First Person

Voices: Is slow and steady enough for DPS?

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, finds much to admire in Denver Public Schools’ state test results but questions the pace of progress.

Denver Public Schools continues to make slow and steady improvement at most grades on most subjects. Many improved 1% to 2.5% percent from 2011 to 2012 – making Denver, once again, one of the most improved large school districts in the state.

Students from Denver’s Gilpin School pose in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Reading is up 2.74%, math is up 1.57% and writing is up 1.92% from 2011. The Denver “Median Growth Percentiles” were also positive, with numbers ranging from 53 in math to 57 in writing (Average is 50). The DPS writing scores are most impressive in light of Colorado’s overall poor performance on writing. The state scores have been flat or dropping recently, with this year’s scores falling by 1.3% over 2011.

While the Denver progress should be celebrated, the district is still not meeting its own goal of 3.5% growth in every subject and every grade. It is important to note that at the rate of about 1% per year, which is the current growth rate for low-income fourth-grade Denver students, it will take more than 40 years to match Colorado’s average fourth-grade reading score.

This is far below other high-performing states like Massachusetts and a long list of other nations’ average scores. DPS has a long way to go. We have not yet broken the 2012 data down by income and ethnicity, which may pinpoint more clearly where progress is being made for these particular groups of students.

See the chart below to see how the scores this year relate to the scores in the last five years.

In taking a closer look at schools in Denver, there is good news for many of the schools that have been targeted for improvement. We’ve seen some great starts in many of the schools undergoing turnaround in Far Northeast Denver. In the coming months, other DPS schools and turnarounds throughout Colorado would benefit from understanding the changes these schools made in regards to additional student tutoring, teacher hires, programing, leadership and school coaching.

I visited several FNE schools last winter and noticed that their school cultures were different from what had I seen in the past. Most students were on task and going to class while most adults were focused on a singular mission. We know that a focused school culture undergirds a high-performing school. It is nice to see that some of this has paid off. Obviously, the real test of these “turnaround” schools will be in the next couple of years as the attention and money fades away.

Many of the top-performing DPS schools for 2012 are familiar to those that follow DPS’s high-performers. West Denver Prep-Harvey Park, Federal and Highland (now called STRIVE Prep), KIPP-Sunshine Peak, Montbello and College Prep, Polaris, DSST-Stapleton and Cole, Bromwell and Steck are all at the top of various achievement lists.

It is nice to see a number of district-managed schools like Whittier, High Tech Early College, McMeen, Newlon, Gust, McGlone and Green Valley Elementary demonstrated some very high scores in growth, improvement in percent reaching proficient, or both. Even North High School made some nice gains.

High Tech Early College is particularly impressive with a reading growth score of 78, which is highly unusual for a high school. This was the most impressive school in terms of culture that I visited in FNE Denver. It was very clear that everyone in that building was focused on success. The principal of High Tech Early College, John Fry, was very successful when he was at Ridgeview Academy; it seems he is taking it to a new level at High Tech Early College.

Interestingly, Venture Prep, a school that was being considered for closure last year, had the second-highest “median growth” math score in DPS at 85. Not sure what that means but it will be interesting to follow this year.

As always, it is critical to put any year’s TCAP scores in the context of three or more years, while also having an understanding of the school’s context in terms of student population and changes to programs, funding or people for each year.

You can see the growth and grade level scores for DPS schools here. You can also see a chart below that totals the percent point change in reading for each grade level (e.g., grade 3, 4 and 5 reading proficiency change from 2011 to 2012), providing the overall average for a school. (Writing and math charts are below.)

There are also a few typically high-performing schools that took dips from their historically high growth and percent proficient data. Odyssey, DSST-Green Valley and West Denver Prep’s Lake (now STRIVE Prep) are a few schools where having a better understanding of what happened might be illuminating.

As is often the case, this data dump, which has something north of 500,000 Excel data cells for Colorado’s schools (Denver has nearly 50,000), will only be of value if school board members, administrators and teachers dig deeply to better understand why a particular school is working or not. DPS has had steady progress for more than six years with 1% to 3% growth on most grades and subjects for each year. Some schools have made dramatic progress while other schools have continued to struggle.

It is time that DPS revisit the district’s goals (See True North Report) while diving more deeply into what is and is not working. DPS will not be able to move beyond the current rate of progress without having a more detailed understanding of what is causing the improvement. Is it the curriculum? Instruction? Leadership? Professional Development? All of the above? Or certain aspects of each or something else?

We think it’s time to take a much closer look and evaluate some of these district practices and schools to make the changes required for transformational rather than incremental results across the district. Four generations is too long to wait. I’ll be dead.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.