Cereal Break: South Lakewood Elementary First-Grader Logan on Missing Ms. Graeve, Desks in the Big Time and Speed Worksheet-ing


Originally published at EducationPost.org

Now that we’re past Labor Day, everybody’s back in school. We all remember the feelings of going back to school. But do you remember what is was like to start school for the first time, in grade 1? (I only remember the mortifying haircut I still haven’t forgiven my mother for.)

Well, this week we’re swapping coffee for cereal to hear from Logan (and a bit from his mom), as he begins first grade at Colorado’s South Lakewood Elementary School.

OK, so this first question is usually about coffee. But I’m guessing you haven’t tried that yet. So what’s your favorite breakfast food and drink to get you ready for school?

Cereal and milk and…raspberries. Sometimes waffles, too. I’m a hungry boy. My favorite cereal is Lucky Charms, but I usually only get that on weekends. I do like Cheerios and bananas before school.

First grade is kind of the big time now. What do you think will be different from kindergarten? Is it better (so far)?

I don’t have the same teacher. I think it will be better, actually…I am not sure because I will really miss Ms. Graeve. She made kindergarten fun. But I think we will learn more in first grade. We have desks now! AND we get to be on the computer EVERY day.

What do you think makes a good teacher?

I don’t know…I guess how much they teach us. But they also have to learn all our names first and what we like. And a good teacher makes sure we know all the rules and how to stay safe.

Amy, What makes a good teacher to you and what’s the most important thing you want from Logan’s school?

A good teacher is patient, positive and passionate. It makes such a difference when a teacher is willing to get to know and challenge each student.

I appreciate the diversity and the “real life” lessons that South Lakewood Elementary provides. (The school won the Jan Harp Domene Diversity and Inclusion Award). I think it’s important for Logan to learn to think for himself, seek solutions to problems and be encouraged to innovate.

How about homework, Logan? Get much of that?

No, not really. Well not yet. We do have to read a book every night. But I like reading, so that’s good. I do my worksheets as fast as I can, so I have time to play outside.

What do you think the right amount of homework is?

One page…well, actually five pages because that’s about as much as I can do. One of the kids in my class says his brother has to do homework for 10 hours!

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not in school?

Go swimming or play video games. We all like to play Minecraft, but I like playing Madden, too. I’m sad because the outside swimming pool closes when school starts, but I do want to go to the Apex Center soon.

Coffee Break: Oakland Supt. Antwan Wilson on Anticipating Tuesdays, Poverty Fueling Drive, and Putting Power in Students’ Hands

Supt_La EscuelitaOriginally published at EducationPost.org

On July 1, 2014, Antwan Wilson became the superintendent of Oakland Unified School District—a district that was in state receivership from 2003-2010 and has been plagued, like so many urban districts, by leadership churn. He brought with him a stellar track record of professional success and a deep, personal passion to “fuel a strong drive to succeed” in the students he serves.

You’re a notorious early-riser. Is coffee part of the morning routine? Tea?

I wake up at 3 a.m., but it usually does not include a coffee habit. Most mornings you’ll find me at the gym, in meditation and prayer, and preparing for my day.

What part of the work gets you the most fired up each morning?

I am very passionate about the work that I feel fortunate to do everyday because it has a direct impact on preparing all students—no matter their background—to become productive world citizens. I look forward to Tuesdays because I spend all of my day interacting with students in schools and really getting a sense of the climate and culture. Time spent listening to and learning from students is what fires me up and fuels me to ensure they have what they need to reach their full potential.

I also get fired up about putting in systems that makes pursuing college and career a reality for all children.

Talk about how your background and education shape your vision for public education, especially around choice and equity.

My background provides my drive. Growing up where moving to a new school every year was a reality helps you understand the importance of education. Living in poverty and experiencing most of the worst things that come from that during the ’70s and then the ’80s impacted my desire to make a difference. Knowing what it means to literally have to fight regularly for respect, moving to a city where you’re the clear minority, and racism looking you right in the face daily fueled my passion for social justice.

My mother being a single parent for large parts of my life and literally breaking her back to provide and struggle to raise three children (I’m the oldest, with the most responsibility) helped me get a greater understanding of the struggle so many women live through daily. Knowing I could never fully relate to it did influence my interest studying women’s studies and ethnic studies.

I also learned that the equalizer is a great education: providing parents and students options to go to schools that will help each child realize their potential, creating places where the adults see it as their personal mission to educate children regardless of where the child comes from; also appreciating the gifts each student brings.

I was in so many ways a shy, insecure kid. I didn’t always love myself. My mother moving us to schools that met her expectations and even moving across state lines to increase our odds at graduating from high school and going to college leads me to want parents not to have to do that. When I visit top-performing schools serving populations of students who statistically are underserved in school systems, I notice teachers and staff like the educators who made so much difference in me making it to and thriving in college.

I want to normalize that support for all children so they can provide that hope for their future children. I know that to do this, educators need to also work in a system that supports their growth and success. That’s what we are doing.

Poverty is often pointed to as an insurmountable barrier to high achievement in urban education. We owe all kids opportunity, but can’t expect success. What’s your take?

I believe that poverty is a real barrier, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

I know firsthand the sting and sometimes humiliation that can come with growing up poor. I also know how, with the right supports, it can fuel a strong drive to succeed.

That played out not only in my life, but I also see it in the voices and faces of our children in Oakland. It’s exactly why I was so interested in seeing the Oakland Promisebe a reality and why I appreciate so much the partnership with the mayor and several partners in the city. They all agree that poverty should not be a big stop sign in the lives of our young people.

I will add that because of poverty and a need to view all children from an asset mindset, we need to improve our educational practices. We can’t give our children only what we got. They need way more than that. We came through a system that was designed to sort children and did a great job of it: some for college and career, others for labor, and others as dropouts who might become on or the other. Decisions were made, and families and children had little say in the options. That got us to where we are.

We need to prepare all students for college and careers. Give them choices and let them understand that there’s value in so many kinds of choices involving certificates, associate degrees, bachelor and advanced degrees. If they know all the options, the power is in their hands.

Who is/was your role model for success?

My role models growing up were my mother (strength, love, caring for others regardless of what you’re facing) and a mentor of mine named Tim Carroll (confidence, doing more than the job description, cool). He was an African-American teacher who went on to be a Milken Foundation Award winning educator. He served as a surrogate father and educational mentor and friend.

Now in addition to them, it’s President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (hope, intelligence, perseverance, love of family). Steve Jobs (innovation, excellence, iteration). Vince Lombardi (striving for perfection to get excellence, teamwork, and productive struggle toward accomplishing a common goal). Magic Johnson (fun, second chances, evolution).

The opt-out cop-out is petering out

sparce crowd

The first batch of Colorado results from last spring’s state standardized testing are back, and they’re encouraging—both from a participation and achievement standpoint. Since the state switched to the Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments two years ago, there’s been a push from the outer fringes of the political spectrum to convince families to opt their kids out of the tests.

The state responded with some sensible testing reductions, primarily in high school grades, and that seems to have helped stall the opt-out movement here. Chalkbeat reported last week that opt-out rates had flattened, and that 96 percent of Colorado third-graders took PARCC last spring.

And then today, the non-profit organization Education Next released the results of its annual national poll on education issues. Not only does it show strong support for annual testing, which is backed by roughly two-thirds of both the general public overall and parents specifically, but opt-out fell flat, with only one in four respondents in favor of letting kids skip the state tests.

That’s encouraging, but we need to do more. The best way to convince even more students and parents that the tests are worth taking is to, well, make them worth taking. Don’t just lecture about the tests’ value; make them valuable.

And the fact that we’re just now, in August, starting to get the results from tests taken in March shows that there’s still work to do. Test results coming back six months (and an entire school year) later are only truly valuable to the system—to know which schools and programs are working well. Parents and teachers want the tests to help them better support their students, and that can only happen if the test results come back within a few weeks, during the same school year, as a somewhat real-time report on how their kids are doing.

The guest-post below from the “Head in the Sand” blog takes a close look at who’s still part of the opt-out “movement.” It’s pretty clear that in order to win them over, testing advocates are going to need to do a better job of making it in their self interest to have their kids take the tests. And, to be honest, we should work toward making it clear to everyone–regardless of demographics or politics–why taking the tests is in their best interest.


By Tracy Dell’Angela

Opt-outers tend to consider themselves “progressives” so they don’t like to see themselves as the privileged few who put their kids’ comfort ahead of the needs of other school children.

But it turns out that’s exactly who they are.

According to this recently released national survey about opt-out conducted by the Teachers College at Columbia University:

The typical opt out activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average. The movement brings together Democrats (46.1 percent), Republicans (15.1 percent), Independents (33.3 percent), and supporters of other parties (5.5 percent)

It also turns out opt-out is not much of a grassroots “movement” of parents. Some promoting the benefits of opting out don’t even have school-aged children. The Columbia survey demonstrates the opt-out movement was dominated by teachers’ responses and their concerns about tying student test results to evaluation:

Interestingly, almost one‐fifth of respondents (19.5 percent) did not have school‐aged children. Thus the opt out movement consists of a broader range of activists than just parents who opt their children out of tests. The movement includes parents, parents who do not opt out, and parents whose children are not in the public school system, as well as non‐parents.

Not progressive and not grassroots

And it is driven as much by fear of low scores and inconvenience as it is by philosophical opposition to testing. As The 74 summarizes:

A closer look, however, shows that opting out of state tests—administered in grades 3-8 and one year in high school—has appealed only to a narrow demographic.

It also seems to have occurred, at the high school level especially, out of convenience rather than in opposition to testing.

In states with the largest number of opt-outs, students who chose not to take tests were mostly white and affluent; a large percentage were 11th-graders, whose crowded spring testing calendars also included college-prep and Advanced Placement exams.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Opt-outers don’t know what’s best for the families who are the real victims of the anti-accountability movement—black and brown students, disabled kids and students learning English, students from low-income families, all those students ill-served by our nation’s worst schools and some of our best schools too.

We now have the data that reveals opt-out for what it really is: a luxury, afforded to white, affluent taxpayers and parents who are blessed with well-funded schools, stable teaching staffs, and some assurance that their privilege will pave the way for their child’s success.

We’ve known for a long while that the opt-out epicenter is in Long Island, New York, where nearly half of the students in two of the wealthiest counties refused to participate in testing. And a recent New York Newsday editorial rightly points out that many of the complaints cited by the opt-outers are no longer valid, given the changes made to the New York state tests and the lack of any consequences for teachers:

Test results for individual students are more detailed and are released earlier to teachers. The percentage of test questions released has tripled. All questions are scrutinized by teachers before the tests. The tests are shorter, and their time limits are gone. All learning objectives have been reviewed to assure they are appropriate. Strong teaching tools are in place. And the teacher evaluation method that created so much fear among educators and parents, based partly on student achievement on the tests, is in a four-year moratorium.

What the “opt-out” activists could reasonably expect to achieve, they have. So now it’s time to end the opt-out movement.

Time will tell whether common sense prevails in Long Island and nationwide. I’m not holding out much hope that these privileged parents will see the light and start to think about the needs of children less fortunate than their own. But if they stubbornly persist, some of these tony schools will be penalized for low participation with failing ratings. And that will hurt the property values of the #OptOutSoWhite crowd.

Perhaps this is the only message that will work for these self-described progressives: An appeal to selfishness and their own financial interests.

Coffee Break: Principal Sharif El-Mekki on #BlackMaleEducators, #DemsInPhilly, and His Neighborhood Charter School


Originally posted at EducationPost.org

Sharif El-Mekki didn’t come to a career in education right away, but the families in his boyhood Philadelphia neighborhood sure are glad he found his way there.

As the principal of a Mastery charter school serving the West Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding its Shoemaker Campus, Sharif has returned home to help lead a school transformation that earned him the opportunity to serve as a principal ambassador with the U.S. Department of Education.

Are you a coffee drinker? Tea?

I drink both. I usually start my day with coffee and end it with a few cups of tea. They each are comfort beverages for me. I lived with my great-grandmother when I was a junior and senior in high school. She made coffee and the aroma while percolating was irresistible. She would make me a cup before I went to school. I miss her.

Tea became a habit while growing up in Iran. They are some serious tea drinkers.

Talk about your education and background and what led you to becoming an educator.

My parents were activists, so we were exposed to myriad social justice issues and the necessary resistance at a very early age, including our enrollment in a Freedom School in Philly.

Later, we moved to Iran and I attended middle school in Qom. After returning in 1986, I went to Overbrook High School in West Philly. Then I was fortunate enough to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship.

By the time I graduated, I had landed on criminal justice as a major with an eye on law school, but that never happened. An organization called Concerned Black Men was recruiting Black men to become teachers. I chose to make my impact through the classroom.

You’re very outspoken about the need to get more #BlackMaleEducators in our classrooms. What’s the best thing we can do to make that happen?

We have to assertively approach and recruit Black men as if they are a part of the solution for what ails our schools. We also must begin much, much earlier. Recruiting college graduates won’t get us to where we need to be. That approach has yielded the dismal numbers—2 percent—we have now.

Early on, White female students are encouraged to be teachers. Our Black boys need to hear the same positive messages about their worth, brilliance and contributions. I also advocate for highly effective Black men, not just Black men.

I’m proud of the organization I helped found, The Fellowship. We are entering our third year in supporting current and aspiring Black male educators.

You’re the leader of a neighborhood charter school in Philadelphia. In the education debate, the concepts of “neighborhood” and “charter” get portrayed as contradictory. Your take on that?

Some public schools serve their neighborhoods, some don’t, whether they’re traditional or charter. I am proud to work in a charter school that serves the same neighborhood I grew up and live in. The vast majority of our students reside in the 19131 zip code, and Shoemaker is right up the street from my alma mater.

In fact, I even went to Shoemaker for summer school one year. The chasm of difference between what it was then and what it is now is tremendous.

Shoemaker was once the second-most violent school in the city, and likely the state. That is no longer the case. Same community. Same kids. Different adults with very different results. Today, it’s one of the top schools in Philly.

What’s the one thing you wish everyone in the education debate could agree on?

I wish everyone agreed that all of us, not just the privileged, deserve good school choices and high standards, and that anyone who signs up to educate our youth must also sign up to be held accountable for what and how much these youth learn.

That doesn’t just go for teachers. Accountability for students’ success is for everyone.We should all have high expectations for our children, but the absolute highest expectations are to be reserved for the adults who serve them.

Thoughts on having the Democratic National Convention there in Philly? Would you hire any of the speakers to teach at your school?

Glad Philly was spotlighted. We have a city that has a lot to offer, despite the plethora of challenges.

I was also happy that many of our city’s activists raised their voices through protesting various social injustices. Most often, change comes from both the outside and the inside.

As far as teaching, now you know not everyone can teach, but, if they were willing to go through a lot of rigorous professional development, I would probably hire three or four. I think Cory Booker, POTUS and FLOTUS, and, perhaps, Anne Holton. I’d hire a convention analyst too, Angela Rye.

What’s the measure of a good school?


What makes a good school?

That seemingly simple question is going through the education policy ringer right now. And the answer (not surprisingly if you’ve ever been on the business end of that particular ringer) is anything but simple.

The U.S. Department of Education is busy these days putting together the nuts and bolts of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the current debate centers on the best way to measure a school’s academic performance for accountability purposes.

It’s a debate that I know well from the five years I worked at the Denver Public Schools (DPS).

DPS has a school-rating system called the School Performance Framework (SPF). It includes measures beyond just academic performance (despite the “kids are only test scores” malarkey that gets thrown at DPS and education reformers a lot). But a big focus is on student learning. (What a concept!)

The big debate at DPS, as it is with ESSA now, was what’s the more important question to ask when rating a school’s academic performance?

Is it: Are the school’s students learning year to year? (“academic growth”)

Or: What have students learned? (“academic proficiency” or their “status” at the time they took their state’s standardized test.)

In the early days of Denver’s SPF, the premium was on growth. We wanted to make sure schools were rewarded for kids who were progressing academically, especially the kids who were below grade level and needed to catch up. Denver’s schools serve a lot of kids who are behind, and that growth is more valuable, the thinking went, than a school that serves mostly grade-level (proficient) kids and merely keeps them there.

That’s still the main line of thinking in DPS, but it’s shifted considerably in the wake of criticism that the SPF was giving schools too much credit for growth and not setting a high enough bar for proficiency.

In this Denver Post story, DPS Board Member Happy Haynes explained the shift this way:

Schools rightfully have gotten credit for growing kids, but it has inflated how well they’re doing overall. Growing them is great but you still have to get a certain number of kids to be proficient. The goal of growing them is to get more kids at proficiency each year.

The downside to that shift, however, is the concern that putting the premium on “proficient” encourages schools to put their premium only on students who are within reach of proficiency (this has been termed “educational triage”), because that’s the progress that’s rewarded most—more so than getting kids from way behind to a little bit behind or from proficient to advanced.

A group of education researchers and advocates led by University of Southern California’s Morgan Polikoff recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to argue against requiring states to use proficiency levels in their ESSA accountability plans. It suggests other measures that reward progress across all performance levels.

Democrats For Education Reform’s (DFER) Charles Barone responded by making a case for proficiency and asking:

If percent proficient, or something like proficiency that focuses on meeting a particular standard rather than merely making progress anywhere on the continuum between abject failure and absolute superiority, is not the ultimate goal, what was the point of the past decade’s mantra of ‘college and career readiness?’

Tom Boasberg is in his eighth year as Denver’s superintendent, and he’s been at DPS since the creation of its SPF school scorecard. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who’s been in more growth-versus-proficiency debates than he has. And I know from experience, he brings a big brain and an even bigger heart into every one of them. He favors balance over “versus.”

“The systems should clearly be both—and, with both growth and status measures because of the importance of each,” he told me. “At the same time, growth should receive a heavier weight. The more a system increases the weight on status, the more the system measures not how much a school is helping a student make progress but rather the level at which students enter the school. And that generally serves to artificially inflate the assessment of schools serving largely well-off kids and underestimate the work in high-poverty schools.”

So that puts the premium on making sure students are learning, particularly high-needs students, but with a close eye on what they’ve learned and how prepared they are for success at the next level.

Sounds like a good school to me.


A Coffee Break with Mapleton’s Charlotte Cianicio, on on the power of unified vision, cutting-edge school choice, and community trust

DSC08964Originally published at EducationPost.org

On the northern edge of Denver sits a cutting-edge school district that has made remarkable progress over the past decade in serving primarily low-income families. Charlotte Ciancio has been the superintendent of Mapleton Public Schools since 2001, and she’s led a transformation that has made her into somewhat of an education superhero in the state.

Ciancio describes the process of dramatic change as “messy and challenging,” but it’s made a dramatic difference for kids.

I know the superintendent’s day starts early. What gets you going in the morning?

I don’t think I qualify as a “morning person.” In fact, I’m probably more of a night owl. I tend to work late into the evenings and typically can’t sleep until I’ve wrapped up my day’s work, done some reflecting on my results, and played a game or two of solitaire. In the mornings, I usually count my blessings and set my goals before I get out of bed. Then, I like to take a brisk walk with my husband before I head out on my daily adventure. I love my work and feel very lucky to have this incredible profession, so I don’t need much prodding to get the day underway.

You’ve been leading Mapleton’s schools for 15 years now. Talk about how strong, stable leadership benefits schools and students.

Stable leadership is a great term—especially in the context of public education. Stability embodies the notion of consistency, endurance and honesty. I have had the privilege to work with steadfast and committed volunteers that have provided solid and cohesive governance throughout my tenure.

Working with 19 individual board members within 20 school board configurations, I’ve been influenced by the power of a unified vision.

We were able to reorganize our school structures to assure more personalized environments for our students; we refreshed our curriculum and materials to assure that students have access to challenging and meaningful content; and we’ve updated a few of our facilities to assure access to new technologies and safe learning environments. We have more students earning diplomas, more students prepared for college and careers, and more students earning scholarships. We have more to do, but we are definitely on the right track!

Superintendents are only as stable as the Board of Education they serve. Mapleton’s Board of Education—every single one—has been united in assuring that our students can achieve their dreams.

And you’re a product of Mapleton schools, right? What was your education like and what role did that play in bringing you back here as superintendent?

I had wonderful, loving teachers throughout my experience in Mapleton schools. I was a pretty good student and loved being involved in student council and National Junior Honor Society. My older sister went to Marycrest High School, and I decided to follow her there.

I have nine siblings: six brothers and three sisters. I’m fourth from the top, so I had the privilege to watch and support the younger kids. During my last semester at the University of Northern Colorado, I moved back home, worked at a Kings Soopers [a grocery store] and finished my student teaching at Valley View Elementary School. At the time, my four youngest siblings were still in middle and high school in the district.

I loved seeing the difference that a quality education was making. I wanted to be a part of something so important and life changing. I wanted to a part of Mapleton Public Schools then and in the future.

Mapleton was a leader of the school choice movement, when it transformed its high school programs in the early 2000s and created districtwide choice. Talk about that decision and how it’s paid off for schools and kids.

Mapleton Public Schools has a long, proud history of innovation and change. In 2001, district leaders were already studying and thinking about how small schools and schools of choice could impact the achievement results that were low and flat.

Our system operates within a “full choice” model. Every family must choose the school that matches the needs of their child. We provide transportation to every student living more than one mile from his/her school of choice. Our arts and athletic programs are growing to record numbers—more students are involved in extracurricular activities than ever before.

I was in the right place at the right time. I was hired by a Board of Education that was ready for change, a board that demanded positive results. I worked with district leaders who were willing to try a new approach and were courageous enough to take informed risks.

It was a messy and challenging process.

We were taking a once successful school district and reinventing schooling. We asked our community to trust us. And it did. We asked it to “imagine the possibilities.” And it did. We asked our teachers to re-examine their teaching styles and commit to improving their practices. And they did. We asked them to shift from focusing on what they were teaching to what kids were learning. And they did.

Together, we made it happen.

I also know superintendents are always looking to learn new things and aren’t so great at having down time and just relaxing. What are your summers like?

The summers are actually a pretty busy time of the year. We have lots of meetings and need to make decisions that influence the work of the coming school year. With fewer people around, we have more flexibility as to when we come in and what time we go home.

It’s a more relaxed environment so we wear jeans and flip-flops and dread the days when we’ll be back in suits and skirts.

5 reasons to pay attention to an actual education-focused election this November


For those of us who thought that the political conventions might bring to the presidential campaign a modicum of calm, rational discourse about the policies our country, particularly its schools, needs to move forward, it’s been disappointing to instead get…a school board meeting. (Well, at least until the amazing Michelle Obama brought down the house last night.)

Most of the convention action has reminded me of the yelling and histrionics of a school board meeting, just without the stuff about actual schools.

What were we thinkin’? It’s not like presidential campaigns are ever heavy on rational discourse…or schools.

But here in Colorado at least, there is an important November race that’s all about schools. Three of the seven seats on the Colorado Board of Education are up for election. This Chalkbeat story on last month’s primaries has a good rundown.

And here are 5 reasons it’s an election worth your time, if you care about Colorado’s schools:

  1. States run the show now. When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act last fall, it shifted the bulk of school-oversight responsibility from the nation’s capital to each state’s capital. The final ESSA nuts and bolts are still being sorted out, but it’s clear that the new law will mean that the Colorado Board of Education makes key decisions on how school accountability, like this one on how the academic performance of student “subgroups” will affect school ratings.
  2. The board majority is up for grabs. Republicans currently control the board, 4-3. Education politics don’t always follow party lines, as we’ve seen on school choice and the Common Core, but the current majority takes a pretty dismissive stance against test-based accountability and Common Core-aligned standards. That could shift, either way, with this election.
  3. This sticky, confusing “local control” issue. The board majority trumpets local control, but then overrules local district decisions, like Aurora Public Schools’ move to close a woefully underperforming online charter school, saying that it should stay open because some families chose it. Which strikes me as a slap in the face to both the local school board and to us taxpayers who have to keep paying for a school that’s not doing its job. So don’t buy the line that the state board, as it stands now, isn’t going to stick its nose in how your local district runs its schools.
  4. CDE’s revolving door. The state board hires the state education commissioner—essentially the superintendent who oversees all of Colorado’s schools. We’re now on our fourth different education commissioner in the past year, and that turmoil has pushed many key leaders at the Colorado Department of Education out the door. The post-election board needs to stop the spinning and restore stability in leadership and direction.
  5. School board elections are the unsung players on election day. They get the least amount of attention but probably matter the most to shaping the future of any community. And because of where Colorado (and the nation) is in its education policy-making, the stakes are especially high this November.

Millions of philanthropic dollars for cash-strapped public schools. Who could be against that?


A story in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times has this headline: “Group vows to rescue L.A. students one good school at a time.”

It goes on to detail the official launch of Great Public Schools Now, a new movement that will invest millions of dollars in LA neighborhoods that need better schools. (In full disclosure, GPSN shares some funders with my employer, Education Post.)

That’s millions of philanthropic dollars for public schools.

No tax increase required.

All going to help improve education for needy children.

Who could be against such a boon for kids?

“This new plan is a public-relations move meant to distract from the original proposal, which was greeted with widespread condemnation.”

That’s what Alex Caputo-Pearl, head of the LA teachers union, told the LA Times upon hearing the news.

A public relations move? Ummm…OK….but if so, it’s one that comes with desperately needed money for LA schools and children. Schools all over the country are scratching and clawing for every dollar they can get. I’d say we need more “PR moves” like that.

The union doesn’t like Great Public Schools Now because the “original proposal” that Caputo-Pearl references only focused on expanding charter schools in underserved communities. And as far as “widespread condemnation” goes, that’s pure spin. Probably widespread in his union circles; but it was probably widespread celebration among the thousands of families on charter-school waitlists.

But charter schools, despite being wildly popular among families because they’ve proven to be real difference-makers for kids, are a huge threat to the union’s power and pocketbook, because most charters don’t employ the dues-paying union teachers who make the unions a political juggernaut.

So the unions constantly demonize charter schools.

They blame charters for “siphoning” money from district-run schools, even though charter kids and schools have just as much right to public-education dollars as the “system” does.

They fight to keep charters from giving more families the power to choose where their children attend school—a power that union members have the privilege, and propensity, to exercise.

They claim charters don’t serve high-needs kids, and then fight to shut down those specifically designed for that purpose.

And they parrot the “privatization” prattle to try and smear charters, even though they are fully open to, funded by, and accountable to the public.

Everyone on all sides of the education debate claims they’re “all about the kids.”

Charter schools are providing a good education to and are a chosen option for millions of kids—many who are underdogs, the exact people the unions and “progressives” are supposed to fighting for.

Yet, the unions doggedly fight the good that charters do for those kids. Their fundamental principle being: any school that’s not unionized is the enemy, even though they turn around and send a lot of their own kids to those schools.

And, in the case of Great Public Schools Now in LA, the union is trashing a multimillion-dollar investment in all types of public schools, simply because the charter scent is too strong.

At the same time the unions were putting more self-inflicted holes in their “it’s about the kids” credibility, the charter sector was bolstering theirs.

“Authorizers have a legal and moral responsibility to close chronically low-performing charter schools of any kind, including full-time virtual charter schools.”

That’s straight from a report, written by charter advocates, calling for any charter school to be shut down if it’s not serving kids well.

And that’s putting the needs of kids ahead of the interests of your members.

The union version of that would be: “School districts have a public-service and moral responsibility to close chronically low-performing schools of any kind, district-run or charters.”

Can you imagine anything approaching those words coming from the mouths of union bosses Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen Garcia?

Instead, they peddle opt-out, team up with the Tea Party to fight testing, and wage nasty attacks against any education leader who has the temerity to say: We owe our community better schools.

The unions like to talk the “it’s about the kids” talk. They need to do a better job of walking the walk.

Calling out Colorado’s attempt at ‘sleight of hand’ on school accountability

sleight of hand

The Washington DC-based Civil and Human Rights Coalition yesterday issued a blistering statement about the Colorado Department of Education’s proposed changes to its performance ratings for schools.

“Colorado’s proposal isn’t a plan for accountability,” Wade Henderson, the Coalition’s president, said. “It’s a plan of obfuscation….The Colorado plan is exactly the kind of sleight of hand that has stymied educational equity for generations. Artificially lumping communities together is insensitive, makes it harder for the state to improve outcomes for all students and students of color in particular, and is contrary to the state’s responsibilities under ESSA.”

ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is the new federal education law, and it gives more power to states to hold schools accountable for educating all kids…or to not hold them accountable. That’s why a DC-based organization is paying attention to what’s going on out here (and across the rest of the country). The seat of accountability isn’t in the nation’s capital any more; it’s in the state’s capitals.

Here in Colorado’s capital, the State Board of Education will meet tomorrow to discuss CDE’s recommendations on school accountability. The proposal that has raised the ire of the civil rights community is a recommendation to “combine subgroups” of students when rating schools for their academic performance. So instead of schools being held accountable for how they serve each group of students (such as students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds), they’ll combine those “subgroups” and be rated based on the performance of that mishmash of different needs.

And that’s where the “insensitive” criticism comes from. Parents of a child with a disability want to know how well a school serves students with disabilities. Parents of a child who is just learning English want to know how well a school serves those learners. “Artificially lumping those communities together” is not only insensitive to the needs of those parents, it’s insulting and dismissive of the great diversity of learners that Colorado’s public schools are here to serve. And from a purely practical standpoint, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to build an improvement system that is intentionally imprecise in driving results.

So why change to combined subgroups? Here’s an explanation in CDE’s “guidance document” on the proposal: “The ‘combined subgroups’ allows for student results to be included in small systems where the minimum number of students is not met for individual groups. Additionally, a ‘combined subgroups’ addresses stakeholder concerns that some students count multiple times if they are represented in multiple groups.”

I’m guessing those “stakeholder concerns” are coming from one group of “stakeholders”—the school districts on the hook for serving kids. So the CDE proposal is quite sensitive to school district concerns, by addressing the reporting issues, and is a slap in the face to the most important stakeholders—the parents and community members whom schools need to serve, regardless of the multiple needs that their children may bring with them to school.

For far too long, there was far too little attention paid to how schools were serving kids, especially high-needs kids. The No Child Left Behind Act (for all of its flaws) focused lots of attention on how all kids are doing. Not only that, NCLB required action, not just attention, on gaps and inequities. With ESSA, the “action” decision is being pushed to the states in the name of local control. Colorado is suggesting they’ll only provide information on how each “subgroup” is doing—so attention but no action.

The Civil and Human Rights Coalition’s statement followed on the heels of a longer, more detailed objection from an impressive partnership of 22 Colorado community, parent, and civil rights groups. And, speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of students all across our state, they said: “Our greatest concern is that with less accountability for serving the needs of individual groups of students, there will be less attention paid to the supports each group needs to improve.”

And that’s the “stakeholder concern” that speaks the loudest.

Waking up to the realities of the tired American high school



It’s graduation season, and there’s lots to celebrate. More kids than ever are making it to the commencement stage, and there are glimmers of hope that high schools are starting to evolve and diversify to meet the needs of more kids.

And the need isn’t just graduation; it’s connection.

For too many kids, commencement is a celebration of endurance and toil–“making it through” high school, with no connection to what’s next. The excitement should be more about what’s next than about what’s been.

Part of the reason for that lack of connection is that high schools have changed very little to keep up with the times, or to keep kids’ interest. The “Diplomas Count” series in Education Week has done a great job of highlighting the issue. And in this crosspost from the “Head in the Sand” blog, Tracy Dell’Angela makes the case that we need to keep expecting more–more innovation, more improvement, more connections–from our high schools.


By Tracy Dell’Angela

When it comes to school improvement efforts over the past several decades, the American high school remains the achilles heel, the very toughest nut to crack.

So concludes a series in Education Week called “Diplomas Count,” which rightly focuses on the how to reinvent high schools so they actually work for the young people they are trying to reach.

While most of the reporting focuses on what is happening in a handful of ground-breaking urban schools, the lessons are just as relevant for suburban and rural schools, many of which don’t have the resolve or the resources to reinvent themselves, let alone innovate with new ideas.

We’ve been tinkering at the edges of high school reform for decades to be sure, but we’ve never been able to take big ideas to scale because most communities–especially the ones paying a pretty penny in property taxes–are complacent. They don’t really think anything is wrong with their high schools. Real rock-the-boat experimentation–that’s for those other high schools, the ones with metal detectors, terrible ACT scores and sky-high dropout rates, because they’ve got nothing to lose, right?

If you’ve spent any time as an adult in a high schools these days—as a parent, as an educator, as a volunteer—what’s striking is just how little has changed in the decade (or two or three) since you went to high school. Maybe that’s comforting to you. Personally, I find it alarming as hell.

Of course, there are new bells and whistles, with whiteboards and online gradebooks and classes in Mandarin and Arabic. But the essential structure is the same in far too many high schools. An early morning start time that violates every bit of research about the cognitive functioning of adolescent brains. Every day the same, seven 53-minute periods of seat-time courses driven by state requirements and not by student interests. Too many lectures. Too little engagement.

We’ve got some exciting new ventures afoot to reinvent high schools, including the XQ Super School Project, which will award big money ($50 million) this summer to five of the most promising design teams across America. But for those bodacious ideas to take deep root across America, we’re going to have rouse ourselves out of our collective complacency and start realizing we need to do far more than tinker at the edges.

As a start, take a close look at the groundbreaking high schools EdWeek features. And then closely consider the 10 principles that researchers suggest characterize a high performing high school:

  1. Integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort (relationships and expectations)
  2. Prioritizes mastery of rigorous standards aligned to college & career readiness
  3. Continuously improves its operations & model
  4. Develops & deploys collective strengths (this is mostly about how adults collaborate and learn)
  5. Manages school operations efficiently & effectively
  6. Maintains an effective human capital strategy aligned with school model & priorities
  7. Empowers & supports students through key transitions into & beyond high school
  8. Remains porous & connected (open to outside ideas and partnerships)
  9. Has a clear mission & coherent culture
  10. Personalizes student learning to meet student needs

Be honest: Does your high school even come close to meeting these high-performing goals? Because the schools that are going to adapt for our kids are not the schools with nothing to lose, or the ones stuck on playing it safe.