New tone for SBE

No cow too sacred for some State Board members

State Board of Education / File photo

The State Board of Education has taken some surprise actions on testing in its first two meetings of 2015, and there’s also a new tone in some board members’ questions and comments during presentations by Department of Education staffers.

The board voted Wednesday to end penalties for districts if they drop below required test participation levels because of parents opting kids out of tests (see story).

Thursday’s meeting didn’t yield any big decisions as board members sat through a long agenda of briefings on some major issues. Most of those agenda items were progress reports on matters like testing and high school graduation guidelines, work primarily mandated by the legislature in the wave of education reform bills passed over the last six years.

Some member comments indicated an interesting level of skepticism about the basic premises behind those programs. Here’s a sampling:

Testing and academic standards – State testing chief Joyce Zurkowski gave the board an update on the complicated process for setting “cut scores” to establish achievement levels on the science and social studies tests given to high school seniors last fall.

Republican board member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs called the descriptions of the four achievement levels “kind of hokey” and suggested the test results be reported merely as percentiles of how students scored. People want to know “how do you stack up against other Colorado students.” He cited Iowa Test of Basic Skills results as an example.

Zurkowski explained that the tests are designed to show student knowledge on academic standards, not just percentile comparisons.

“The problem I have is … the standards don’t mean anything. They are a subjective measure that some individuals or groups have put together,” Durham said. Just report test scores “by percentile and send them out to the schools and let them do what they want,” he suggested.

Board member Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, called that “good old 1950s information” and argued that reporting test scores in that way “isn’t the goal that has been stated by our legislature.”

Member Deb Scheffel, a Douglas County Republican, warned that reporting test scores by the four achievement levels is “creating a narrative of failure” and asked “What are our options?” (She was referring to the results of the new science and social studies tests for elementary and middle school students. Only about a third of fifth and eighth graders scored in the two highest levels on science tests, and 17 percent of fourth and seventh graders scored at those levels on social studies. See this story for details.)

Pulling out of Common Core – The board also was briefed Thursday on the mechanics of pulling Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests. (Basically the board can’t do that by itself – see this legal memo.)

Scheffel suggested that the state needs less-detailed standards that create “a core of commonality rather than the pervasive commonality we’ve created with Common Core and PARCC.”

Republican member Pam Mazanec, also of Douglas County, said this about the Common Core: “For me it does not matter if these standards are perfect. I’m opposed to them because they invite federal intrusion. Standards drive curriculum, they invite federal intrusion in curriculum.”

Graduation guidelines – One of the many components of the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids law was creation of high school graduation “guidelines” that school districts are supposed to meet or exceed. The board was updated (see slides) on that long-running process; the eventual guidelines won’t go into effect until the end of the decade.

Durham complained, “These are not guidelines” and should be labeled as requirements. Scheffel said she felt the proposed plan was much too detailed. “What is the minimum the State Board can do? Being heavy on the regulatory side doesn’t really serve the kids, the parents, the schools,” she said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the guidelines later in the spring.

Chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, closed the long afternoon session by calling it “a good meeting” but gently noting, “I do get a little concerned about the accusatory note sometimes toward the staff.” (Durham had been a bit abrupt with Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl at various times Wednesday.)

Neal also told Durham, “I strongly suggest that when you have a motion you write it out.” Durham’s motions on testing in January and on Wednesday were made orally. Neal also suggested members should have a month to consider such motions before voting. Durham didn’t say anything in reply.

Following up on Wednesday’s news

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond on Thursday sent a letter to the state’s superintendents advising them how to handle the State Board’s Tuesday votes on testing waivers and parent opt-outs.

“Districts should continue preparations for the administration of the upcoming assessments,” Hammond wrote.

On the question of opt outs, he advised, “The effect of this motion is that districts will not be penalized by a lowering of their accreditation rating should their student participation rates fall below 95 percent on the PARCC assessments due to parental refusal of their students to take the PARCC assessments. Districts still need to engage in good faith efforts to test all students in accordance with state and federal law and maintain documentation of parent refusals.”

See the full letter below.

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.

super feedback

What Denver parents, students, and teachers said they want in the next superintendent

Students wait for the bell to ring on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Wednesday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

There is no shortage of opinion about the type of person who should lead Denver Public Schools. For the past two months, the school board has been gathering feedback at special meetings and regular public comment sessions on the characteristics and qualifications that students, parents, teachers, and others think the next superintendent should have.

The board has given itself a deadline of Dec. 10 to hire the district’s next leader. Current Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced in July that he’d step down this month after nearly 10 years at the helm of Colorado’s largest school district — and one known nationally for embracing the “portfolio strategy” for managing schools.

Boasberg’s efforts to improve school quality — which included closing struggling schools and encouraging the expansion of high-performing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run — were controversial. The feedback the board received reflects the divide in the community between those who supported his reforms and those who didn’t.

Chalkbeat attended three special feedback meetings held in different corners of the city, and we read notes from seven others. We also attended three lengthy public comment sessions. Below, we’ve listed some of the main themes we heard, along with quotes from participants.

The next superintendent should be an educator who has spent a significant portion of his or her career as a classroom teacher.

“We don’t need a businessperson. We need an educator, period, point blank. Administrative experience, business experience — that’s a skill that can be learned. Learning how to work with a budget? There are classes for that.

“But actually caring? That’s not a skill you can learn.”
— Rachael Lehman, parent whose children attend East High School and Denver Discovery School

It should be someone who reflects the demographics of Denver Public Schools, where 77 percent of the nearly 93,000 students are students of color, 67 percent come from low-income families, and 37 percent are English language learners.

“We need a superintendent that has lived through a lot of the experiences of our kids.”
— Louise Campbell, seventh-grade teacher at Compass Academy

“It is very important to me that the next superintendent is a person of color because DPS is mainly students of color, yet we don’t see any representation. A superintendent of color would make us as youth of color feel different. We can relate to them and we know they would understand our struggle.

“When I look at a person of color as a leader, it reminds me that no matter what obstacles we have to go through, we can still make it.”
— Ilene Orgaz, student at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School

The next superintendent should be willing to live in Denver, and if he or she has children, to send those children to the public schools here.

“I would like a superintendent to be chosen who cares about the community of Denver. If you don’t care enough to send your kids there … that says something huge.”
— Lisa Yemma, eighth-grade teacher at Slavens K-8 School

He or she should value Denver’s universal school choice system, which allows parents to use one form to request to attend any school, including charter schools.

“The DSST [charter] middle school has brought my reading level from kindergarten level up to sixth-grade reading, where it should have been at the time. In middle school, I got into trouble, but with hard work from myself and help from teachers and my mom, I have learned to control my temper.

“What I like about the school is that most of the teachers have a sense of humor that matches mine, and the kids that I have met are my best friends. … I am really glad that my mom made us go here. I am really glad that we had this choice because if we didn’t, I don’t know what would happen to me or what my grades would be.”
— Ronald Griffin, student whose mother drives him more than 200 miles round-trip every day from their home in Pueblo to Denver so he can attend DSST: Conservatory Green High School, part of the district’s biggest charter network

“I’m so glad I had the option to choose the best school for my family, so I would like the next superintendent to ensure that families always have a choice in education.”
— Lupe Gonzalez, grandmother who has two grandchildren and one great-grandchild who attend University Prep Steele Street, an elementary charter school

On the flip side, he or she should put less emphasis on school choice and charters, and make more effort to strengthen traditional, district-run schools.

“This is a chance to bring in somebody without baggage — and to hire a superintendent who thinks that young children should not have to travel across town to attend an elementary school.

“You have been barking up the wrong tree for years, and I wish you would choose a different tree. Charters, choice, and enrollment zones haven’t gotten you what you want.”
— Maggie Miller, parent of a George Washington High School graduate

“You have the opportunity to create a fresh start. … We just want neighborhood schools. And if you didn’t hear me in the back, we want neighborhood schools.”
— Margaret Fogarty, parent of a student at Park Hill Elementary School

Then next superintendent should be someone who is committed to listening to community feedback, especially about controversial decisions — and acting on it.

“We need a superintendent that will be willing to listen and act on that anger that parents have when our schools are failing our students. … It seems we in the community have been getting ignored for quite some time now. That stops today.”
— Cliff Harris, parent of three students in southeast Denver

“I hope to see my superintendent come to my school, or any school, and talk to students. I believe the new superintendent should let students know they support and care about them. Students should always come first, and I hope the new superintendent will make time for our voice and perspective.”
— Cameron Casados, recent graduate of DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School

“What I’ve heard in many of my interactions with families in Montbello, Sunnyside, the Cole neighborhood, and elsewhere is that very often, they have felt the decisions regarding their children’s educations and futures happened to them, rather than with them.

“Many drastic changes have been made, such as restructuring schools, closing schools, and selecting charters, which have an enormous impact on students and their families, and in which they felt they had no say.

“The next superintendent needs to be someone who views students and families as co-creators of the education system, not merely as recipients of it.”
— Adrienne Deshaies, former teacher in northwest Denver and current community organizer with Together Colorado, a faith-based parent advocacy group

The next superintendent should not be a diehard for one type of school reform strategy or another, but rather someone who will build bridges between factions.

“I want a superintendent who knows how to bring communities together and is above this fight of reform or traditional.”
— Alexis Menocal Harrigan, parent and former district employee

“There are so many great things that happen at DPS. One of the ones I think is distracting is the argument that happens so often between the reform side and the anti-charter side. Please do not pick someone who is one or the other. If one side wins, then by definition, the other side loses.

“Most parents, they believe in some path in the middle, and that’s what you want for a superintendent: someone who can listen to both sides.”
— Tom Downey, parent of three students in northeast Denver

The next superintendent should continue addressing long-standing district problems, including persistent gaps in test scores between more privileged and less privileged students.

“Last year, my daughter was going to a school that was too easy for her. I was told she had a behavior problem, which I knew meant that she was just bored and not challenged in her classroom enough. … I advocated that she be tested for her eligibility in the gifted and talented program in DPS.

“This year, my daughter was selected to be part of the gifted and talented program. I am very proud of her. … When she got to the school there, I noticed very quickly that she was one of four Latinos in her school, and [there were] two black students, as well. … I asked some of my friends who send their students to schools on the east side whether their students had done gifted and talented testing — and all of them said they didn’t even know what that was.

“The district has to come to the table and admit that we have more to do to confront this achievement gap in our city. … White students in DPS are outperforming students of color by double digits. The education our children are receiving is unequal. … I hope the next superintendent will build more intentional systems of equity.”
— Ana Orozco, graduate of Denver’s South High School and current parent

“I’m currently living in an area where 90 percent of the students in my community are not reading on grade level. Ninety percent. The possibility of that number including my son keeps me up at night. What am I supposed to do when the options in my community are clearly not meeting our needs? … What happens if he goes to a school where young boys of color are overrepresented in discipline actions?

“This year, I have taken the time to learn about school quality and school choice. And what I learned is that the majority of schools in my community are not meeting expectations set by the district — and the few that are have long waiting lists.

“But a spot on the waiting list is not the same thing as a good education, and every child in our city deserves a good education. … I hope that as you all prepare to choose the next superintendent, you think about the 35,000 children without access to great schools.”
— Erica Aragon, parent of future Denver Public Schools student

“I have a very hard time understanding how some schools in our district can afford to have their own planetarium inside of a school, while other schools don’t even have a basic library, or arts and physical education.

“I have served on CSCs — the budgeting and governing body of schools — where we have had to cut some of these positions, as well as classroom teachers. We want our students to be prepared for the future, but we cut their ability to learn creatively. … Without this kind of funding, without equitable funding, we will never close the achievement gap.”
— Jeannie Nelson, parent of four children who attend Denver schools

“We need to be doing more as a district to support our staff and students of color with more intention and accountability. The lack of intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion work presents itself every day in the classroom.

“If we are not prioritizing and addressing those biases, we are not building an equity mindset as a core part of our district culture.”
— Elizabeth Barrett, parent of a student at DSST: Stapleton Middle School

The school board is continuing to collect feedback via an online survey that will close at noon on Oct. 12.