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.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?