School reform proposals kick off ‘Race to the Top’ in Colorado

DENVER — A corps of turnaround experts who would travel from failing school to failing school, a computerized, multimedia test to replace the Colorado Student Assessment Program, and a “360 degree” evaluation for teachers mirroring business-world performance evaluations were just some of the ideas Race to the Top school reform workgroups presented Friday to Gov. Bill Ritter, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones.

Governor Ritter listens to workgroup recommendations on Friday (Kate Redding: The Colorado Independent)
Governor Ritter listens to workgroup recommendations on Friday (Kate Redding: The Colorado Independent)

The volunteer groups — which drew the participation of approximately 650 people, according the lieutenant governor — have been meeting since August.

And while O’Brien praised the volunteers’ work, she and Jones were also clear that the state viewed the committee recommendations as just that — recommendations.

“Please also note that the final application may include some, all or none of the final [volunteer group] recommendations,” said Jones.

Jones said he would also be looking at best practices within and without the state, and O’Brien said she expected the white papers solicited by the administration would also shape the application.

The state now has approximately 60 days to finish its application, due Jan. 19, 2010. But ahead of that deadline, it expects to apply for funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help write the grant. That recently-announced grant is due Nov. 20, O’Brien said.

Below are just a few of the key recommendations made by the workgroups.

Turning around low-performing schools

Among many ideas, this workgroup suggested developing a “Turnaround Corps” of educators who have the knowledge and skills to quickly reform schools.

In his questions, however, the governor wondered how to keep a corps of educators “who are a bit itinerant by nature,” at a school long enough to turn it around.

“It’s going to require a cultural change in the way teachers think and the way they work,” acknowledged Jesus Salazar, committee co-chairman and senior manager at business and technology consulting firm Credera. “We feel that there needs to be changes in incentives to promote this behavior.”

The group also suggested that the state adjust its funding system to tie funding to students with greater needs, rather than schools with greater needs.

“The idea is to increase the monetary value for individual students, not so much the schools they attend, so that there is a strong desire to serve individual student needs,” said the other workgroup co-chair, Monty Moses, who is also the former superintendent of Cherry Creek public schools. “Students who would move from a struggling school to another school, their resources would actually travel with them, so that a school would want to protect these students and do their very best job to serve their needs.”

Longitudinal data systems

“Historically, the relationship around data and reporting between school districts and the state has been more around compliance,” began Annette Quintana, committee co-chair and CEO of technology talent and IT consulting firm Istonish, in her presentation. “Well, that’s not going to be enough if we’re really going to transform how technology can meaningfully support a transformational process.”

Quinatana’s workgroup argued that schools need access to data systems which can provide “early warning indicators” when a student clearly isn’t understanding the material; that can allow teachers, students and schools to each view their progress; and that are cost-efficient and supportable at a district level.

Asked what she thought of the state’s, a new website of student data that received an enthusiastic launch from the state, Quintana tactfully suggested much more could be done.

“It’s a start,” she said.

Standards and assessments

One of this group’s recommendations was that the state implement computer-aided assessments to provide feedback in real time.

“How much of this is reacting to the CSAP?” Ritter asked.

“I think it was a direct reaction,” said co-chair and Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock. “I think it was very clear among the educators in the room as well as the students that if I sit down and look at an assessment, it ought to be relevant to what I’ve learned in the classroom.”

“I think the second thing that was made very clear governor, is that the students and teachers were saying you know what, let’s make sure that we’re mastering what we should be mastering. And that everything we’re being tested on is relevant to what we need to know as we walk away from this grade level, this class, this subject matter.”

Great teachers and leaders

This group recommended, among other things, that the state implement the so-called 360 degree evaluation, common in the business world, for teachers and administrators.

For teachers, said co-chair George Sparks, who is also president and CEO of Denver Museum of Nature and Science, student achievement should be a big portion of that evaluation—but the evaluation should also include observations from peers, a principal, a mentor teacher, students and parents.

“Pay should be based on your evaluation, which is based on student growth and the other balanced metrics,” continued Sparks “Sustained performance should result in higher pay; pay should not be driven solely by seniority.”

The group suggested that the state create an Office of Performance Management in the Colorado Department of Education. The office would train supervisors to evaluate employees, create a process and create a statewide evaluation instrument.

But while Sparks praised the group’s work with the Colorado Education Association, one of two major statewide unions, he also warned Ritter that the road ahead could be bumpy.

“One thing we’re going to have to look out for is that trust is very low in the system,” said Sparks. We’re going to have to build trust.”


Asked about pushback from interest groups as the state puts together its application, O’Brien said she didn’t expect much.

“I think the pushback is going to come from the people who are afraid that we’ll somehow get out in front of ourselves with the funding and somehow not be able to sustain it,” she said. “But they don’t understand that you’re not allowed to spend it on operating costs.”

But Van Schoales, urban education program officer for the Piton Foundation, disagreed.

“I think there’s going to be pushback,” he said. But he argued that “now’s the time to push,” pointing out that the state may not have such a carrot as Race to the Top again.

Still, Schoales worried that a federal requirement to have as many school districts as possible—and their superintendents, board presidents and union presidents—sign on to the state’s application could result in a watering-down of the application.

So far, the Colorado Education Association, one of the state’s main unions, doesn’t have much to say publicly about the recommendations. “We’re not going there,” said Deborah Fallin, CEA spokeswoman, when asked Monday if any of the recommendations concerned CEA. Fallin pointed out that it was still too early in the process to know which of the recommendations the state will choose, but said CEA will continue to weigh in as the proposal is developed.

Ben DeGrow, education policy analyst for the free-market Independence Institute, found much to like about the application, particularly the suggestions to provide financial incentives to teachers and to attach higher funding to high-risk students (which he noted would give parents more choice about which schools could best serve their students.)

But Kevin Wellner, Director of the Education and the Public Interest Center, CU Boulder (which some argue is union-funded) challenged the state to come up with its own funding instead of reaching for a handout.

“All of these machinations have value, because creative thinking about education is always worthwhile,” he said. “But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that winning this short-term Race to the Top funding is any sort of solution to Colorado’s education needs.”

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