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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.