First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

In search of black teachers in Denver

Lucas Nkwelle, a black chemistry teacher at Montbello High SchoolDENVER — When Malcinia Conley attended Montbello High School in the early ‘80s, she was inspired by the black teachers she saw at the front of her classrooms.

Lucas Nkwelle teaches chemistry at Montbello High School, where 29 percent of students are African-American compared to 12 percent of teachers and 31 percent of total staff.

“It was a feeling of, here is someone with an understanding of the cultural things that I am experiencing, so I believed they were someone who could help me to get through them,” said Conley.

“I’d look at them, and believe, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I could follow in their footsteps.”

Conley did just that. Today, she is one of 233 African-American teachers in Denver Public Schools. She’s back at her alma mater, where classes she teaches include Intro to Urban Education, a DPS program geared toward encouraging students to pursue teaching. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Ed commissioner search ends

Robert Hammond, who’s been serving as commissioner of education since December, is the sole finalist for the permanent job and is expected to be formally hired by the State Board of Education next week. During a brief teleconference Monday afternoon, the board voted 7-0 to name Hammond sole finalist, choosing him over Aurora Superintendent John Barry. The board had voted 7-0 on April 21 to name the two as finalists. Read more at Education News Colorado.

Feedback welcome on proposed teacher effectiveness rules

One year after the passage of Senate Bill 10-191 calling for a new statewide approach to measuring educator effectiveness, the Colorado State Board of Education has announced a timeline and process for public input prior to formal adoption of rules, currently anticipated for November.

As a first step in the process, the state board will begin in May to explore in further detail the recommendations from the State Council on Educator Effectiveness.

The discussion will begin on May 11, when the department will provide a follow-up to the April 13 presentation from the council. This meeting is designed to address those areas where the council did not make a specific recommendation and to ask whether the state board agrees with particular recommendations. From 10 a.m. to noon May 12 the board will hold a study session to further explore the recommendations from the council.

For those wishing to provide testimony at the state board meeting on May 12, a sign-up sheet will be provided.

Throughout this process, the draft rules along with recommended changes will be posted on the state board website. As suggestions come in, the department will post the recommended changes. Written comments on the report or recommendations to the state board on the draft rules may be sent by e-mail to [email protected], or by mail to: State Board Office, 201 E. Colfax Ave., Room 506, Denver, CO 80203-1087.

After gathering input from the state board, the department will begin drafting proposed rules, which will be provided to the board June 8.

Two Colo. teachers honored in math/science

WASHINGTON – President Obama named 85 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Thursday. Two of them are from Colorado. The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. Each winner was selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians,and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level.

Susan Parsons of Boulder (math) and Patricia Astler of Castle Rock (science), are the recipients for the state of Colorado. Learn more on 9NEWS.

Mixed reaction to teacher evaluation plans

It wasn’t as if teachers and principals around Colorado were holding their collective breath, awaiting the release of the report from the state Council on Educator Effectiveness with its recommendations on how they ought to be evaluated in their jobs. No, it was more like, “Reform proposals? Take a number and get in line.” Read more in Education News Colorado.

Garcia highlights education priorities

The top education goals of the Hickenlooper administration are implementation of the educator effectiveness law, improving third-grade reading scores and raising college completion rates, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said Thursday. Garcia spoke to reporters and a large group of state employees and education lobbyists in his first major public talk since Senate confirmation this week as director of the Department of Higher Education.

In addition to that job and being lieutenant governor, Garcia is the head of the yet-to-be-convened Education Leadership Council. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Bill GatesGates to help schools adopt common core standards

The Gates Foundation is announcing on Wednesday that it will be investing $20 million in game-based learning and other tools to help the new national education standards into the classroom. Read more in the Seattle Times.

Aurora schools tout tech to female students

Ryan Handy gave the group of about 20 middle school girls free reign to be as destructive as they wanted to be. Gathered around old computer towers at the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center on Tuesday, the sixth-graders held screwdrivers and wrenches as they waited for his cue. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Overland H.S. principal accused of plagiarism

AURORA – At first, there were the stories about the student newspaper being shut down over a story related to the death of a student wrestler when the season ended this winter.  Now, Overland High School Principal Leon Lundie is under the microscope yet again.

This time bloggers on the Huffington Post say Lundie, who is in his first year as principal at Overland High, plagiarized portions of his monthly Message to the Community. Check out Fox 31.

High school classes may be ‘advanced’ in name only

More students are taking ambitious courses. According to a recent Department of Education study, the percentage of high school graduates who signed up for rigorous-sounding classes nearly tripled over the past two decades. Read more in the New York Times.

Public comment sought on federal “Title” fund priorities

Each year, School District 6 receives federal funding for specific “Title” programs that assist with various needs. These programs include:

  • Title I – Reading and math support for schools serving large numbers of students who have significant socio-economic needs.
  • Title II – Support for hiring and retaining highly qualified staff.
  • Title III – English Language Acquisition.

District 6 is currently seeking recommendations from the community on how these programs can be best used to improve student achievement during the 2011-12 school year. Comments and recommendations should be sent to Kathi VanSoest, director of federal programs and grants, at 348-6260 or [email protected].

English fluency grows in St. Vrain Valley School District

LONGMONT – More English-language learners in the St. Vrain Valley School District are becoming fluent than ever before, according to assessment data from the Colorado Department of Education. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

Colorado could ditch more school tests

DENVER – Opponents of standardized tests for schoolchildren have a fresh weapon this year in Colorado — the high price tag of exams. Colorado lawmakers are expected to consider joining other states in dropping statewide testing requirements beyond those required by the federal government. Check out the story on 9NEWS.

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.