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Archive for the ‘CDE and state board of ed.’ Category

[UPDATED] State board blasted on commissioner finalists

Monday, April 25th, 2011

UPDATE: The head of a local foundation has sent the State Board of Education a scathing letter about the two commissioner finalists, urging the board to launch a new search.

Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation (one of the funders of Education News Colorado) wrote:

…it is beyond comprehension to think that the State Board of Education spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a search firm that initiated and finalized a national search that resulted in the selection of only two candidates – one of whom is the interim Commissioner and the other is within a 20-mile distance of your offices.

A candidate pool that is comprised of the interim Commissioner and a local Superintendent does not contain the necessary quantity, diversity or depth of background required in such a search to find an experienced and recognized innovative leader…although it is impossible to see into the black box of the search process to know how many candidates were vetted and included in the first candidate pool, it is clear that the result of two, local candidates does not speak well of the search firm nor of the expense for them. A search that results in such a limited pool of candidates should result in the search firm reimbursing the taxpayers or in the initiation of another search.

Read the full letter here

Here is the original post:

The estimable Checker Finn doesn’t think much of the State Board of Education’s two finalists to be the next education commissioner — acting chief Robert Hammond and Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry.

Finn’s conclusion:

…it’s a time for forceful reformist energy to carry Colorado a big leap into the future. And that also surely cries out for a bold move on the commissioner front, most likely an unconventional candidate from out of state, not conventional in-state veterans. If Colorado settles for such lackluster educational leadership as this pair of finalists would seem to indicate–all the more vivid when compared with ex-commissioner Dwight Jones–baby steps are the most one can hope for. Let’s hope they don’t turn out to be baby steps backward.

A hat tip to Peter Huidekoper, Jr. for the link.

Popularity: 19% [?]

Loco control

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Defeat often begets a scapegoat.  In the wake of the twice-short Colorado application to R2T, this has now solidified: the judges were “perplexed by local control” which led to a lack of objectivity. This is a familiar refrain — them pointy-headed Eastern elites jest don’t git the way things work out West, what wid our frontier sensibilities ‘n all.  So local control is the Western value we refuse to sacrifice to appease these high-fallutin fiscal brutes.

Except I think it would be prudent to entertain, at least briefly, one small possibility:

Um… What if they are right?

Colorado has 178 independent school districts, and the differences in size are staggering.  Using CDE data (Fall 2008), let’s look closer at these 178 districts that contain over 800,000 students:

  • The average district has 4,560 students.  But because there are a few large districts and a lot of small ones, a better metric is median district size, which is just 603 students.
  • The largest district has over 85,885 students, the smallest has just 54.
  • 106 (60 percent) of districts have fewer than 1,000 students. 79 districts (44 percent) have fewer than 500 students.
  • The largest 10 districts combined house 56 percent of total students.  The smallest 100 districts combined house 4 percent.

Now, say what you want about Eastern elitism and impenetrable Western values, but these numbers show a control system that is loco, not local. When the median school district contains just 600 students — the same size as many urban schools, it’s not local — it’s microscopic. We are, after all, the United States, not Cities, nor Towns.  But for school districts, we somehow ended up with micro control — the Districts of Individual Buildings (and not very large ones at that). Is it really so wrong to dock points in a competitive competition for this system?

The most lucid discussion on R2t and local control was from Robert Reichardt who makes several excellent points and highlights a central contradiction. Reichardt writes that Colorado “can’t draw that straight line of authority from the Colorado Department of Education to classrooms” and this bumps up against the pervasive belief that ”top-down command and control is the way for states to get things done in school system.” This, in turn, discriminates against Colorado’s local control system which is a “tight-accountability, loose-compliance model.”

But I don’t buy it: R2T was geared to move many districts away from command and control systems, and favored “tight-loose” models (for example, charter school expansion). Moreover, Colorado is clearly a national leader with the Innovation Schools Act which provides school-level autonomy within a broader system of district accountability.  So the conventional defense — that it is the reviewers judgment, not our system which is at fault — rings hollow.

There are, of course, plenty of ways to have a “tight-loose” system, but when a super-majority of 60 percent of  school districts have 1,000 students or fewer and combine for fewer than 5 percent of Colorado’s student population, I think it fails a basic logic test, and I don’t need to blame a complicated judging system. That two of five judges took off significant points for this actually makes sense to me.  Colorado’s single largest school district has more students than the combined population of the 136 smallest districts.  So forget the technical arguments for a minute, and let’s admit that our district arrangement is nuts.

Now I’m expecting (and encourage) some worthwhile discussion here, and I am certainly no fan of large school bureaucracies, but I have yet to encounter a single person who, given the choice, would set up Colorado’s system of local districts in the same way.

Yes, local control has somehow become a given in Colorado, and any change seems off the table of discussion  – not because it has merit, but simply due to the same old education demon of politics. Maybe in the wake of the R2T decision we should take a hard look at what the Western value of local control could mean, instead of what it is. Because schools districts of 600 students it ain’t.

And Colorado already has an interesting model – the Charter School Institute (CSI) which is not counted among the traditional 178 districts, but governs 19 schools and 5,728 students in various regions across the State.  CSI has a different organizing factor: It is the district for numerous charter schools, regardless of location. As a district, it groups its schools by their governance structure (charter), not by location.

Because the idea that geography is the primary defining characteristic of any organization has been in decline for almost 15 years, yet it remains the single way we define school districts.  What would happen if we instead, like CSI, organized school districts around something other than geography?  Could we not have a single governing body for the 79 school jurisdictions with 500 students or fewer (which would comprise a total of 19,000 students)?  Could we not have one for schools receiving increased autonomy under the Innovation Schools Act (which might even encourage more to do so)?

For many of the 41 middle-sized districts with between 1,000 and 5,000 students, should we consider school districts that encompass factors other than geography — whether it is instructional emphasis, grade levels, or something else?  This would not be mandated — schools could have the choice of belonging to their geographic district, or finding a district model that would provide better services and support.

For my guess is that many of those 79 jurisdictions with 500 or fewer students actually have a lot in common, and might benefit from not creating 79 versions of many similar things.  In fact, I bet most of the smaller districts have more in common than many of the schools clustered within larger districts (for example, what does the selective-admissions, 10 percent FRL, Denver School of the Arts high school have in common with open-enrollment, 95 percent FRL Cheltenham Elementary?).

Perhaps the R2T decision offers one of those moments where we can look at a legacy system with new eyes. If we were to preserve the idea of a “tight-loose” system, could we have a more sensible method of local (not micro) control districts structured around something other than geography is one thought.  Any others?

8/31: Paul Teske’s posting from almost two years ago deserves more prominent placement than his comment below. It’s a good read, and one wonders why this obvious issue was somewhat glossed over during R2T.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Unanswered questions on CSAP protocol

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Last week we read about the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA) “mishap” that invalidated more than 6,000 CSAP test scores. This week’s release of CSAP data by the Department of Education keeps the story in the forefront. But when it comes to the whole COVA incident, I must confess to having some unanswered questions. (And I must also confess to working closely with a COVA board member, as well as having both CDE employees and COVA parents as friends.)

EdNews describes administering CSAP tests to students from different grades in the same room as “a violation of state testing protocol.” But if action is going to be taken as severe as throwing out thousands of assessment scores (resulting in failure to make AYP under federal law), it would help to know more about the origin of the protocol. It’s not in state law. It doesn’t originate from rules adopted by the State Board.

Hence it would be valuable to know: When was the policy adopted? By whom? With what rationale?

Others have brought attention to the lack of clarity in the way the “protocol” is presented. In the EdNews story, a COVA official correctly observed that the regulation appears nowhere in the 100-plus page student assessment procedures manual (PDF). Additionally, only one small notice was added in the 2010 proctors manual (PDF) — where it hadn’t appeared in 2009. A closer look at the proctors manual reveals no trace under the section labeled “Standard Conditions for a Standardized Test.” I also perused CDE’s 53-slide official presentation for CSAP administration training and couldn’t find a reference to the procedure.

So yes, a rule is a rule (or in this case, maybe a procedure or “protocol”). COVA is not entirely without fault. But to what extent do we adhere rigidly to bureaucratic norms? If the procedure is suddenly so crucial to be considered a “misadministration,” why not include it in the procedures manual? If it’s worthy only of one small mention in a test proctor’s manual, why not also provide for commensurate flexibility?

Better understanding the origins of the procedure not only could add important context to this discussion but also could provide clarity to avoid a possible repeat of such an incident in the future.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Educator Council doesn’t need to be interesting

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

On Wednesday I took a detour from the routine to drop in like a fly on the wall and watch the proceedings of the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness. This sort of policy making below the radar often doesn’t get the attention of, say, a legislative hearing. But the detailed definitions and standards to be produced by the Council (and/or to the State Board next year) are a most crucial piece of the implementation of the nationally-acclaimed Senate Bill 191.

The work of the council is a long way from being done. To say that Wednesday resulted in some progress in crafting the definitions of an effective teacher and an effective principal is to make the proceedings sound about as interesting as they can. If you’re looking for interesting, might I recommend reading up on the governor’s race?

More noteworthy is the venue: It’s not every day I go hang out inside CEA headquarters. And despite rumors to the contrary, I wasn’t harassed or assailed (though union officials still gave no sign of adding me to their Christmas card list). To me, the most significant news that came out of this meeting was the fact that all future meetings will be held on neutral turf in the State Capitol. I probably wasn’t the only one to note the problem of gathering the Council on the home turf of a special interest group heavily invested in the debate. At the least, it creates an appearance of conflict.

Anyway, yes, it was somewhat painful to endure an extended morning discussion on the council’s own plans and processes, and schedules of future meetings. Though clearly the pressure rests on the council members themselves and the extent of work to be accomplished before their December and spring deadlines. May it be true that they are coming together, getting on track and moving the ball forward (how’s that for mixed metaphors?).

Can the council complete its charge on time with consensus and in the spirit of the legislation’s goals? I sure hope so, though doubts would grow if their work continues at the pace of this week’s enclave. With all the future meetings on tap, it’s worth paying attention to the outcomes, but I don’t expect to be consistently watching the sausage-making quite so closely from here on out. And not necessarily because its proceedings are less than riveting. Come on… do we really want the council to get interesting?

Popularity: 3% [?]

Charter authorizer challenge

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The NY Times had a lengthy piece over the weekend on charter schools.  Readers of these pages will find little new in the data disagreement (CREDO v Hoxby), or the trusim that the mere designation of “charter” is no guarantee of success, but there was one point of agreement that I found  compelling:

What most experts can agree on is that charter school quality varies widely, and that it is often associated with the rigor of authorities that grant charters. New York, where oversight is strong, is known for higher performing schools. Ohio, Arizona and Texas, where accountability is minimal, showed up in Ms. Raymond’s study with many poorly performing schools.

This, as well, is hardly new, but the idea that the charter authorizers (usually school districts) are themselves a major determinant of charter success has largely escaped the public debate.  Now I would add Denver to the historical list of top authorizers (although the critical ability to close poorly-performing charters is nascent), but even this ability is on a political tightrope.

Critical to the continued development of local school boards (as I wrote two years ago) is a shift from acting solely as a school operator to also managing an array of independent organizations that run schools and provide services.

This is not a simple transition — school boards rarely think of themselves an managers of independent organizations, and often they have no framework for recognizing what sort of skills and tactics are required.  However it is made far harder as many elected officials (particularly those with higher political aspirations) depend heavily on the political support and contributions of groups for whom charter schools are a threat to both membership and job security.

And lastly, many of these same officials are reluctant to make unpopular decisions — like closing poorly performing charters — that might upset any members of their existing or potential future constituencies. This invites contradictory positions, with even anti-charter board members voting to keep poorly performing charter schools open — as if they desired the continued failure of these charters to serve as a useful political punching bag while pleasing the inevitable parents who want the school to remain open.

What is required instead is continued research (building on studies like this) that looks at best practices and rankings of authorizers, and then compares the schools in those top districts with their traditional peers.  Secondly might be a comparative study of charters and TPS in districts with mayoral control — where the political process that so clearly contorts some authorizers is eliminated.

Now, don’t be fooled, as some ideologues will put forward not specific ideas on improving the authorization process, but merely impediments to charters at all.  But most practically the challenge should be placed squarely on the school boards themselves.

There should be no more question about the relative success of charter schools in DPS, thanks in no small part to the history of effective authorizing.  Nor, given the overwhelming parental support and substantial waiting lists in Colorado, do I think anyone serious believes in eliminating charters all together (or political stunts such as a moratorium, which is contrary to state law).

But will elected board members in Colorado’s 170+ school districts take seriously their role of authorizer and of themselves ask: not what can we do to dismantle the authorization process, but what can we do to improve it?

Popularity: 3% [?]

Memo to state: Go slow on standards revamp

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

As reported in Education News Colorado, on June 30th the Colorado Commission of Higher Education and the State Board of Education formally adopted a description of postsecondary and workforce readiness (PWR), the first major step in implementing the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K).

There is much to be applauded in the adopted  PWR description.  There is strong recognition of the non-academic skills that students need for success in school, work and life, echoing the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The listed skills in this area include creativity and innovation, global and cultural awareness, civic responsibility, work ethics, personal responsibility and collaboration skills.

There is also a strong emphasis on the use and application of knowledge in new situations, on problem solving, and on critical thinking.

I do, however, have two concerns about what happens next.  My first is that these crucial new skills (more…)

Popularity: 3% [?]

State board members respond to food story

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Last week, Education News Colorado published a story about a regulatory roadblock that prevents charter schools from easily providing healthy meals to low-income students. In response, we received the following letter from two members of the State Board of Education:

Jan. 23, 2009

To Education News Colorado:

As members of the State Board of Education-a Democrat and a Republican-we completely agree that charter schools need options to contract directly with providers of healthy food, especially in a way that allows them to be reimbursed for free and reduced price meals for their low income students.

Commissioner Dwight Jones, Deputy Commissioner Robert Hammond and Assistant Commissioner Vody Herrmann have been working on this issue since it first surfaced in November. We are committed to making this happen-soon.

We believe students should have access to healthy foods. At the same time, CDE is obligated to work with the USDA, a federal government agency and comply with their rules and regulations governing free and reduced price meal services. We are also required to make sure whatever changes we recommend are legal and fall within the purview of the State Board of Education and not the legislature.

It’s our commitment to find a solution and do so in a timely manner. We don’t like all the red tape any more than you do, but, most of the red tape is not ours, and there lies the problem.

Healthy food options will be available to Charter Schools in Colorado. As elected officials, we are committed to making this happen.


Randy DeHoff,                                                         Elaine Gantz Berman
Vice-Chair, State Board of Education            State Board of Education

Popularity: 2% [?]

Bureaucracy is as bureaucracy does…

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Ed News Colorado has a story which encapsulates so much of why entrenched systems in public schools don’t change. It’s about school lunch and the Colorado Department of Education. And it ain’t healthy.

Poor kids get screwed in many ways, and school lunches are among them.  This is a complex issue, and until recently there did not seem to be an adequate solution, particularly since the federal FRL program is difficult to untangle at the state level. But a coalition of groups in Colorado was willing to take it on. Having found a company (Revolution Foods) in California successfully addressing this problem, and after spending well over six months wooing them to consider Denver and gaining support from numerous foundations, legislators, and even district food programs, they run smack into CDE:

According to CDE spokesman Mark Stevens, the department is engaged in discussions on this issue and has been for a couple of months [...] “It’s possible a state statute fix will be needed, not just a state rule change,” Stevens said.

Well gee, lots of things are possible (such as my not gagging on the above), and I’m sure Mr. Stevens can wax at some length about the difference between a “state statute fix” and a “state rule change.” I’m sure he even believes the importance of the distinction and the merits of taking months (yes, months) to really weigh all of the paper-pushing possibilities. But having seen the school lunches poor kids endure first-hand, I think it’s well past time for CDE to decide they are committed to helping to solve this problem, and not being an impediment.

And missing is the State Board of Education.  Having recently written at some length on the merits of a municipal BOE taking quick action, I admit I am befuddled that the State Board seems willing to watch at a distance as if they were the audience and not a fellow actor.  I even had a short conversation last week with a State BOE member who says that this issue is her passion (and she has the bona fides to support it) — who apparently found the statue/rule debate a mood-killer, retired with a headache and allowed the January meeting deadline to pass.

I could even understand this delay (well, sort of) if there was opposition, but there appears to be none.  On one side: the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Colorado Health Foundation, numerous other interest groups, schools and families.  On the other side: a few bureaucrats hand-wringing linguistics.

The problem here is that Revolution Foods does not have the luxury of a few more months to discuss and debate the finer distinctions of statute fix vs. rule change.  They have to hire and train staff; find, lease, and furnish food preparation space; determine and provide logistics and a transportation system, and work with schools.  Their deadline has long since stretched. Even if this statute/rule change had correctly made it to the State BOE in January, it would have been a full year from when Rev Foods were initially interested to the delivery of the first meal.  And if you can’t manage the process within a year, you might well decide its time to move on. As a local foundation leader puts it:

“All this backs up to right now and, if not, it could certainly delay this to next January, if not a year—and if Revolution Foods is still interested in coming to Denver.”

For small companies like Rev Foods, the snails pace of state government is not conducive, particularly if they have other options where they are treated as part of the solution, and not as a regulatory burden.  My belief is that continued delay is much more fragile than CDE recognizes, and puts Rev Foods in a increasingly untenable position.

If and when this coalition falls apart, CDE will undoubtedly have reasons why they were being prudent, which is of no interest or use to any child who can’t afford the same food choices their more affluent peers take for granted. If there was ever an easy school issue where action trumped indecision, this is it.

If one has an interest, I recommend both The Lunchroom Rebellion (The New Yorker) and The School Lunch Test (NYT Magazine). Why does school food matter?  Here an an excerpt from the latter article:

By any health measure, today’s children are in crisis. Seventeen percent of American children are overweight, and increasing numbers of children are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, which, until a few years ago, was a condition seen almost only in adults. The obesity rate of adolescents has tripled since 1980 and shows no sign of slowing down. Today’s children have the dubious honor of belonging to the first cohort in history that may have a lower life expectancy than their parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that 30 to 40 percent of today’s children will have diabetes in their lifetimes if current trends continue.

Oddly enough, there is no mention in either article of the improved nutrition if one pursues a state statue fix versus a state rule change.

Popularity: 2% [?]

The Federal Department of Education in Denver

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Since Colorado contributes so little financial support to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE – which is largely funded with federal programs), it has jokingly been called “the Federal Department of Education in Colorado (or Denver).”  A new report, which is worth reading if you are interested in the role of CDE, demonstrates why this is nearly true. 

The report, recently prepared for CDE by WestEd, compares CDE to a few other state education departments.  It also digs deeper into the question of how the budget can be better aligned with Commissioner Dwight Jones’ new vision, as articulated in CDE’s new Forward Thinking strategic planning document.

Only 1.5% of Colorado’s support for K12 education goes to CDE operations, a much lower percentage than in some comparable states like Louisiana (2.7%), Maryland (4.1%) and South Carolina (5.3%).  The report does not rank all 50 states, but spotlights a few comparisons. 

In addition, CDE staff is mostly supported from federal grant money.  The report notes that about 25% of CDE staff are supported by state money, and fully 75% are supported by federal grants.

These figures are not very different from a study in the late 1990s, which showed CDE about 43rd in the nation in personnel support for school operations.

It may be reasonable that in a local control education state like Colorado, the state education agency does fewer things and is relatively smaller than in the 42 states with (relatively) more state power and control.  But most education reforms, including No Child Left Behind, are requiring a bigger role for states, and limited capacity at the state level does not allow states to perform that role effectively. 

A level of 1.5% state expenditure for CDE seems “penny wise and pound foolish” when the state now contributes more than 60% of the non-federal funds for Colorado’s K12 education. 

As the report also notes, the heavy dependence upon federal funds within CDE inevitably has steered the agency towards a federal regulatory and accounting role with Colorado districts, rather than the kind of leadership and district assistance role that Commission Jones envisions.


Popularity: 2% [?]

Fixing CDE funding no simple matter

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Pol Econ Ed has a provocative post on a new report that, at first glance, only wonks and insiders could love. Quite wonkish myself, I also think the report and blog post open up a bigger philosophical discussion. I write not to condemn but to see how to move the ball in this emerging debate about funding sources for the Colorado Department of Education and K-12 schools.

I’m going to be up front and admit I have only read the report’s executive summary, so I’m not going to offer any sweeping conclusions about any of its proposals. Instead, I want to take a narrower tack based on Pol Econ Ed’s provocative post.

Pointing out that Colorado spends a disproportionately small share of state education funds on state administration (1.5%), Pol Econ Ed raises three separate but related interesting issues. First:

It may be reasonable that in a local control education state like Colorado, the state education agency does fewer things and is relatively smaller than in the 42 states with (relatively) more state power and control.  But most education reforms, including No Child Left Behind, are requiring a bigger role for states, and limited capacity at the state level does not allow states to perform that role effectively.

With limited resources to dedicate to K-12 education, spending more on the state department is not going to be a politically appealing approach. Concerned taxpayers may complain about burgeoning bureaucracy, while CEA and CASB may be hesitant to support such a move unless they can dismantle TABOR. Second:

A level of 1.5% state expenditure for CDE seems “penny wise and pound foolish” when the state now contributes more than 60% of the non-federal funds for Colorado’s K12 education.

Here we see the familiar tension between the state constitution’s “local control” requirement and the tangled combination of laws that continue to grow the state share of education spending. But then there’s the mill-levy rate freeze in the 2007 School Finance Act, which was promoted as a means to shift the funding burden more back to local sources.

The State Board appears (because no public recorded vote has been taken) to support the provision against a lawsuit that would require voters to be asked first. Maybe Coloradans want to raise property taxes and shift the education funding burden to local sources. Let’s not be afraid to find out. So, if the State Board seems to support shifting the education funding burden back to local sources through the mill-levy rate freeze, should that diminish concerns about the 1.5% level of state expenditures on CDE? Third:

…CDE staff is mostly supported from federal grant money.  The report notes that about 25% of CDE staff are supported by state money, and fully 75% are supported by federal grants.

Is the problem with this figure primarily the federal money or the federal mandates? If the latter, maybe then it’s an argument to move away from No Child Left Behind to the A-Plus Act proposal that gives states flexible block grants with many fewer strings attached.

But no matter how you look at it, ensuring CDE is funded sufficiently and spends efficiently will be more complicated than merely adjusting state appropriations. A popular statewide vote and Congressional action may also be part of moving the department’s thinking forward.


Popularity: 2% [?]

Colorado Health Foundation Walton Family Foundation Daniels fund Pitton Foundations Donnell-Kay Foundation