SBE pulls a surprise

State Board votes 4-3 to give districts waiver option on testing

A divided State Board of Education has fired the first official shot in Colorado’s 2015 testing wars, but it remains to be seen if that action is a live round or a dud.

The board Thursday voted 4-3 to allow school districts to seek waivers from administering the first part of PARCC tests in language arts and math, scheduled to be given in March.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the board it doesn’t have the authority to do that, and Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said he wouldn’t grant such waivers unless told he could do so by the attorney general’s office.

“Should this motion pass it probably wouldn’t have legal effect,” Dyl told the board before the vote. “This is a part of the law you do not have the power to waive.”

Hammond told the board, “If you pass this motion I will not implement it until I get guidance from the attorney general’s office. … It could have widespread implications on schools.”

The motion was made by Steve Durham, a new Republican board member from Colorado Springs, and seconded by Deb Scheffel, a Republican member from Douglas County, Also voting for it were new Democratic member Valentina Flores from Denver and Republican Pam Mazanec from Douglas County.

“If the commissioner elects not to grant those [waivers] that’s up to him,” Durham said. “I believe a much fuller legal analysis is required, and I fully intend to meet with the attorney general.” Interviewed after the meeting, Durham said, “I hope someone makes a waiver request and moves it forward. … Should the commissioner decide he does not want to grant a waiver, then someone who applies for a waiver and is not granted one can litigate the question.”

Voting no were chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, and Democrats Angelika Schroeder of Boulder and Jane Goff of Arvada.

“If we pass this motion it will cause chaos in the state and in the districts,” Neal said. “This is a terrible motion. We need to defeat it and then we need to work to get this state out of PARCC.”

Neal also said, “I would get out of PARCC if I could. We don’t have that ability with the legislation that’s in place.”

The issue wasn’t on the board’s agenda and was brought up suddenly by Durham, a veteran lobbyist and former Republican legislator who recently was appointed to fill a board vacancy.

Durham said after the meeting that he tried to get the issue on the board’s agenda but wasn’t able to. Referring to his legislative skills, Durham said he tried to “shoehorn” the motion into an appropriate part of the meeting. The board was being briefed on school finance when Durham asked about the cost of testing and then brought up the motion.

The language arts and match PARCC tests are scheduled to be given in two parts, one in March and another at the end of the school year.

Durham argued that districts should be able to give only the end-of-year tests if they choose.

Department of Education staff told the board the two parts can’t be separated. “These are are not two tests. There are two components to the test,” said Department of Education testing chief Joyce Zurkowski, who hustled from her office to the boardroom after the discussion started.

Durham’s comment was “Somehow we walked ourselves … into a two-part test that we’re really not obligated to have.”

Testing is expected to be hot issue during the new legislative session, but many lawmakers are awaiting the report of the advisory Standards and Assessments Task Force, which is due by Jan. 31. (The divided group meets again Friday.)

Durham sounded dismissive of the group, saying, “I suspect the results are going to be tainted by the conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest of those serving.”

Durham said he’d been working on the motion for a few days and that it had been suggested to him by someone whom he wouldn’t identify.

Near the end of the meeting, Durham raised the issue of the Common Core State Standards, indicating he’d like Colorado to get out of them and saying, “One of the things I’d like to see from the commissioner is a series of recommendations that would end in this result.”

“To get out of Common Core does take legislative action,” Hammond said.

Other board members balked a bit at Durham’s suggestion, and everyone seemed to agree to take the issue up as a formal agenda item in February.

Last spring the board (with a slightly different membership) voted 4-3 for a resolution asking the legislature to withdraw Colorado from the PARCC testing group (see this story). Lawmakers took no action.

In November the board issued a unanimous letter suggesting that the amount of state testing be reduced (see story).

Reaction measured on board action

The board’s decision, first reported by Chalkbeat Colorado, spread quickly among lobbyists and lawmakers at the Capitol.

Senate Education Committee Chair Owen Hill said, “The people elect the State board and give it authority over the commissioner. I’m confident the commissioner will do everything in his legal power to do the wishes of his boss, the State Board.”

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, said the board vote “obviously will shape this discussion” but that he remains committed to holding off on consideration of testing bills until after the task force makes its report. “We’re going to honor that process.”

Hill also said he’s invited Hammond to meet with Senate Education to discuss the issue of testing waivers.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, would only say, “I really hope the State Board understands its authority in making or not making policy.” Kerr is the senior Democrat on Senate Education Committee.

Jane Urschel, top lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Boards, sat in on part of the board’s discussion. “This is not really a surprise, but will this action truncate the legislative process, where we will have public deliberation on this important and emotional issue?” she wondered.

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.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.