Standards Showdown

Supporters of bill that would delay new standards, test make pitch to state board

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Anita Stapelton sets up for a rally protesting the implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards, which have been fused with the controversial Common Core Standards. Stapelton has demonstrated in front of the Colorado Department of Education each month since August.

Supporters and opponents to a bill that would delay the full implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards lobbed their opening pitches to lawmakers, the State Board of Education and the media Wednesday, the day before the Senate Education Committee may decide the fate of the measure.

Supporters of the bill, which would also delay the rollout of standardized tests aligned to the standards and create a committee to review the standards and their implementation, raised concerns about the standards’ lack of rigor and transparency in how the standards were developed. Several individuals also predicted a botched testing apparatus and student data being sold and manipulated to serve private-business interests. The other predominant theme was local control.

“Ultimately, it is our belief that content standards at a national level will drive conformity, instead of innovation, and mediocrity instead of excellence,” said Wes Jolly, the director of academic services at the the Classical Academy, a public charter school in Colorado Springs. “We, as a state, can do better. Common Core’s implementation and assessment strategy ultimately will prove detrimental to the goals we should be pursuing as a state.”

Opponents of the bill argued that Colorado has gone too far in implementing the standards to turn back now. Student outcomes are already improving, they said.

“The new standards provide students, teachers and parents a clear understanding of what students are expected to learn at every grade level — this serves as a road map for a quality education,” said Shelby Edwards, a senior education fellow at the Colorado Children’s Campaign . “We know, however, there is more to be done. We support the implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards and we ask for your continued support as well. Colorado has been developing these higher standards since 2008. And every school across the state has implemented these standards this school year. It is not time to turn around — it is time to continue our efforts of improving education in Colorado.”

State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, explains her rational for sponsoring a bill that would delay the implementation of new standards in Colorado at an 11:30 a.m. press conference. To her right are Director of Academic Services at the Classical Academy Wes Jolly and Monument Academy Principal Lis Richards.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, explains her rational for sponsoring a bill that would delay the implementation of new standards in Colorado at an 11:30 a.m. press conference. To her right are Director of Academic Services at the Classical Academy Wes Jolly and Monument Academy Principal Lis Richards.

The new standards, developed in Colorado but fused with the controversial Common Core State Standards, were approved by the State Board of Education in 2011. School districts must have either adopted the standards or created their own that meet or exceed the state’s.

The controversy surrounding Common Core has risen to a fever pitch across much of the nation. Since the Common Core’s inception, 45 states have adopted the standards for math and English language arts. But during the last few months, dozens have since either delayed the implementation and several have dropped out of the state consortia developing the accompanying tests.

Since August, a small but consistent group has voiced their frustration with Colorado’s participation with both the standards and the tests, but Wednesday’s gathering was the largest yet. Public comment at the state board’s monthly meetings are usually a pro forma affair, but the back-and-forth on the standards ran for more than two hours.

Most in attendance spoke out against the standards, requesting just a little more time to study issue. Several who want to see the bill passed agreed standards and assessments are needed, but believe the Common Core standards, which were developed by Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, and heavily encouraged by the Obama administration, are a one-sizes-does-not-fit-all approach.

“All we ask for is more time,” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who helped author the legislation being heard tomorrow.

But time is something the state may not have. The standards and how well students demonstrate mastery of them on state standardized tests are a linchpin to many of the education reform policies the state has implemented throughout the last five years including district and school accountability frameworks and teacher effectiveness evaluations.

Nearly a dozen school districts are nearing the end of the so-called “accountability clock.” If student performance on standardized tests don’t improve their accreditation will be yanked. And beginning next school year, teachers will be evaluated, in part, by those same student outcomes.

The bill’s sponsor, Fort Collins Republican Vicki Marble, said putting too much emphasis on standardized tests is one of many reasons why she’s sponsoring the bill.

“We’re changing the definition of education to assessment,” she said during a press conference held before the state board meeting.

The State Board of Education has taken a “monitor” position on the bill, meaning it neither supports or opposes the bill.

But the board’s president, Paul Lundeen a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he personally supports the bill and has raised concerns about Common Core before.

Halfway through Wednesday it appeared much of the crowd that was promised to show support for a bill that would delay the implementation of Colorado's new standards would fail to materialize. But by time public comment was received by the State Board of Education, the crowd showed and spilled out into the hallway.
Halfway through Wednesday it appeared much of the crowd that was promised to show support for a bill that would delay the implementation of Colorado’s new standards would fail to materialize. But by time public comment was received by the State Board of Education, the crowd showed and spilled out into the hallway.

“I’ve never been a fan of the Common Core,” Lundeen said. “I think we’re creating a linkage between Common Core and assessments that will ultimately drive what curriculum looks like and I’m very concerned what that looks like for the students of Colorado.”

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat from Arvada, had mixed feelings after the meeting ended.

“I don’t know if [another year] would be any more telling as far as the standards,” she said.

But Goff was open to a larger discussion on assessments as whole.

“We feel it, the pressure [of assessments],” she said.

Goff, who was a teacher for more than 25 years, said the current debate reminds her of the one in 1993, when Colorado first implemented statewide standards.

“Change is hard,” she said.

Today’s debate is more complex, she said, adding that “this is a complex world.”

The public comment portion of the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting ended a day of mostly poor turnout from both supporters and opponents of the bill on a high note for supporters who hope to pack the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol tomorrow for the hearing.

Organizers behind the bill, earlier in the day, were disappointed the “bus loads” of supporters didn’t show up for a morning rally, which was eventually pushed to the afternoon. Mostly parents, lacking political prowess, they cited other obligations and a lack of organization.

But a well-orchestrated panel featuring Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and other supporters of Colorado’s standards fared about the same. Only eight lawmakers showed up at 7:30 a.m. to that event.

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

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.