First Person

Voices: Reducing the need for remedial ed

The executive director of Colorado GEAR UP, Scott Mendelsberg, highlights attempts around the state to prepare students for college and reduce the need for remediation.

Middle school math classroom
Kearney Middle School teacher Jordan Siebenaller works out problems with sixth-graders Orlando Ramirez (left) and Noelani Schumpf (right). Teachers screen students in sixth and seventh grade with potential for college and enroll them in online remedial math courses that are part of the federal GEAR UP program, which provides early remediation and support students years before they start college.

Quick, what is one-half divided by one-sixth?

If you encountered that question on a test today, how long would it take you to reach back across your years of education to remember the formula for multiplying fractions?

Many students in Colorado’s graduating class of 2011 would have trouble with that question, based on the results of the annual remedial education report released April 16 by the state Department of Higher Education.

The report found 40 percent of the Class of 2011 who enrolled in a state college or university needed remedial help before they were ready for college-level work. Most of those – 51 percent – needed help in math.

Unfortunately, these numbers shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been involved in education for long. As the former principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, I was as frustrated as my students – many of them the first in their families to go to college – by this added obstacle to higher education.

But I believe more attention needs to be paid to the work now being done in K-12 districts and on college campuses across Colorado to reduce the need for remedial courses and to lessen the time students spend in these classes.

These efforts are thoughtful, bold – and unprecedented in our state’s history. Consider three examples:

1. The Colorado Community College System has approved dramatic changes in how remedial classes are delivered. Students who need help will no longer be placed in courses that can consume up to four semesters.

Instead, community colleges by fall 2014 will offer individualized solutions that include brief refresher courses or placement in a college-level course with an accompanying support class. The goal is completion of any remedial work in one semester or less.

2. Partnerships between K-12 and higher education have resulted in efforts such as those in Aurora Public Schools, which is posting lower remediation rates. In APS, students whose 11th-grade ACT scores show they may need remedial help can take the courses as high school seniors.

For example, students can take a remedial math course in the fall followed by a college algebra course in the spring.

3.  More than a dozen middle and high schools across Colorado are tackling the remediation issue even earlier, through participation in the federally-funded Early Remediation Pilot. In this initiative, nearly 700 eighth-graders and ninth-graders are enrolled in math classes that mirror the work done in remedial math courses on college campuses.

This effort – a partnership between Colorado GEAR UP, which I lead, and Adams State University in Alamosa – is in its second year. As students complete the classes, they receive a transcript from Adams State documenting their work.

The transcript is important because it allows our students to begin taking college courses as early as grade 10, with GEAR UP picking up the tab. So students are putting their math skills to work right away.

Statistics show our students are the most likely to need remediation – they’re typically low-income, minority and the first in their families to go to college.

We’ve proven our strategies can help them succeed: GEAR UP students graduate high school, enroll in college and persist in college at higher rates than state averages.  And GEAR UP students graduate high school having already earned 17 college credits.

But many of them still need remediation in college, whether because they are poor test-takers or because they forgot – like many of you, perhaps – the simple trick behind dividing fractions.

These three examples aren’t the only efforts underway in Colorado to address the remedial issue. But they highlight the promising work that can be done when K-12 and higher education join forces for better outcomes for students.

Oh, and the trick behind dividing fractions? Flip the second fraction upside down and then multiply it by the first fraction. So 1/2 multiplied by 6/1 equals 6/2 or 3.

Anybody ready for division with fractions and whole numbers?

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.