As we start making preparations for Thanksgiving holiday break, we are grateful for the remarkable work that thousands of educators are doing to support Colorado’s students to be prepared for this beautiful, scary, wonderful world. We hope your Thanksgiving tables will be filled with conversations that will be as rich and diverse as the food. And do not forget to consider adding Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish to complement the traditional sweet of the cranberry dishes. The color may be tough, but the flavor is great.
A+ Calls on DPS to Fix the Broken SPF
A Performance Framework that measures how schools are serving students is a powerful tool for district improvement, and for communicating school quality to families. While no tool of this kind is perfect, it provides important signals to educators about where students are doing well and where they need more support, and to families about the effectiveness of schools. In the past A+ has raised issues with the State and Denver’s performance frameworks alike. This year warrants additional scrutiny, as some of the pieces simply don’t add up to us.
Denver’s latest School Performance Framework (SPF) ratings were released last month with considerable fanfare because of the increased number of “Green” schools and the dramatic reduction (by nearly 70%) in “Red” schools, the lowest performing school category. The most dramatic change in ratings happened at the elementary level, only 4 of which received a Red rating.
The problem is that this shift in the ratings seems much more dramatic than the underlying data merits. On a whole Denver elementary students showed impressive improvement last year: the percent of students meeting or exceeding grade level expectations increased 4.7 points in English Language Arts and 2.3 points in math; on average elementary students scored better than 56% of their academic peers across the state in ELA and better than 54% of their peers in math. These gains should be celebrated. But this year’s ratings– that communicate that 70% of elementary schools are where they need to be– do not accurately reflect the work that still needs to be done.
The disconnect is driven primarily by early literacy data, which carried a much higher weight than ever before on the SPF. However well-intentioned the district was to include this data, there is clearly misalignment between the early literacy assessments and the state assessment that measures mastery in Language Arts. On average, there is 35 point difference in the students on-grade level as measured by iStation (the predominate early literacy assessment used in DPS) and CMAS English Language Arts. The consequence is that this inflated data has moved most elementary schools in the direction of “Green” even when the data from other assessments didn’t support that.
The district has appropriately told school leaders that these higher scores should be adjusted downward for early literacy such that they align with expectations on CMAS– and that they will be in the future (starting with the 2019 SPF). The district has even provided the appropriate adjustments to schools. We ask the district provide the same accurate information to families so that they know how their students and schools are doing on literacy. We also request that the district provide additional transparency about the underlying data by publicly releasing all the measures used in the SPF. It is critical that the district sharpen the tool and let families know how their school is performing.
A+ has been busy traveling to conferences and learning how educators and policymakers across the country are working to improve educational outcomes for students.
One trip included a meeting with Tennessee Commissioner Candice McQueen to better understand how Tennessee is improving achievement. Tennessee’s work developing and implementing a strategic plan should serve as an example to the Colorado Department of Education and districts across our state. Tennessee’s strategic plan is tied to an active research agenda around what is and is not working to drive the state towards their goals.
At a series of conferences that A+ staff has attended, salient questions have included: how can accountability measures and systems be improved upon and made more relevant? How can state funding formulas better target resources to the kids who need them most? How can school systems be not only more inclusive of families, but really break down barriers between schools and communities? What is the next frontier to enable more families to have more and better public school choices for their students, and how can programs be targeted to benefit the kids who need them the most? We are excited to work with others in Colorado and across the country on these questions and welcome others to join us.
School Choice in Colorado: What Does the Future Hold?
Parker Baxter, Director for Education Policy Analysis, School of Public Affairs, at the University of Colorado Denver moderated a forum on the future of school choice in Colorado on November 14th. Panelists included A+ Colorado CEO Van Schoales, Ross Izzard, Director of Policy, ACE Scholarship Foundation, Terry Croy Lewis, Executive Director, Colorado Charter School Institute, and Kent Seidel, Associate Professor and Director of the the Center for Practice Engaged Education Research, SEHD, CU Denver. Participants were optimistic about school choice thriving in Colorado. Discussion ranged from questions such as “are charters actually innovative?,” why students and parents choose schools (its not all about performance data), and the future of private school vouchers. The panelists expressed concern that Colorado, once a haven for civil debate on education issues, appears to have devolved into spreading misinformation in November’s election. A+ Colorado is grateful to be part of the conversation.
News to Share
New Sheriffs in Town
Last Tuesday ushered in new school board members across our state. These public servants will take on important decisions about the direction of schools in their districts. In Denver, we offer our congratulations to Barbara O’Brien (at-large), Angela Cobian (District 2- Southwest Denver), Dr. Carrie Olson (District 3- Central Denver), and Jennifer Bacon (District 4- Northeast Denver). In Aurora, we congratulate Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, and Marques Alexander Ivey (all at-large). We are honored by their public service and look forward to working with each new member to provide an excellent education to every child in their respective districts.
A+ Colorado strongly welcomes the opportunity to engage in a renewed dialogue and to move beyond divisive rhetoric with all board members about the future of public education in our communities. Our families and communities deserve robust conversations about how our schools are performing, straight talk about what is and isn’t working, and ideas about how to build a shared agenda for the future. In Denver, our CEO, Van Schoales, recently wrote about the major challenges and opportunities facing the district. We strongly encourage Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the new board to re-engage our city on the Denver Plan 2020 and how we move forward. In Aurora, we hope that the new board will seize an opportunity to build momentum for change. We also want the board to consider some big questions about how to accelerate school improvement, continue to break through the bureaucracy to innovate and to address the upcoming demographic challenges. As always, A+ Colorado is looking forward to all of these conversations.
When Chickens Come Home to Roost
Just in case anyone forgot the lessons from the recall of the Jeffco school board in 2015, this year’s Douglas County school board election provided ample evidence that practical results for families prevail over political ideology– even if it seemingly aligns with community priorities. We believe the results of the Douglas County election were less about the district’s voucher program than they were about the mayhem that many families thought was thrust upon their schools. The former DougCo school board and superintendent relentlessly focused on pushing a particular set of reforms on schools without engaging the community in any meaningful way. Accordingly, the voters threw out the board. New school board members across the state should reflect hard on these lessons. The only way to improve schools is to root solutions and strategies in our communities to co-create reforms.
Local Communities Step Up to the Plate to Fund Schools
Given state-level education funding flaws, we were pleased to see so many bonds and mills pass on November 7. In fact, 2017 extends the trend in which Colorado communities have increasingly been passing education bond and mill levies.
This chart does not include information about Briggsdale’s mill levy (Weld RE-10J) (election results will be finalized on 11/18/2017), Crowley County School District RE-1J (election results will be finalized on 11/16/2017), or BEST Matching Bond Measures. Notably, school districts with recently failed mill levy ballot measures, had success this year. These include:
- Colorado Springs D-11 (failed 2016)
- Estes Park R-3 (failed 2013)
- Greeley (failed 2016)
- Mesa County School District 51 (failed 2011)
This year, citizens voted to improve learning environments, recruit and retain qualified teachers, buy new materials, and improve access to childcare.
We realize that money is not the complete answer in terms of providing quality public education but we know it is a necessary component to ensuring that students have a great education. Local revenue is critical to ensuring that students have access to the resources they need. This is especially true in Colorado due to our outdated, inequitable school finance system that does little to ensure that students who need the most support get it. In fact, according to an analysis by Urban Institute, students in Colorado’s poorest districts receive only an additional $401 per student relative to more affluent districts, a ratio that has remained relatively unchanged for the past 20 years even as we get smarter about the impacts of income inequality and stratification across society. Even as local communities step up, it is clear Colorado needs a statewide solution to education funding.
Data for this article was obtained from Colorado School Finance Project.
Three Beams of Hope
After a divisive election season, this month we’re focusing on a few of the many examples where educators and communities have come together to provide learning opportunities for Colorado students.
It began with a phone call from Miami. It was an artist from Florida with The RAW (Re-imagining the Arts Worldwide) Project, a non-profit that connects global artists to local schools with the goal of beautifying school campuses. They quickly got the go-ahead from Denver Public Schools. Right after Labor Day over 30 artists from Denver, the US, and around the world began showing up and painted over a dozen murals at three Denver Public Elementary Schools: Cowell, Eagleton, and Fairview. We know that the learning environment matters and this a great way to inexpensively retrofit a drab space with joy and thought-provoking art.
Next, we highlight the remarkable school turnaround work happening at University Prep- Steele Street. Working collaboratively with Denver Public Schools, and the outgoing charter board for Pioneer Charter School, University Prep took over the struggling charter school (we think this was a first in Colorado). The first year, University Prep hired and trained using their first school at Arapahoe Street as the training ground. The next year 2016-17, University Prep Steele took over the former Pioneer Charter facility. This collaboration between the district and the two charter boards was driven by a laser focus on student achievement. The first year results for University Prep Steele Street show the largest single-year improvement in any school in Colorado. We look forward to following their results in the coming years.
Last, we highlight a collaboration between a small school district, local builders, and the local high school. A story that was first brought to our attention by Chalkbeat’s reporting and Donnell-Kay’s research on affordable teacher housing, Custer County offers a lesson in leveraging community partners to provide learning experiences for students. In Custer County, high school students got hands-on experience converting an unused preschool building into teacher housing, working alongside local builders and community volunteers. This is an important example of how students can be involved in solutions to community challenges, and how open-walled learning environments (where learning experiences are driven as much by communities as schools) can benefit all involved.
A+ in the News