First Person

Week of 11/29/10: Teaching & learning tidbits

Colorado’s charter school law gets a B

The Colorado Springs Gazette analyzes a report that gives Colorado a B for its charter school law.

A report from the national Center for Education Reform has given Colorado a B grade for its charter school law. It’s not too bad, considering 29 other states received a C or lower because of the weakness of the laws. Colorado was sixth in the ranking behind Washington, D.C. Minnesota, California, Arizona and Michigan. The report lauded the first three because the laws promote growth of the charters.

Here, kids are encouraged to dream, not drop out

CBS Evening News covers a Chicago charter school that’s breaking new ground as part of its series, Reading, Writing and Reform.

Did your school day ever start with dancing, clapping and cheers? Not likely, reports CBS News chief national correspondent Byron Pitts. But Chicago Talent Development Charter High School is not like most places. Centered in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, it’s a new approach to an old problem.

“Our goal is to make it a game changer,” said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins researcher.

What’s next for Michelle Rhee

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports on the next job for Michelle Rhee, the now ex-school reforming head of Washington D.C.’s struggling schools.

With a controversial, hard-charging school reformer’s name topping the list of Gov.-elect Rick Scott‘s Education Transition Team, South Florida teachers’ union officials braced themselves Thursday for an assault on teacher tenure and a radical restructuring of the education system. Rhee resigned in October as chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools amid outcry from unions after she fired more than 200 teachers largely over student performance.

Gates urges school budget overhauls

The New York Times reports on billionaire Bill Gates’ latest suggestions to school districts interested in improving. He suggests they end teacher pay increases based on seniority and on master’s degrees, which he says are unrelated to teachers’ ability to raise student achievement. He also urges an end to efforts to reduce class sizes. Instead, he suggests rewarding the most effective teachers with higher pay for taking on larger classes or teaching in needy schools.

School effort aims to engage parents

The Denver Post reports on a new initiative to get parents involved in school reform.

Much of the talk around educational reform has focused on the role teachers play in students lives, all but ignoring another big player: parents. One Denver high school is changing that narrative, creating a multi-school system that empowers parents with the goal of getting more students into college.

Colorado foundation secures nearly $2 million to fund educator effectiveness

The Colorado Legacy Foundation has secured $1.9 million in grant funding to support efforts by the state and local school districts to improve educator effectiveness.

“For the first time, a new state law requires Colorado to identify what makes an effective teacher and principal,” said CLF Executive Director Helayne Jones. “It also requires that at least half of every public school teacher’s and principal’s evaluation is based on their students’ academic growth. The need for resources to assist this work is urgent, and we’re pleased to be able to bring those resources to the table.”

In total the grant funding secured by CLF comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.75 million); the JPMorgan Chase Foundation ($51,000); the Daniels Fund ($70,000); and the Donnell-Kay Foundation ($30,000).

More U.S. teens getting high school diplomas

MSNBC reports on the increasing numbers of students earning high school diplomas.

blank high school diplomaATLANTA — The number of so-called “dropout factory” high schools in the United States has declined since 2002, translating into at least 100,000 more students getting a diploma, a new report shows.

But the report from America’s Promise Alliance released Tuesday also said that progress needs to increase fivefold for the country to graduate nine out of 10 students by 2020, a goal of the Obama administration.

Colo. students to be part of global math, science study

7 News reports on Colorado’s role in a new study that could shed light on America’s ranking globally in science and math education.

Colorado is among eight states chosen to have students tested in math and science for a study comparing their performance with students in more than 60 countries.

State education officials said Monday that the U.S. Department of Education chose Colorado, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina to participate in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. In Colorado, a sample of eighth graders in about 50 schools would be tested between April 4 and May 27. Individual test results won’t be available, but participating schools will receive school-level reports.

Student assessments to get overhaul

The Pueblo Chieftain tackles standardized testing revisions in Colorado.

The boards governing K-12 and college education in the state ratified an agreement Monday to change the way Colorado assesses students. The new model aims to better align the expectations for proficiency to enter college with the tests that measure growth through high school.

“Waiting for Superman” educator challenges Colorado business leaders

The Denver Post records comments of one of the nation’s leading education innovators during a recent Denver visit. Notable education reformer Geoffrey Canada looked out into a room of Denver’s business leaders Tuesday and pinned the future success of the country squarely on them.

“If the business community doesn’t get involved in this game, you are just going to watch this country decline,” said Canada, founder and chief executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “It is going to be your fault.”

Colorado foundation teams with Pepsi to help students in math and science

Colorado is competing for $250,000 from the Pepsi Refresh Project to help students succeed in college and excel in math and science. For the entire month of December, the foundation encourages the public to support public education by voting for “Colorado Legacy Schools” daily. The two projects with the most votes on Dec. 31 each win a $250,000 grant.

The initiative is focused on high-poverty, high-minority high schools and their feeder middle schools and aims to impact statewide policy with respect to the preparation of all students for college and careers in math and science.

Exclusivity of Greeley charter schools debated

The Denver Post reports on a charter school flap in Weld County.

A showdown is brewing over charter schools’ responsibility for educating low-income children. On Dec. 6, the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education will hold a special meeting to hear proposals from two charter school organizers asking to expand or build from scratch.

Union Colony Preparatory — the district’s first charter school — wants to expand its sixth-to-12th-grade school to include kindergarten through fifth grade. Newcomer West Ridge Academy wants to start a kindergarten-through-ninth-grade school.

2010 Centers of Excellence Schools announced

Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones this week announced the 32 schools identified as “Centers of Excellence” for the 2009-2010 school year.

Established by the Colorado State Legislature, the award recognizes schools that demonstrate the highest rates of student longitudinal growth as measured by the Colorado Growth Model among those that have at least 75 percent at-risk pupils in their student population.

The 2010 Centers of Excellence Schools are:

  • Adventure Elementary School, Mapleton School District
  • Atlas Preparatory School, Harrison School District 2
  • Beach Court Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Boston K-8 School, Aurora Public Schools
  • Bryant-Webster K-8 School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Bruce Randolph School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Centennial Elementary School, Harrison School District 2
  • Centennial High School, Centennial School District R-1
  • Center High School, Center School District 26 JT *
  • Cole Arts and Science Academy, Denver Public Schools
  • Cowell Elementary School, Denver Public Schools
  • Edison Elementary School, Colorado Springs School District 11 *
  • Fletcher Interm Science & Technology School, Aurora Public Schools
  • Force Elementary School, Denver Public Schools
  • Greenwood Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, Denver Public Schools *
  • Martin Luther King Middle College, Denver Public Schools *
  • McMeen Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Montview Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *
  • Moore K-8 School, Denver Public Schools
  • Nikola Tesla Education Opp. Center, Colorado Springs District 1 *
  • Nisley Elementary School, Mesa County Valley School District 51
  • Stedman Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Stein Elementary School, Jefferson County Schools *
  • Stratmoor Hills Elementary School, Harrison School District 2 *
  • Tollgate Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *
  • Virginia Court Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools
  • West Denver Prep, Federal Campus, Denver Public Schools *
  • West Denver Prep, Harvey Park Campus, Denver Public Schools
  • Whittier K-8 School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Wyatt-Edison Charter Elementary School, Denver Public Schools *
  • Yale Elementary School, Aurora Public Schools *

*Denotes also 2009 “Centers of Excellence” award.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.