First Person

Week of 12/13/10: Teaching & learning tidbits

Oregon will allow use of spell check on state writing tests in 2011

The Oregonian newspaper reports on one state allowing spell check in schools.

Do you have to be good at spelling to be a good writer? Not necessarily, at least not in Oregon public schools. As middle and high school kids begin taking state writing tests next month, they’ll have a new tool at their fingertips: spell check. For the first time, Oregon is allowing students – those taking online and paper tests – to use a spell check button on a computer to check their work before submitting answers to the writing test prompts.

New award for Colorado’s top teachers

Stand for Children, an nonprofit education advocacy organization, with support from the Daniel’s Fund, has launched a new contest to acknowledge outstanding Colorado teachers. This contest, called Our Heroes, was inspired by the film “Waiting for Superman.” Stand for Children is asking people to nominate outstanding teachers to receive awards of $1,000 to use for classroom supplies or professional development. The panel of judges (including current and former teachers) will review nominations and select up to 10 winners, to be announced Jan. 17. Contest rules and the nomination can be found here.

Top Colorado districts, schools honored

Three outgoing state leaders recently thanked educators in Colorado’s highest-performing districts and in its high-poverty but high-growth schools, while warning of tough challenges ahead. Read the story and watch the video at Education News Colorado.

Are 9th graders smarter than everyone else?

9News reports on an odd phenomenon that even has educators flummoxed.

In every public high school across Colorado, there is a mystery that’s baffling state leaders. Students who are in 9th grade now have been scoring higher on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests than their peers in other grades.

“It’s like an intellectual tsunami,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner of education in charge of assessment.

Aurora Public Schools’ niche pathways hailed by Ritter, biz leaders

The Aurora Sentinel reports on an innovative program Aurora Public Schools is embracing to engage students who have very clear interests.

Autumn Page-Tinsley and Dominic Wegner spent four days in July simulating rocket launches and mingling with a former NASA astronaut. But before the 13-year-old students from Columbia Middle School in Aurora could pack their bags for Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., they underwent a rigorous application process. The trip, sponsored by a grant from Northrop Grumman, was only one part of a specialized kind of instruction at the school, a new, “pathways” oriented approach that’s being implemented across the Aurora Public Schools district.

Douglas County school board votes to research voucher program

The Denver Post reports on the voucher flap that has people in well-heeled Dougco and beyond talking. The

School voucher meeting in Douglas County
Former Douglas County school board member Emily Hansen spoke against vouchers at a recent meeting.

Douglas County school board recently took another step toward a voucher program, with the board president saying he would like a pilot program for the 2011-12 school year. The unanimous vote came after an hour of public comments that were about equally split on whether the district should pursue such a program.

Study backs ‘value-added’ analysis of teacher effectiveness

The Los Angeles Times reports on one study showing that value-added assessments of teachers work. The story concludes that teachers’ effectiveness can be reliably estimated by gauging their students’ progress on standardized tests, according to the preliminary findings of a large-scale study released recently by leading education researchers.

Backlog could force good Colorado teachers out of classrooms

7NEWS explores a growing backlog at the Colorado Department of Education that has background checks and licensing for teachers in Colorado backed up by as much as eight months. The delays could force good teachers out of the classroom temporarily until their license is renewed. The backlog could also force districts to retain bad teachers until new teacher applications are processed.

Study: States must move faster to close achievement gaps

Education Week reports on a study that finds if states continue their current pace of progress in narrowing achievement gaps between students of different races, ethnic groups, and income levels, it could take decades for lagging student groups in some states to catch up to their better-performing peers.

At California school, parents force an overhaul

Ever wonder if parents can really make a difference? Here’s an example of the power parents can have when they get organized. Read this New York Times story.

COMPTON, Calif. — By Marlene Romero’s count, her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at McKinley Elementary School here. Most of the time, she said, he has merely shuffled through classrooms, struggling in math without ever getting extra help.

Poll: Most want easier way to fire bad teachers

The Associated Press reports on a study it conducted with Stanford University researchers that found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while most also believe that teachers aren’t paid enough.

Race to the Top: States that lost school money face reform dilemmas

9News reports on how districts are moving forward on reform plans without the federal money they sought.

It’s like buying a fancy dress but having no date to the prom – dozens of states that crafted new education policies to compete for a share of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” school reform grant prizes were shut out. Now, as the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia set about spending their awards, the losing states (including Colorado) are left wondering what to do with ambitious reform plans they planned to fund with the money.

Bleak prospects for future K-12 support

Not that you need bad news this time of year, but education funding in Colorado is just one of those perpetually grinch-like topics. Read this Education News Colorado for the latest budget update.

Sixty-five Colorado teachers gain National Board Certification

Sixty-five Colorado teachers achieved National Board Certification in 2010, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. That gain represents a 13.5 percent increase in the total number of teachers holding National Board Certifications in just one year. Like board-certified medical doctors, National Board Certified Teachers have met high standards through intensive study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review. Colorado ranks 25th among all states in the number of teachers achieving board certification this year and ranks 26th in the total number of teachers (545) who have earned National Board Certification.

The state’s top five school districts in terms of the cumulative total of teachers (based on where teachers currently work) are:

  • Denver Public Schools – 78
  • Boulder Valley School District – 77
  • Cherry Creek School District – 76
  • Douglas County School District – 49
  • Mesa Valley County School District 51 – 40

Broomfield High program lets students become the teachers

The Daily Camera writes about an innovative Broomfield program that turns the tables on teachers and students.

At first, when Savannah Peters, 17, saw the level of work involved in teaching, she didn’t think it was the career for her. But working with kids at Emerald Elementary School through the Teacher Cadet program showed her how important teachers are, particularly if a student doesn’t have a support system at home. She said she has found the experience extremely rewarding.

Denver embraces charter schools in hard-to-serve neighborhoods

Building on some of the key principles of its 2010 Denver Plan, the Denver Public Schools has created a groundbreaking District-Charter Compact built on the core value that excellent educational opportunities “must be available to all students in all parts of the city, and our students’ access to them must not be limited in any way by socioeconomics, language, citizenship status, or special needs of students.”

DPS recently hosted a national conference with the Gates Foundation and the leadership from eight other big-city school districts that have adopted similar compacts around Denver’s framework of equity of opportunity, access and responsibility, and accountability for all public schools, district-run and charter.

Read the story in Education News Colorado.

Special ed funding ignores need as well as numbers

Face the State analyzes what’s happened to special education funding in Colorado. It turns out the state’s approach to funding special education is flawed in more ways than one. Not only does the state formula risk shorting school districts whose special-ed enrollment is on the rise while rewarding those with declining numbers – but it also fails to recognize the severity of a district’s special-ed needs.

Study: Most students fail to meet common-standards bar

Education Week reports on a study showing that most students have far to go before they master the skills and knowledge outlined in the new common standards that have been adopted by all but seven states.

Demographics behind enrollment in Denver Public Schools

Education News Colorado has taken data from the October student count to populate a new database showing enrollment numbers, poverty and minority rates, and numbers of English language learners and students with special needs for all 169 schools and programs in Denver Public Schools. Click on the link to search.

Poll: Education backed, but not new school taxes

MSNBC reports on a recent poll showing that Americans don’t support new taxes for schools – despite their belief that the better the quality of education in this country, the stronger the U.S. economy will be.

Eighty-eight percent say a country’s education system has a major effect on its economic health. Nearly as many — 79 percent — say the U.S. economy would improve if all Americans had at least a two-year college degree, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.

Pueblo principals say they are improving schools

The Pueblo Chieftain writes that progress is being made in turning around six low-performing schools.

“As we have begun the process, clearly we are getting on the ground and beginning to truly understand what’s working well and what are the needs and the challenges,” said Manny Rivera of Global Partnership Schools.

GPS is a New York-based consultant working with the district officials on developing and implementing school improvement plans for six schools that have deemed turnaround or transformation by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Parents fighting to save schools

The Coloradoan newspaper covers a story about parents fighting school closures in the Poudre School District.

Poudre School District administrators have asked five schools, Irish, Putnam, Lopez and Beattie elementary schools along with Lincoln Middle School, to develop plans for possible closure and consolidation. PSD is pursing the plan to address underutilization of its facilities. Eleven other schools have submitted innovation/ efficiency plans as part of the process.

New guidelines make teacher tenure less automatic in New York City

The New York Times reports on changes to the tenure system in one of the nation’s largest, most complicated school districts. In most schools across the country, tenure is not something to be gained, but something to be lost. Virtually every new teacher earns it, including in New York City, where all a principal has had to do to give a teacher guaranteed lifetime employment is to check a box on a computer program.

First Person

I’m a black male teen in Aurora, and I see how ‘achievement gap’ forms

The author, Ayden Clayton.

Have you ever heard of the achievement gap? Every column, blog or article that I’ve read on this topic has never come from a African-American, let alone an African-American male.

Here is a voice that should be heard: mine.

Recent research from Stanford showed that African-Americans come in behind other students on standardized tests and enrollment in honors to AP and college classes. This is very important because the gap is also prevalent at Rangeview High School in Aurora, where I am a senior.

There really is a problem. Look at the facts: 25.8 percent of African Americans are in poverty according to Census information published in 2013. The problem is how their lives at home are affecting classroom behavior or attention in class. This goes for all races, but the trend is that many of the students with families living in poverty drop out of high school.

“I believe the achievement gap is a multi-level problem in the education system,” English teacher Mr. Jordan Carter, who works at Rangeview and is a mixed minority, told me. “The hardest thing about it is telling people it is a significant problem. We can solve it by devoting time and resources to find the problem and we need to address kids from all backgrounds. Kids with better resources usually do better.”

I see other problems, too. As a student at Rangeview, I’ve been in numerous AP, honors and CCA classes (college courses) throughout my high school career. What I really have noticed were the underprivileged kids being treated differently, almost like the teachers thought of them as troublemakers without even knowing them.

I’ve had many teachers stereotype me about drugs, hip-hop, if I have a dad and more, and it made me pretty uncomfortable to the point where I didn’t want to go to the class. I feel that when issues such as these that occur in the classroom, it makes students of color not want to focus, and teachers could probably use better training on how to teach kids that do not look like them.

Those students would continuously sit in the back of classes, wouldn’t raise their hand, and wouldn’t ask questions. I used to be one of them. It’s not because the urge to not learn, but the discomfort of the setting in the classroom. When you get looked at and thought of like that, you don’t feel welcomed.

It is becoming evident that Rangeview is in need of a serious sit-down with some of our staff, such as the principal, teachers and all administrators. That way, students can see where their minds are and how they are trying to deal with the way they feel about fair conditions in the classroom.

The administrators should also talk to students – particularly minority students – about our wants and needs so we as students can have some input. For the students who are struggling, it would be great to have counselors talk to them and find a way that would help the students improve their academic careers, such as tutoring or staying after school.

I have faced the stereotype of being another dropout who is eventually going to jail, but I use that as inspiration every day. I know that all African-American males and females can make a change by letting our voice be heard.

Although I haven’t been through as much as other African-American students, I’ve been through enough to have my opinion matter. We — as minorities — can also take responsibility to change this problem by staying in school and voting into our government people who will fund impoverished areas.

As a community we need to fight stereotypes together. We either defeat stereotypes together or become the stereotypes ourselves.

Ayden Clayton is a senior at Rangeview High School. This piece first appeared in the Rangeview Raider Review.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.