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"Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Stuck in the middle..."


By Van Schoales, DFER CO Advisory Board Member and the CEO of A+ Denver

I’ve spent the last two weeks sitting in a windowless Colorado State Board of Education boardroom listening to public testimony on the Common Core and Colorado’s district accountability system. The song I can’t get out of my head is the early 70’s tune by Stealers Wheels: “Stuck in the middle with you.” Despite having middling standards and, in many places, poor to middling results, those in our state at both ends of the political spectrum seem to think the solution is to paint a big happy face on everything and escape reality, rather than confront it head on.

The Centennial state has had a long history of education reformers on both sides of the political aisle working with thoughtful policy makers in the middle to tackle bold education reform. This coming year marks the 20th anniversary of Colorado’s charter school law. Back then Republican Colorado State Senator, Bill Owens, sponsored Colorado’s first charter schools bill while our Democratic Governor Romer signed it into law.

Colorado has been a leader on education reform because of our strong bi-partisan leadership. We were an early adopter of standards for student achievement in the early nineties led by a Democratic governor and shaped by teachers. Republican Governor Bill Owens led the effort to establish one of the first state based school and district accountability systems in 1999. Colorado passed one of the best teacher effectiveness laws in the nation (SB191) in 2010 led by Democrats like State Senator Mike Johnston, and in our last legislative session we committed to join the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment consortia which was led by a broad bi-partisan education reform minded coalition.

In addition, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) in collaboration with school boards, administrators and teacher associations designed a growth model that enables students, parents, educators and the community to measure how much students are learning compared to similar students across the state. This model is now being replicated by several states throughout the country.

Despite these reform efforts involving many stakeholders, Colorado’s commitment to accountability and education reform is now coming under assault. Two low-performing Denver area school districts (Mapleton and Westminster) recently called on the Colorado Department of Education to adjust their state ratings for schools. These districts have been labeled “Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan," the equivalent of a D, which is the second-lowest rating that can be given by the state.

Only 16% of Mapleton’s high school math students were proficient and only 44% of students graduated last year. Westminster’s students did even worse on Math with only 7% reaching the state’s proficiency mark. Their graduation rate was at 64%, which is 10% below the state average. For comparison, Denver had a high school math proficiency rate of 25% and a graduation rate of 56%. Denver received the same rating as Mapleton and Westminster.

The districts claimed that they were being unfairly labeled as low-performers because of their large numbers of low-income and English-language learning students. Both districts testified that the current state accountability system (SB 163) unfairly punishes districts like theirs because it pulls out all sub-groups of students and makes it difficult for districts with such diversity to get rated well. Each superintendent used their school’s high poverty rates as a rationale for suggesting that they should be held to different standards.

These same superintendents that are now requesting they be held to different standards were active members of the Colorado Association of School Executives when they, with the Colorado School Board Association and Colorado Teacher Association, led the development of the current accountability system under Senate Bill 09-163. When the bill was introduced - and passed with near unanimous support - it had strong backing from then Democratic Governor Bill Ritter and a long list of Democrat and Republican sponsors. Unfortunately, the administrators in Mapleton and Westminster are now retreating from this accountability model.

Making sure the lowest performing subgroups of students improve is one of the primary reasons for having an accountability system in the first place. Our highest performing schools show that demography does not have to equal destiny. Colorado’s accountability system, which was enacted into law in 2009, already accounts for income. Moreover, a full 50% of a district’s rating is tied to student growth. If a school is considered a poor performer it has five years to move out of the lowest category before losing accreditation and suffering other sanctions.

But, now that the clock is ticking with several districts getting within two years of state sanctions due to low-performance, districts like Mapleton and Westminster have begun to realize that the Colorado Department of Education may mean business. Under the current system, 70% of Colorado’s schools fall into the highest two rating categories, which for most of us suggests the state already has a fairly low bar. There is little evidence that the state has set the bar too high for schools and districts. What the evidence does show is that districts have not been compelled to make the changes necessary to move the dial on student achievement. Now, instead of making the data an impetus for fundamental reforms, they essentially want to opt out of the rating system.

If the attacks from the left wing representing the status quo which believes poverty should be excuse for not raising achievement weren’t enough, last week at the State Board of Education there were criticisms coming from some right-wingers that Colorado’s adoption of the Common Core and the PARCC assessment consortia would undermine efforts to create a world-class education system in the state. They had a series of arguments against the Common Core that included federal intrusion into Colorado education and — strangely — an argument that the Common Core standards are too low for Colorado even though they also said the current standards were far too low.

We must neither dissolve accountability systems nor abandon efforts to improve the standards and their accompanying assessments. Adoption of the Common Core will cost much less than developing our own standards/assessments. Further, through Common Core we will significantly raise our standards so Colorado students can compete on the international stage. We will also finally have a means to accurately compare how Colorado schools and districts are doing relative to any school in America (and ideally someday other countries). It’s common sense that Colorado continues along the adoption path of the Common Core and PARCC.

Colorado has had a remarkable coalition from the left and right, building a set of standards with what will be better assessments from PARCC and an accountability system that sets high reasonable standards that are fair to all schools. We have to continue on an education reform path focusing on what works and creating space for innovation while not being pulled off course by folks on the far-left or right. We’re best served to stay “in the reform middle” that adjusts for what works as we build out a public education system that works for all students.

Van Schoales is a Colorado DFER Advisory Board Member and the CEO of A+ Denver. He is a former high school teacher and school principal.