First Person

Week of 1/17/11: Teaching & learning tidbits


Parent response to “Race to Nowhere” documentary film reviewed

The Boulder County-based Parent Engagement Network (PEN) is sponsoring a facilitated conversation from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb l, at Fairview High School, 1515 Greenbriar Blvd., to discuss the implications/insights presented in the “Race to Nowhere” movie.  The film will be screened at Jan. 25 at Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School, 101 E. Baseline Road, Lafayette.

The purpose of this event will be to frame a positive, strength-based response, and showcase how PEN can be utilized to further community conversation and action. PEN events are open to anyone from any Colorado district.

Colorado Legacy Schools seeks $250,000 from Pepsi Refresh

Colorado Legacy Schools is partnering with the National Math and Science Initiative’s Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program to significantly increase the number and diversity of students enrolling in and passing math, science and English AP exams across Colorado. The program combines financial incentives for students and teachers with extensive resources, training and additional time on task.


  • Raise AP exam scores among 2,000 students in 2011
  • Expand college access for underserved students
  • Close minority and gender achievement gaps in math and science
  • Invest in teacher skills aligned to student outcomes
  • Prepare more students for careers in science, technology and math

To support the push, you must register your e-mail address one time. Click “Join Refresh Everything. Input your e-mail address and choose a password. Once registered, you can go straight to the Colorado Legacy Schools page each day. Then, vote online every day. Vote daily by text: text the message “104883” to Pepsi (73774) every day.

Share your thoughts on Colorado’s next Commissioner of Education

A public online survey has been posted by the Colorado State Board of Education that provides an opportunity for all Coloradans to assist in the selection process for the next commissioner of education.

The survey is available here. Respondents are asked to select the five areas (out of a list of 20 suggested topics) that they believe are the most important for the next commissioner to emphasize in his or her work. The online form also provides an opportunity to submit other suggestions on areas that may be of importance. The survey will be posted through Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Online scholarship application goes live

Denver Public Schools seniors and recent graduates could be eligible for thousands of dollars in college scholarships from the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which has launched its online application for the 2011-12 school year. Scholarships are available to qualifying low- and middle-income Denver Public Schools graduates who enroll in one of 39 participating colleges and universities in Colorado.


Denver unveils new and improved School Finder

Based on feedback from parents and community members, Denver Public Schools has upgraded the School Finder feature on the DPS website. This feature lets you use a home address to locate a student’s neighborhood school as well as identify other nearby school options.

New features:

  • Enter a home address to see a student’s current neighborhood school, as well as his/her neighborhood school for next school year.
  • Download and print a view of a student’s boundary school for each grade (requires pop-ups to be enabled in the Web browser).
  • Receive an error message if the address you type in does not match DPS records.
  • Link directly to school-level, printable PDFs showing detailed boundaries.

Features that are still available:

  • Access information on all schools in the district, including links to school Web sites.
  • Find nearby schools and program/service information.
  • Identify a student’s boundary (neighborhood) school.

Learn more by clicking on School Finder.

Teacher training, taught by students

Syidah O’Bryant scribbled notes in a composition book, trying to keep up with a lesson about why teenagers are so sleepy in the morning.

Usually Ms. O’Bryant, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, is the one talking. But on a recent Tuesday, it was her student, Kare Spencer, 14.

Read more in the New York Times.

D-2 floats plan to hold back third graders who can’t read

Third graders in Harrison School District 2  who can’t read would not be promoted to fourth grade under a draft plan unveiled last week.

The idea, controversial but gaining interest as education experts across the country focus on remaking public education, is part of a five-year plan discussed Tuesday at a board retreat at the Cheyenne Mountain conference center.

Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

APS board delays decision on changing grad requirements

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education voted last week to delay a decision on changing the district’s graduation requirements, following more than an hour of testimony from teachers, parents and students. The new guidelines have drawn criticism from some parents and teachers in APS, specifically because they would eliminate the current requirement that high school freshman take health and physical education classes.

Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Boulder Valley teachers learning online techniques

boy on laptop computerA small group of Boulder Valley high school teachers is taking classes on how to use online learning techniques in their brick and mortar classrooms to better engage students.

The six-week online college classes to train the teachers are provided by an outside group, the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and paid for through a $200,000 state grant awarded jointly to the Boulder Valley and Thompson school districts. Along with classes, the grant pays for principal training, some equipment and an online repository system for lessons created by teachers.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

Colorado receives mixed reviews in new Quality Counts report

Education Week released its Quality Counts 2011 report last week, which evaluates state education systems and the challenges many states face in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The report also gives scores and grades to states on several education indicators.  Overall, Colorado ranked 39th nationally (out of 50 states and DC) and was given a C grade, with a cumulative score of 73.7, below the national average of 76.3.

Colorado received low grades for its standing on several indicators, including school finance, K-12 achievement, standards, college readiness and the teaching profession.  The state did, however, receive high marks for its school accountability and student assessments, among other indicators.  Click here to access the full Quality Counts report. You will have to pay for it.

DPS proposes $10 million increase in school budgets

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced that, despite an anticipated state funding cut of $15-20 million—the third straight year of funding cuts, the district is proposing a 2011-12 budget that would pump an additional $10 million into school-based budgets for next year—a roughly 2.3 percent increase to individual school budgets. The increases will benefit all students, with additional money targeted for students in poverty, preschoolers and kindergartners, and students in the district’s gifted-and-talented program.

School district considers cutting bus service

A Colorado school district is looking for ways to cut the cost of its school-bus operation, including the possibility of eliminating the service. The Falcon School District board voted Thursday to eliminate bus service next fall unless a less expensive option is found.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Fort Collins parents fight planned school closing

Parents in Fort Collins say they will lobby hard in the next few days to keep the doors open at an elementary school targeted for closure in a cost-saving measure.

Beattie Elementary, with an enrollment of 277, was singled out by Poudre School District Superintendent Jerry Wilson to be mothballed. In his recent recommendation, Wilson said closing Beattie could save the 51-school district $363,391 per year.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder middle school links special needs students with peer tutors

C.J. Lough encourages Zack Stern to draw pictures if he needs help settling during class at Southern Hills Middle School.

C.J. also helps Zack, who is in the school’s special education program, if he has trouble with a word and encourages him to listen if he gets distracted while the teacher is talking. Since the two started working together, Zack has been more willing to participate in the science labs and more open to working with his classmates.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

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, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.