Lt. Gov. O’Brien wrapping up application for federal education-reform funds

While Gov. Bill Ritter navigates the media storm set in motion by the surprise announcement that he will not run for reelection in 2010, Lt. Governor Barbara O’Brien is busy wrapping up the Colorado application to win K-12 school funding through the federal Department of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program. The program aims to reward innovative approaches to education reform. O’Brien is proposing new student performance testing and teacher evaluation, among other things. She spoke with the Colorado Independent over the holidays about the proposal and why many districts in the state have yet to sign on to the application.

Lt Gov. Barbara O'Brien
Lt Gov. Barbara O'Brien

Colorado Independent: Can you talk at all about how the application is shaping up?

Barbara O’Brien: A lot of our proposal is about implementing, on a statewide basis, some of the policy changes that took place over the last three years, under Gov. Bill Ritter. So higher standards, creating a new CSAP test. Everyone hates the current test.

Any idea what that new CSAP test would look like?

We’re thinking that it will be a combination of online quizzes during the course of the year. So, instead of students just taking a drop-dead test in the spring, they’ll be able to take little informal assessments throughout the year to see where they are on a track. They’ll be able to actually re-take quizzes if they find they didn’t do well. So progress is encouraged.

We also want a test that is really going to be meaningful; it’s really going to fit in with what they’ve been studying. Right now the CSAP is out of sync with a lot of what students are taught. There are districts that teach chemistry in a different order, but the chemistry questions on CSAP, for example, don’t match up with what students learned in the first semester.

So higher standards and a new CSAP. What other proposals will be in the Race to the Top application?

We’re required to have a plan for greatly increasing student performance in the state’s worst 5 percent of schools—that’s about 95 schools in Colorado.

This is where district participation is really important. We really want districts that have some of these struggling schools to sign on to a plan for turning them around—because if we’re selected for Race to the Top, we can give them some new resources, some new tools: more teachers, more career counselors (to help students understand the connection between high school and a career or going on to college), longer school days (so they have more time to learn), and more tutoring.

And then if, after a couple of years, a school isn’t getting measurably better, the option is to take it over, and turn it over to some other group that has a track record of running excellent schools.

Probably the least exciting part of this application is the longitudinal data system. That’s actually something where Colorado has been a leader. But we have a number of small districts that can’t afford to upgrade their information systems. So part of this money would be used to help those smaller school districts modernize their computer systems so they can feed student data into the systems and the state can analyze what kind of algebra programs seem to be working best, what kind of reading programs, et cetera. It would create a real data system for education around the state.

Teacher evaluation is another part of the application. I understand there are some bills proposed for the next legislative session related to teacher evaluation. Is the governor’s office involved with those?

There are at least two senators pushing state legislation. We are not. We have been working with a large committee of people since July on this. We think they have a really strong plan for a teacher evaluation system. We don’t think we need legislation quite yet, because we’ve got to pilot the plan and see if it works first.

The legislature will do what it does, and they might push forward with something. But for our proposal, we’re just describing what our consensus is and hoping we get the funding to try it out.

Can you talk about what that new evaluation would look like?

Half of the evaluation system has to be based on student growth data. The problem is that a lot of teachers teach subjects not tested on CSAP. The teachers, and I think rightly so, feel that’s not fair— to have some teachers held accountable and others, well, their subject isn’t even tested.

So what we would have to do is to come up with some kind of quantifiable evaluation for all the teachers who teach subjects that aren’t on CSAP, like social studies.

Then we’ll add to that other measures that teachers feel are really important for knowing how kids are doing. I can’t tell you what those are. But we’d put together a committee that will include teachers and principals to take a look at what kind of fair components could be added to this evaluation.

Colorado recently won $250,000 in Gates Foundation money to solicit help to write the grant. Can you talk about why the proposal was successful?

We heard a couple of things about that proposal.

One was that we were taking this so seriously that we seemed like a state that, no matter what happens with Race to the Top, we’re going to try to implement a lot of this anyway. It would just be slower.

Part of it is that we are a local-control state— which is not like the majority of states. They were interested in helping us develop a proposal that just has to be different than other states’ because of our local control traditions.

And then we really needed help budgeting this thing. We’ve been through budget cuts, and we just weren’t in a position to have a whole lot of people with technical skill working on this. So they put us in touch with a consulting company that has great experience with education budgeting and human resources just to give us some technical expertise.

I hear there is some confusion around getting school districts on board with the state’s Race to the Top plan. Can you talk about that?

Part of the emphasis in the proposal requirements is that you have the participation of local districts. It’s voluntary, but the idea is to show that you have enough district participation to have a statewide impact. So we are asking school boards and local associations, if the district has one, to sign [a] Memorandum of Understanding [signifying its approval] as soon as possible.

The confusion has been that the latest possible date is January 6. But for budgeting purposes, getting those in sooner would have helped us know what number of districts we were dealing with.

How many districts have signed on?

We have 33 school districts, so we’re up to 18 percent of all school districts.

[Note:  by the end of the day on December 22, the count was up to 73 school districts that had either signed up or indicated that they will. That represents 906 schools and 53% of the K-12 student enrollment.]

That’s a pretty low number this late in the game. Do you think school districts don’t want to sign?

We’re very certain they want to sign because we did a survey and 90 percent were interested.

You know it’s the holidays and a lot of people aren’t working right now. So we think it’s just a matter of the fact that they’re kind of understaffed this time of year and there was a little confusion over the date.

Have you had any school districts say they just won’t sign?

There are some rural districts that are really afraid that they can’t meet the reporting requirements because they don’t have the personnel. So we think there’s going to be lighter participation out on the eastern plains, in all of those rural districts— but that the main ones, along the Front Range, will be signing up.

Have you been able to give districts any kind of preliminary draft of the application?

We haven’t had a proposal to show anyone. We’re planning on doing that in about a week.

So far, we’ve been trying to sort through all the ideas that came from input process. And then because the governor and commissioner have to approve content, we had to run everything past them before we could start writing. So our writing team really just started writing last week.

But we intend to make this available for people and put it on the website just as soon as we had a decent draft.

That doesn’t hurt your chances if you show your cards to other states?

You know, we’re assuming that by now, if other states aren’t pretty much committed to their own plan, it’s going to be hard to make mid-course corrections. But because we’re local control, and buy-in is so important, I think it’s more important to make sure that we continue to be transparent and inclusive.

The federal deadline has really made everyone work through the holidays, hasn’t it?

This is the one thing where I could wring [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan’s neck [laughing] because the federal government missed every one of their own deadlines. They were supposed to have the guidelines to us in August— and they didn’t come out until November 18. So they’ve missed theirs, and now they’re done and every state in the nation has a team that’s going to have their Christmas ruined.

Do you have a hard deadline for when the federal government will announce the grants?

They’ve told us that they will pick the top five states and invite them to Washington to do a verbal presentation in March or early April. And then they plan to have a decision in late April. And then, if we’re selected, we have 90 days for participating districts to write their scope of work for implementing. That takes us to mid- to late-summer, so that’s when the money would start flowing.

Interview edited and condensed by Katie Redding.

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