seal of disapproval

State board votes down resolution supporting new ‘seal of biliteracy’ on high school diplomas

Graduates of DPS's Bruce Randolph School in 2010 (John Lebya, The Denver Post).

The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected a resolution supporting seals of biliteracy, endorsements attached to high school diplomas and transcripts signaling students are proficient in English and at least one other language.

The board voted 5-2 against the resolution, which would have applauded three Colorado districts that have adopted seals of biliteracy and encouraged other districts to follow suit. Four Republicans and one Democrat opposed it.

Several said they support biliteracy, but cited a litany of concerns that led them to vote no — from a lack of uniform standards for defining proficiency to questions about the movement’s origins and worries about data privacy.

“We are being asked to support as a board something that is without standards to be put on a diploma,” said Colorado Springs Republican board chairman Steve Durham, who initially urged the board to put off the vote.

Nothing is stopping districts from moving forward with seals of biliteracy; the resolution was primarily a gesture.

In interviews Thursday with Chalkbeat, superintendents from the three districts that have jointly developed requirements to award seals of biliteracy expressed disappointment the board rejected a nonbinding resolution recognizing students’ hard work toward gaining skills considered critical for success in a global economy.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Pat Sanchez, superintendent of the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district. “Not supporting this resolution sends the message that you don’t value bilingualism. The standards are well-defined and very clear. How is having two languages a deficit? …. It’s unfortunate these things become politicized and made into something else.”

By the numbers

More than 700 students from Adams 14, Denver Public Schools and Eagle County are either working toward or already have proven themselves worthy of a seal of biliteracy. District officials say the road is rigorous, requiring high scores on tests measuring English literacy and world language fluency — or other measures if good tests don’t exist for languages students have mastered.

Fourteen states have adopted seals of biliteracy since California became the first in 2011, and others are considering it.

Because Colorado is a local control state, decisions about adopting seals of biliteracy rest in districts’ hands. The three districts leading the charge in Colorado — all of which introduced the seals this year — envision their approach as a model for others.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County district, said the board’s rejection of the resolution will not alter that course.

“We don’t really want or need their approval to move forward,” Glass said. “I had some concerns that if the state started mucking around in it, they would start to over-regulate it and politicize it. We think the best thing for our kids is to leave our schools multilingual, and we think the seal of biliteracy is a great way of recognizing kids with those skills.”

State board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, proposed the board resolution, calling it an opportunity to honor kids and encourage schools and districts without investing any state money or creating new mandates.

Other board members, however, rattled off questions and concerns. Pam Mazanec, a Larkspur Republican, said that she supports biliteracy and the seal “probably has good intentions.” But she said she was unsure about “this particular movement” and was not ready to back the resolution. Groups in California have spearheaded the drive to bring seals of biliteracy to other states.

Parker Republican Debora Scheffel raised unspecified concerns about data, questioned how biliteracy is defined and noted that PARCC tests are one possible yardstick of English literacy. Scheffel vigorously opposes the tests, now entering their second year.

Democrat Val Flores of Denver — who like other “no” votes hailed the merits of biliteracy — said the issue was a local one.

Sanchez, the Adams 14 superintendent, dismissed board members who talk up biliteracy while voting down the resolution.

“What you say is one thing, and how you act is what shows what you really mean,” he said. “The walk doesn’t match the talk.”

Top languages DPS students are pursuing for seals of bilteracy |

  • Spanish – 434
  • French – 62
  • Chinese (Mandarin) – 19
  • Arabic – 13
  • Japanese – 12

Big push from DPS

No district is more invested in the seal of biliteracy than Denver Public Schools. District officials say 631 students have applied for the seal, and 81 have met the criteria and are ready to graduate with a seal and win recognition on honors night.

Not surprisingly, the largest single bloc of students are seeking seals in English and Spanish. But at least one DPS student is pursuing one in a Native American language, with the district relying on a tribal elder to help determine proficiency, said Darlene LeDoux, a DPS instructional superintendent who previously headed the district’s English learner programs .

The three districts working together researched seals of biliteracy adopted by districts around the country to make sure their standards were high, rigorous and achievable for students, LeDoux said.

“It takes a lot of work,” she said. “There is a lot to it. We are talking about students who have a very strong grasp of the language and the culture. It helps the students be better prepared for college and career. I know, you hear that all the time. But we have organizations coming to DPS asking us for people who can speak different languages so they can hire them now.”

That list of prospective employers includes health care providers, educational institutions, businesses and the FBI, which contacted the district looking for Chinese speakers, DPS officials said. LeDoux said the three school districts also are working with colleges on a formal agreement that would allow students to skip low-level language courses in colleges, saving families money.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said Thursday the district is disappointed in the board’s rejection of the resolution.

“It’s a missed opportunity for our state,” said Cordova, who is fluent in English and Spanish. “It’s unfortunate because Colorado has been a real leader in education. I’m disappointed we are not leading in this case.”

State board could revisit the issue

Durham, the state board chairman, said he may reconsider his position if more defined standards for seals of biliteracy are developed. He indicated state lawmakers may be working on a bill that would do so. No such bill has been introduced yet.

Legislation or not, about 70 students in the Eagle County district are pursuing a seal of biliteracy before graduation this spring.

Within a decade, the district hopes that 90 percent of its kids will know at least two languages, said Glass, the superintendent. The vote Thursday against a resolution supporting the work of those kids and the district will not change anything, he said.

“I’ve sort of given up trying to figure out what this state board is going to do,” Glass said. “They seem to make a lot of random and head-scratching decisions, and with any number of rationales to support those decisions.”

The three Colorado districts awarding seals of biliteracy have developed these requirements:


Tennessee’s career readiness program expands beyond high school

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks in Nashville in 2015 at a Drive to 55 summit. Launched Thursday, Tennessee Pathways, part of the Drive to 55 initiative, was spearheaded by McQueen and Governor Bill Haslam.

Six years after the state launched Pathways Tennessee, a career readiness effort for high school students, the program is growing and rebranding as Tennessee Pathways.

The program will now serve K–12 students, not just high schoolers, with the goal of encouraging them to pursue post-secondary education — be it a college degree or a trade-school certificate. Tennessee Pathways is part of Drive to 55, Governor Bill Haslam’s initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with postsecondary degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

On Thursday, Haslam issued a press release touting the expansion, into new districts and into grades beyond high school.

“[A]ll Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career, and that includes the education and training to get there,” Haslam said. “Tennessee Pathways provides a key foundation to help us reach this goal.”

Participating schools must provide career advising and opportunities for students to gain work experience or earn college credit. They are also expected to build relationships with community groups and businesses.

Last year, the state Department of Education released reports that tracked Tennessee students after they graduated high school. The first-of-their-kind reports found that 63 percent of graduating seniors across the state were enrolled in post-secondary programs in 2016. In Shelby County Schools, Memphis’ main district, about half of students in the district continue their educations beyond high school.

The expansion of Tennessee Pathways, which is currently in 33 counties, isn’t directly tied to that data, the state department of education spokeswoman Chandler Hopper, said. Rather, it reflects the department’s desire to “ensure the state is on track” to have the majority of its students earn some type of postsecondary education after high school.

“We know that students and families want more options and opportunities after high school, and we want to scale up and align those pathways with regional needs,” she said. “This is happening in pockets now, but we want to make sure it’s happening statewide.”

The state intends to fund this expansion in two ways. First, they’ll invest about $2 million in hiring new regional coordinators to help school systems identify opportunities that align with their needs and resources. Second, they’ll offer grants to participating districts; those grants will be funded by J.P. Morgan’s New Skills for Youth initiative, aimed at strengthening career training.

Samantha Gutter, a workforce readiness director for SCORE, a state education reform group, welcomed the news of Tennessee Pathways’ expansion.

“Parents and employers tell SCORE they are concerned that too many students graduate from high school underprepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce,” Gutter said.

New Tennessee Pathways designations will be awarded to districts beginning in fall 2019. This year, regional coordinators will work with districts to help them adhere to Pathways expectations.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”