and 47%; I think it is possible Haynes breaks 60%, and if not, she’ll be closer than a Tebow throw.

District 1 initially looked like it would be a reasonable contest, with Anne Rowe challenged by relative newcomer Emily Sirota. However despite Sirota’s youthful energy and ability to network through her own legislative experience and her husband’s substantial political connections, she never articulated a vision, and even her husband’s columns began to sound more like an apology than a call to action.  I think both Haynes and Rowe win easily (although Haynes by more than Rowe). In 2007, Hoyt won with 11,912 votes (65%).  This one will be closer, but I’d guess 8-10 percentage points.

The last seat, in District 5, has turned out to be more interesting, and I think it will come down to a few hundred votes.  I have a personal preference here, and I’d like to believe this turns out the way I would design, but truthfully I think it could go either way. Four years ago, Jimenez prevailed in a four-way race by 368 votes (with 3,782 total, or 36%; others had 32%, 22%, 10%).  The winner here will probably need 6,500 – 6,800 votes, so even given the power of incumbency, this should be a squeaker.

I do think that what is being somewhat overshadowed in all three races is that the general public has shifted considerably in the past few years, and the question is no longer whether or not to proceed with reforms, but instead how broadly and at what pace. That the single incumbent running for reelection with considerable union support was placed on the defensive even while publicly (if selectively) supporting both charters and innovation schools is a remarkable shift.  Reform and the accompanying policies are going to be part of the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Two other general comments: The pendulum of local elections tends to equilibrium, and my experience is that the people who align with the “winners” find that things are never as rosy as they think they will be, and the people who align with the “shoulda-been-winners” find that things are rarely as bad as they feared. Particularly in divided boards (and this will either be 4-3 or 5-2), mandates become elusive and chance has a way of finding strange bedfellows on some issues.  Denver’s school board is most likely to continue to muddle along, and I think with much the same animosity as before.

Elections tend to focus on the new people coming in, when the changes have as much to do with the people going out. The two DPS board members stepping down due to term limits are Bruce Hoyt and Theresa Peña.  Hoyt has a financial acumen and experience that is critically important in this time of fiscal uncertainty.  His particular set of skills rests with no other member or candidate, and his presence will be sorely missed.  Peña has been, in my opinion, remarkably effective in keeping the majority coalition intact and establishing a number of important policies (agree with them or not, but the votes passed), and with a board this sharply divided, that was no small feat.

So I think the new Denver board — regardless of its final composition — is likely to be less strong on reform issues than the current board due to the absence of both Hoyt and Peña, even if the reform majority is larger.  The pendulum swings.

May you live in interesting times, the Chinese cursed.  As far as education policy in Denver goes, the interesting times will continue.  I think I can speak for a lot of people who will be glad when the election itself is over, and that the efforts can once more be focused better outcomes for kids, and not prying votes from adults.


First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.