Dividing Lines

Colorado is rethinking all of its major education policies. And everyone is jockeying for influence.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, center, and vice chair Angelika Schroeder meet with Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn in May 2015.

As Colorado prepares to adopt a new plan that will set the course for the state’s schools for the foreseeable future, competing priorities have emerged spotlighting familiar divides.

The state’s direction — and points of tension — will become clearer Thursday when Colorado Department of Education officials brief the State Board of Education on decisions it likely faces in developing a blueprint required under the nation’s new federal law.

But Republican board chairman Steve Durham already has made his intentions known.

In a May message to then-Education Commissioner Rich Crandall, the lobbyist and former lawmaker prioritized reversing Colorado’s adoption of Common Core State Standards, getting the state out of the PARCC multi-state testing partnership, “maximizing” local control and more.

Chalkbeat obtained Durham’s list, previously not made public, in an open records request.

The head of the state’s largest teachers union disputed that those topics reflect the public’s wishes. A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, meanwhile, is pursuing its own path that one key member hopes will preserve much of what the state has been doing instead of blowing it up.

Thursday’s study session comes after department officials spent several months on a statewide “listening tour” meant to gather public input on how Colorado should change course under the new main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Department staff will share a list of decisions it believes the board needs to make — based on where it has flexibility — and describe conflicts between current state law and the new federal law.

The plan must address how the state will hold schools accountable for student performance, improve teacher quality and educate English language learners, among many other things.

The federal law, signed by President Obama last year, is supposed to grant states more flexibility from policies around academic standards and testing that some believe were too restrictive under its predecessor, No Child Left Behind.

Since ESSA was signed into law, educators, special interest groups and lawmakers have been trying to understand how much freedom the state will be get, all while jockeying for influence.

Durham’s list

Commissioner Crandall, who resigned from his post in May after only four months on the job, said Durham handed him his priority list after the board failed at a secret February meeting to provide the commissioner guidance on the direction the state should go.

Steve Durham’s ESSA Wishlist
Read board chairman Steve Durham’s four-bullet proposal here.

“He told me, ‘The Republicans met and these or our priorities,’” Crandall said in an interview.

Durham and other Republican members deny they met separately to draw up the document. But Durham did take credit for drafting the list himself.

“Absolutely, I wrote it,” Durham said.

Most of Durham’s request come as no surprise — including his call to drop the Common Core standards and pull Colorado out of PARCC by 2018. The Colorado Springs Republican long has criticized both, and has championed more local control since he was appointed to the board in 2014.

Durham in the list also calls for urging more districts to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, a rigid curriculum with specific grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects like math, language arts and geography. The curriculum is popular with charter schools in Colorado suburbs and some rural communities. Durham is a vocal supporter of charter schools.

That Durham privately pushed his agenda to reshape state education policy on Crandall is disturbing, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

”I can tell you from attending the listening tours, those things did not come up,” she said. “Certainly there was talk around flexibility on having an alternative to PARCC, but there was no discussion on dropping Common Core or adopting Core Knowledge.”

Dallman added, “Our expectation would be that Colorado abides by the requirement to meaningfully consult all stakeholders including teachers, parents, students and community in developing its ESSA plan.”

For the plan to be approved by the federal government, the state education department must prove it sought community input, and the State Board and the governor all must sign off on the document.

That could prove challenging. The State Board and Senate are Republican-controlled, while Democrats hold the House and governor’s office.

Other influences

Dallman’s union, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards, have taken their own steps in hopes their members will have a say in the plan’s development.

Kerrie Dallman
Kerrie Dallman

In June, the three organizations hosted a joint meeting in Aurora where teams from school districts across the state gathered to learn about ESSA and weigh in on the state’s direction.

“We saw that as our kick-off to our involvement in developing the plan,” Dallman said, but added she’s skeptical the state’s education landscape could change that much. “There are opportunities for some shifts, but the truth of the matter is, unless we create some flexibility in local state mandates, we’re not going to see a lot of the changes folks want — especially rural districts.”

State lawmakers are also taking up ESSA on their own. A committee of three Republicans and three Democrats will begin meeting later this summer to study the new federal laws and identify areas where local laws need to be adjusted.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sponsored the bill that created the committee. She said she hopes the committee will be cautious and not rush to completely reimagine Colorado’s modern education policies, most of which passed between 2008 and 2012 with broad bipartisan support.

“I don’t want to redo everything we’ve done,” she said.

The ‘compromise’

How much influence the State Board should have on the plan has been an ongoing conversation since former-Commissioner Crandall first announced the department’s listening tours that reached a fevered pitch in June.

The ‘Compromise’ memo |
Read Durham memo to the State Board outlining the committee selection process here.

While meeting in Pueblo last month, State Board members debated their role in the development of the plan and what role advocacy organizations should play.

Board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, was most vocal about the board having an early say in the plan. Durham was critical of what he called “special interest groups.”

“If I were going to put on my cynical hat — and I do often — I can predict what the position of every one of these groups is going to be,” Durham said at the meeting. “They are not our ultimate constituents. Our constituents are the children.”

But vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, cautioned: “We exclude them at our own peril.”

That discussion led to a “compromise,” Durham wrote in a June 13 email obtained by Chalkbeat, that includes the board appointing a variety of members to a committee that will be responsible for writing the plan. Organizations such as CEA and CASB will also be asked to name representatives.

The committee will work with state department staff through the fall to develop the first draft of the plan, which must be submitted to the federal government by October.

“It’s a way to diversify input,” Durham said in an interview, “so it’s not all driven by districts and interest groups.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Colorado General Assembly must approve the state’s education plan. It does not. 

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.