Too much of something is bad enough

Dougco parents, board express concern on “testing madness”

Douglas County school officials met with parents on Friday to describe an educational landscape choked by tests and shed some light on why its board of directors has decided to attempt an opt out mechanism for state and federal testing mandates.

Officials also hoped to gather input on how the south suburban school district should proceed, but most parents were ambivalent about the current testing systems and were only beginning to process the board’s decision.

Douglas County schools administer some sort of mandated test nearly every day, leaving little time for instruction, said the district’s assessment chief Syna Morgan, who led the parent forum. Her hope is to create a balance of assessments and instruction, with more discretion from teachers in the classroom and less from the state.

“External testing demands have increased,” she said.

That’s because, as she explained to parents, the state’s educational infrastructure and accountability created by a series of laws — including the School Accountablity Act, the Educator Effectiveness Act and the READ Act — rely on the results of standardized tests.

Since 2010, Colorado schools and districts have been evaluated based on students’ proficiency and academic growth as measured by the state’s standardized tests. Soon, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated by how well their students perform on the same tests.

She called the laws and mandates an interdependent “spiderweb” that, if unwoven, would need to be done so carefully. She said the district was interested in representing all sides of the argument and making sure all parents voices are heard.

But the board’s unanimously passed resolution indicated the historically conservative district is already taking the necessary steps to author and lobby legislation allowing districts to opt out of the mandates.

The board is drafting legislation with an unnamed legislator and reaching out to other lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill, board members said Friday.

State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday that he’s talked with Dougco board members about such the idea but won’t decide whether to introduce a bill until after further discussions among school districts and state education officials. He also said he hasn’t yet talked to other legislators about a testing bill.

Board member Judy Reynolds, who attended the parent forum Friday, said the board’s position boils down to local control of schools, which is guaranteed in the state’s constitution.

“Our community should be in charge of our kids’ education,” she said.

The resolution, which was passed late in the evening Tuesday, has raised eyebrows from education activists and other metro school districts.

That wasn’t the intent, Reynolds said. “We don’t want to go rogue.”

Echoing Reynolds, board president Kevin Larsen said he believes several districts will join the district in supporting the not-yet-public legislation. And he believes the bill will have bipartisan support.

“This should cross ideology,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “But politics is not my concern. The D-and-R count doesn’t matter. What matters is do we have enough legislators that will look at the issues the same way we do.”

The board believes, Larsen said, the district can provide its students and teachers with better and faster feedback. Currently, “the kids are tested in April and don’t get their results until August,” Larsen said.

Student performance on standardized tests should also have less to do with a teacher’s evaluation because, Larsen said, teachers have no control on students take or perform on the test.

“There are better ways to measure teacher effectiveness,” he said.

But one parent, who asked not to be identified because of her association with out-of-state education legislation efforts, said the state’s adoption of Common Core standards and the PARCC consortium tests, will provide parents with better context on their children’s aptitude and post-secondary competitiveness.

“To say we’re above this is crazy,” she said. “We need to know how we’re doing compared to the rest of country. We need comparable standards and tests. I need to know how my student does compared to students in Kentucky and Alabama.”

The district is hosting another set of back-to-back parent forums Jan. 31. The district is also building an advisory committee as it moves forward with its legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, which implements all legislation and oversees standards and testing, said in an email Friday, “There have been no challenges or changes in CDE’s operational systems.”

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.