Standards Showdown

Supporters of bill that would delay new standards, test make pitch to state board

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Anita Stapelton sets up for a rally protesting the implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards, which have been fused with the controversial Common Core Standards. Stapelton has demonstrated in front of the Colorado Department of Education each month since August.

Supporters and opponents to a bill that would delay the full implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards lobbed their opening pitches to lawmakers, the State Board of Education and the media Wednesday, the day before the Senate Education Committee may decide the fate of the measure.

Supporters of the bill, which would also delay the rollout of standardized tests aligned to the standards and create a committee to review the standards and their implementation, raised concerns about the standards’ lack of rigor and transparency in how the standards were developed. Several individuals also predicted a botched testing apparatus and student data being sold and manipulated to serve private-business interests. The other predominant theme was local control.

“Ultimately, it is our belief that content standards at a national level will drive conformity, instead of innovation, and mediocrity instead of excellence,” said Wes Jolly, the director of academic services at the the Classical Academy, a public charter school in Colorado Springs. “We, as a state, can do better. Common Core’s implementation and assessment strategy ultimately will prove detrimental to the goals we should be pursuing as a state.”

Opponents of the bill argued that Colorado has gone too far in implementing the standards to turn back now. Student outcomes are already improving, they said.

“The new standards provide students, teachers and parents a clear understanding of what students are expected to learn at every grade level — this serves as a road map for a quality education,” said Shelby Edwards, a senior education fellow at the Colorado Children’s Campaign . “We know, however, there is more to be done. We support the implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards and we ask for your continued support as well. Colorado has been developing these higher standards since 2008. And every school across the state has implemented these standards this school year. It is not time to turn around — it is time to continue our efforts of improving education in Colorado.”

State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, explains her rational for sponsoring a bill that would delay the implementation of new standards in Colorado at an 11:30 a.m. press conference. To her right are Director of Academic Services at the Classical Academy Wes Jolly and Monument Academy Principal Lis Richards.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, explains her rational for sponsoring a bill that would delay the implementation of new standards in Colorado at an 11:30 a.m. press conference. To her right are Director of Academic Services at the Classical Academy Wes Jolly and Monument Academy Principal Lis Richards.

The new standards, developed in Colorado but fused with the controversial Common Core State Standards, were approved by the State Board of Education in 2011. School districts must have either adopted the standards or created their own that meet or exceed the state’s.

The controversy surrounding Common Core has risen to a fever pitch across much of the nation. Since the Common Core’s inception, 45 states have adopted the standards for math and English language arts. But during the last few months, dozens have since either delayed the implementation and several have dropped out of the state consortia developing the accompanying tests.

Since August, a small but consistent group has voiced their frustration with Colorado’s participation with both the standards and the tests, but Wednesday’s gathering was the largest yet. Public comment at the state board’s monthly meetings are usually a pro forma affair, but the back-and-forth on the standards ran for more than two hours.

Most in attendance spoke out against the standards, requesting just a little more time to study issue. Several who want to see the bill passed agreed standards and assessments are needed, but believe the Common Core standards, which were developed by Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, and heavily encouraged by the Obama administration, are a one-sizes-does-not-fit-all approach.

“All we ask for is more time,” said Cheri Kiesecker, a Fort Collins mother who helped author the legislation being heard tomorrow.

But time is something the state may not have. The standards and how well students demonstrate mastery of them on state standardized tests are a linchpin to many of the education reform policies the state has implemented throughout the last five years including district and school accountability frameworks and teacher effectiveness evaluations.

Nearly a dozen school districts are nearing the end of the so-called “accountability clock.” If student performance on standardized tests don’t improve their accreditation will be yanked. And beginning next school year, teachers will be evaluated, in part, by those same student outcomes.

The bill’s sponsor, Fort Collins Republican Vicki Marble, said putting too much emphasis on standardized tests is one of many reasons why she’s sponsoring the bill.

“We’re changing the definition of education to assessment,” she said during a press conference held before the state board meeting.

The State Board of Education has taken a “monitor” position on the bill, meaning it neither supports or opposes the bill.

But the board’s president, Paul Lundeen a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he personally supports the bill and has raised concerns about Common Core before.

Halfway through Wednesday it appeared much of the crowd that was promised to show support for a bill that would delay the implementation of Colorado's new standards would fail to materialize. But by time public comment was received by the State Board of Education, the crowd showed and spilled out into the hallway.
Halfway through Wednesday it appeared much of the crowd that was promised to show support for a bill that would delay the implementation of Colorado’s new standards would fail to materialize. But by time public comment was received by the State Board of Education, the crowd showed and spilled out into the hallway.

“I’ve never been a fan of the Common Core,” Lundeen said. “I think we’re creating a linkage between Common Core and assessments that will ultimately drive what curriculum looks like and I’m very concerned what that looks like for the students of Colorado.”

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat from Arvada, had mixed feelings after the meeting ended.

“I don’t know if [another year] would be any more telling as far as the standards,” she said.

But Goff was open to a larger discussion on assessments as whole.

“We feel it, the pressure [of assessments],” she said.

Goff, who was a teacher for more than 25 years, said the current debate reminds her of the one in 1993, when Colorado first implemented statewide standards.

“Change is hard,” she said.

Today’s debate is more complex, she said, adding that “this is a complex world.”

The public comment portion of the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting ended a day of mostly poor turnout from both supporters and opponents of the bill on a high note for supporters who hope to pack the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol tomorrow for the hearing.

Organizers behind the bill, earlier in the day, were disappointed the “bus loads” of supporters didn’t show up for a morning rally, which was eventually pushed to the afternoon. Mostly parents, lacking political prowess, they cited other obligations and a lack of organization.

But a well-orchestrated panel featuring Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and other supporters of Colorado’s standards fared about the same. Only eight lawmakers showed up at 7:30 a.m. to that event.

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”