First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

California to require gay history in schools

LOS ANGELES – California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. Read more in the New York Times.

Sixth and Ninth Grade academies jump start student success

DENVER –  Thousands of Denver students are getting a head start on middle and high school this summer through the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Sixth Grade Academy and Ninth Grade Academy programs.  The programs combine learning, leadership development and team-building activities to give students the confidence to achieve academic success throughout their middle and high school years. Read more from the Denver Public Schools.

Crayons to Calculators school supply drive underway

Crayons to Calculators, a school-supply drive created to ensure students in the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts head back to school with the supplies they need to succeed will be collecting supplies through July 29. Read more in the Broomfield Enterprise.

Sen. Bennet sits down with CBS4 over education reform

Sen. Michael BennettDENVER (CBS4) – Few members of Congress are as passionate about improving education as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. As a former superintendent, Bennet knows the problems first hand. CBS4 political specialist Shaun Boyd sat down and talked to him about what he’s doing to change the system.

When making his case for education reform, Bennet loves to talk about the rally that no one would show for. Check out this CBS4 report.

Mogul John Malone to donate $7 million to DSST

Liberty Media chairman John Malone said Tuesday that he will donate $7 million to the Denver School of Science and Technology — the charter school’s largest donation ever.

Malone will give $4 million to the school this year and an additional $3 million to match funds raised by DSST through 2013. Read more in the Denver Post.

Douglas County School District to create faux charter school

CASTLE ROCK – There will be no classrooms full of students. There will be no staff of teachers. The sign outside indicates that the location is the school district headquarters. Yet, this will be the location of Douglas County’s newest charter school. Watch this 9NEWS report.

Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County’s district accountability committee, questioned staff about the Choice Scholarship School.

The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Jeffco employees agree: It’s a good place to work

The results of a recent district-wide employee survey show most of Jeffco’s 12,000 employees expressed pride in their jobs saying their work is important and has a direct impact on student learning.

Every two years, Jeffco Public Schools uses the survey to measure employee satisfaction and find areas needing improvement.  Over 8,000 employees finished the 2010 survey; a 77.6 percent response rate with most of the survey questions receiving a positive rating and very few responses falling into the negative range.

Survey results show that employees rated their sense of personal responsibility, accountability and feeling respected very high.  Staff said the strength of Jeffco Schools is found in the district’s supervision, effectiveness, diversity and values, by giving them high marks.

“This survey is one of the silver linings from a difficult year because it shows that even though we have had some difficult challenges with K-12 budget cuts, our employees continue to say that Jeffco is a wonderful place to work and learn,” said superintendent Dr. Cindy Stevenson.

Stevenson adds that it’s no surprise that many employees expressed concern over their increased workload.  “Our staff is doing more with less time and fewer resources,” she said.

Study finds key early skills for later math learning

Psychologists at the University of Missouri have identified the beginning of first grade math skills that teachers and parents should target to effectively improve children’s later math learning. Learn more from the Science Blog.

41 Colorado school districts line up for evaluation pilot program

Colorado school districts have overwhelmed the state Department of Education with their interest in participating in a state pilot program this fall for evaulating new teachers and principals.

“We thought we would be lucky to get 10 districts who were interested,” said Ulcca Joshi Hansen, the department’s associate director of educator effectiveness. Read more in the Denver Post.

Dist. 6 takes advantage of technology with new online learning program

The Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education had to find $6 million to cut from its 2011-12 budget, but it also had to find ways to be creative and move the district forward.

Board members think they’ve done just that with a new online-learning option that begins this fall. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Official: Investigation into possible test cheating expands

WASHINGTON — Investigators from the U.S. Department of Education have joined local investigators looking into possibly widespread test cheating by District of Columbia public schools educators, a D.C. official said Friday. The scope of what has been a limited probe has greatly expanded. Read more in USA Today.

Boulder students have more access to AP classes than students statewide

Analysis of new federal data backs up assertions by Boulder Valley School District leaders that they’ve made strides in increasing access to advanced classes.

But there are still some disparities among schools, with slightly higher percentages of students taking advanced placement classes at schools with the fewest low-income students. Read more in the Daily Camera.

DPS shows off latest purchase for future charter schools

DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Public Schools is showing off its latest purchase — the future home of two charter schools.

The school district bought Denver Lutheran High School with bond money. The new campus in southwest Denver will house a new West Denver Prep High School. Watch this CBS4 report.

Summer internship has Denver students help with bond projects

Itzel Salazar, 17, walked through a K-8 school in Denver last month, looking for imperfections in the site’s bond project.

An aspiring architect, she noticed two places where the carpet was sticking up — a potential hazard for students. “It just didn’t look right,” she said. Read more in Your Hub.

Denver Head Start program lagging in funds

Some agencies that provide the Head Start program in Denver are facing budget cuts and a reduction in the number of slots they requested this year.

The Head Start program, which earlier this year faced potentially deep federal budget cuts, provides preschool and health-related services to low-income families. Read more in Your Hub.

Loveland students learn to tell the tale

Loveland storyteller Vivian Dubrovin asked the 50-plus children circled around her Tuesday morning to say “boo,” giving voice to the marionette she manipulated in the media center at Monroe Elementary School.

Dubrovin told “The Little Ghost” from “Storytelling Discoveries: Favorite Activities for Young Tellers,” that she co-authored with her daughter Barbara Dubrovin.

With a few props on hand, Dubrovin gave the students in Camp Monroe – a five-week summer camp for students entering kindergarten through fourth grade – a lesson on storytelling. Read more in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

New standards focused on post-grad performance

New state academic standards will begin to take effect in the upcoming school year in an effort to revolutionize and streamline Colorado education.

“Our mantra was fewer, clearer, higher standards; fewer areas that students will focus on to a much higher depth and greater rigor,” said Melissa Colsman, director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Department of Education, who is responsible for standards implementation throughout the state. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Poudre schools ready to implement new standards

Teachers at the Poudre School District are gearing up for a year of change.

With the new Colorado Academic Standards taking effect for the 2011-12 school year, principals across the district have prepared their teachers to give students an experience- and goal-based education. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

DPS bond savings fund additional school projects

DENVER – This summer, Denver Public Schools is busy working on major construction projects that are part of the 2008 voter-approved General Obligation Bond, including dozens that were not part of the original scope of bond projects but were made possible thanks to $90 million in savings from strong cost management and favorable market conditions.  Read more en Español or in English and find out when ribbon cuttings are planned.

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.

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.