Future of Schools

Colorado education department intends to create turnaround network

The State Department of Education hopes to lend more direct help to Colorado’s struggling campuses by forming a network of turnaround schools, it announced Tuesday in a letter to superintendents.

The network, which will be the first of its kind in Colorado, will offer intensive support directly to school leaders in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Previously, most of the state’s support has been targeted at the district level, providing training and resources to administrators, not principals and teachers.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network, “will be a highly-collaborative and accountable endeavor between local schools, their districts and the Colorado Department of Education,” according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat Colorado.

The department hopes to work with eight to 12 schools in just a couple of districts its first year. The aim is to not only improve student academic performances within the network’s schools, but also to provide support and build each district’s ability to provide tools and techniques to other low-performing schools within the participating districts’ boundaries, said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school and district performance.

As of December, there are currently 190 schools rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” About 75 percent of those schools do not operate in school districts on the accountability clock.

Because of Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools, schools will have to opt into the network, Sherman said. The department’s model is more akin to Connecticut’s Commissioner’s Network, which has partnered with 11 schools and is expanding, than Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has the authority to take over low-performing schools and currently runs 16 schools, Sherman said.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

While the state does not directly accredit schools — that’s the job of local school boards — it does similarly rate schools. Schools, like districts, rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are placed on the state’s watch list. If schools do not make enough improvement within five years the state board may make a series of recommendations to the local school board including turning the school over to a private organization like a charter network or closing the campus. If the local governing board does not heed the state board’s advice, the entire district may face a lowered accreditation rating.

Neither the districts nor schools enrolled in the network will be let off the so-called “accountability clock.”

“Our goal is to accelerate achievement so we’ll be able to get them off the clock because of improved student achievement,” Sherman said.

If enough progress isn’t made in enough time to beat the clock, Sherman said, his department would at least be able to stand with those schools in the network as the state and local board negotiate the campuses future.

“We would be able to advocate for [those schools] to some degree,” Sherman said. “We’ll feel comfortable saying the district has taken the right improvement actions and that we’ve exhausted everything we could.”

The network’s program will focus on four areas: culture, school design, personnel development, and district relations. One of the many requirements to enroll in the network, according to the letter, is a set of agreements between the state and the districts the schools reside in.

“We will negotiate with each district

assurances that they will create the right conditions for success for each participating school,” Sherman said.

The state will have no official say in curriculum, personnel or budget, Sherman said. But he hopes by enrolling in the network, schools will be provided autonomy and flexibility by it’s district.

The network will be funded by existing funds allocated to the state department, Sherman said. And his office will continue to offer its support to districts on the accountability clock.

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.

Regents rundown

As elections approach, New York’s top education policymakers begin to outline legislative priorities

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse

New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up to discuss their legislative wishlist for next year’s session, just as the political balance of the state legislature could turn on its head.

The state’s Board of Regents will kick off the discussion Monday by reviewing last year’s priorities — everything from bullying prevention programs to expanding access to advanced coursework — and propose tweaks and additions.

They’ll also discuss what to prioritize in their overall funding request for education across the state (the board has not yet requested a specific dollar amount). Last year the Board asked for a $1.6 billion increase, which is less than the $1 billion boost that was ultimately approved. But the if the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans for years, flips to Democrats, it could reshape the annual budget dance just as it kicks into gear.

Also on the Regents agenda: a discussion of state test scores that were released late last month. However, state officials have repeatedly said the results do not offer much insight about whether student learning is improving across the state because of changes to the test that make results hard to compare to previous years.

Here’s what you should know in advance of the meeting.

Legislative chatter

Officials are set to discuss last year’s legislative priorities and how close they got to their goals.

One priority from that cycle, for instance, was to address the yawning gap in access to advanced coursework in different school districts across the state, a top concern of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well. Among wealthy suburban school districts, students were roughly five times as likely to have access to six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings as students in New York City, according to a report released earlier this year. (The city is also launching a pilot program to allow virtual classes in advanced subjects at 15 high schools in the Bronx, under the new teachers contract.)

The Regents requested $3 million in grants to help expand offerings among high-needs districts, and wound up with $500,000, according to state documents. (Though the board doesn’t have any formal power over the legislature, they can help sway the outcome as the state’s top education policymaking body.)

They’ll also discuss a slew of other priorities, including how to support new intervention plans for New York’s lowest-performing schools that were developed as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

And the Regents will talk about progress on their efforts to support English learners; they have previously asked for funding to translate Regents exams into Spanish so students can better demonstrate skills beyond their proficiency in English.

Other issues, beyond these priorities, may surface in discussions Monday as well.

The board isn’t expected to approve a full set of legislative goals until December, and it’s possible that a wave election could give Democrats control of the State Senate. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa previously told Chalkbeat said she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes will lead to more funding.

Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — would require significant additional investments.

Testing testing

State and local education officials have said it’s impossible to compare the newly released results on the state English and math exams to last year’s because the test was changed — it’s administered over just two days instead of three —  but several lingering issues could surface.

In New York City, there are still significant score gaps between white and black students. Almost 67 percent of white students passed their English tests, close to double the percentage of black students. And almost 64 percent of white students passed math, compared to about a quarter of black students.

And even though Regents reduced the number of testing days, opposition to the exams continued, with about the same percentage of New York students deciding to opt out as did the previous year. In New York City, where most kids usually take the test, there was a slight uptick in students who sat out.

This comes after the state agreed to soften certain penalties for schools where opt-out rates remained consistently high.

Some Regents remain committed to computer-based testing, and the state hopes to eventually expand the practice to all students. Some are concerned about the nature of the exams, whether they are fair to English language learners, and whether the tests help perpetuate disparities.

State education officials have shown some interest in different approaches to testing. Regents decided not to apply for a federal waiver to pursue “innovative” exams — involving essays, projects, and tasks — but they did form a work group that is partially focusing on testing.