Are Children Learning

Common Core's fate murkier after Pence's speech

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence focused on education issues in his state of the state speech in January as well as throughout the legislative session.

Did Gov. Mike Pence telegraph the end of Common Core standards in Indiana during his state of the state speech?

That’s what a couple key Democrats thought tonight, and they weren’t alone.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and one of her fellow Indiana State Board of Education members agreed afterward that the state is probably ultimately headed for new, locally-written standards.

Pence has been cagey about his position on the increasingly controversial Common Core, saying he has not made up his mind about the standards that Indiana and 45 other states have agreed to follow. But in two paragraphs of his speech, he seemed to hint more strongly than in the past that national standards won’t last in the Hoosier state.

“When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana’s will be uncommonly high,” Pence said. “They will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers and will be among the best in the nation.”

That caught the ear of Democratic House Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, who exchanged a knowing glance with his senate counterpart, Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

“My interpretation is he doesn’t like Common Core or want to do it,” he said. “That’s what Sen. Lanane thought, too.”

The Common Core aims to establish what students need to know by the time they graduate high school to be ready for college or careers and to compete internationally. Indiana adopted Common Core as its state standards and began implementing them a grade per year starting at kindergarten in 2010. Some districts have gone faster, however, already adopting them K to 12.

It wasn’t until 2013 when a backlash against Common Core emerged as a potent force in the statehouse. Conservative legislators raised concerns that the standards were too closely aligned with the priorities of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, ceding too much local control. Others felt Indiana’s prior standards were stronger.

Some liberals agreed, or felt Common Core was too strongly aligned with a testing-based, accountability-driven system of education they objected to.

During the 2013 legislative session, a bill passed that “paused” implementation of Common Core.  It required new public hearings and additional study of Common Core, setting July 2014 for a new vote of the Indiana State Board of Education as to whether to continue with Common Core or write new Indiana standards. A new bill emerged in the legislature last week that would extend the Common Core pause for a second year.

Last year Pence withdrew Indiana from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of states building a shared, Common Core-aligned exam to replace their state tests. Pence has long been an advocate for local control of education, even voting against the federal No Child Left Behind law while representing Indiana in the U.S. Congress.

Pence invited Ritz and her 10 fellow state board members to the speech and spent a large portion of his speech talking about his education agenda.

“Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools,” Pence said. “That’s why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards.”

After the speech, Ritz said she did not expect Common Core standards alone to emerge this summer as Indiana standards, the way they are now.

“There will be a change to what we currently have,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing now. We’re reviewing the standards.”

The suggestion that Indiana would drop the Common Core to instead create its own standards has recently been echoed by legislative leaders, including House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. House Republican leaders, including Bosma, have been supportive of Common Core, while most of the skepticism about the standards has been in the Senate. Others have suggested the state might borrow elements both from Common Core and from the state’s prior standards.

Some Common Core advocates have argued the state needs to stick with the national-aligned standards because college entrance tests like the SAT and ACT exams will soon be tied to Common Core.

A frustrated Tony Walker, a Democrat from Gary who serves on the state board, is one of them. He said the state cannot drift too far from the Common Core if it writes new standards.

“I think all of our anchor standards will have to be Common Core,” he said. “They have to be. We can’t go it alone. For kids to get into colleges across the country they’re going to have to be aligned to Common Core.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.