What’s next for Colorado schools ‘on the clock’? This bill would show the way.

A bill introduced this week in the Colorado General Assembly would lay out the next steps.

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Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat

Colorado’s 2009 school accountability system calls for state intervention into schools and districts that show poor performance for five years in a row.

But the law is silent about what should happen next if students still aren’t learning in the years that follow.  

A bill introduced this week in the Colorado General Assembly would lay out those next steps – and give the Colorado Department of Education a greater role earlier in the process.

One of the notable changes: Schools would need to show two years of improved performance to come “off the clock.” Right now, schools only need to show improved performance for one year to restart the five-year count, even if they repeatedly drop back down into the lower rankings.

If the policy were in place now, seven additional schools would have come before the State Board of Education for action this year.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Education, who, along with the State Board of Education, requested the bill, say more time on “performance watch” means schools will get more money and access to training. They hope it will mean more schools improve before they face state-directed action.

But not every district leader wants the state department more involved.

“I would challenge you to find anyone who is begging for that benefit,” said Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn.

Aurora Public Schools improved enough last year to avoid state action against the district, but Aurora Central High School is on a state-supervised innovation plan and other schools are nearing the end of the clock, too.

Last year was the first time that districts and schools came before the State Board of Education to explain how they would improve student learning after not being able to do so. The board has several options available under the law, including closing a school, turning it over to a charter operator, giving an outside management company full or partial control of a school, or redesigning a school as an innovation school, with more flexibility from state and district regulations.

In dealing with five districts and 12 schools, the State Board of Education mostly shied away from aggressive interventions and approved something close to the plans that schools presented. This year, just two schools face state action.

Alyssa Pearson, associate commissioner for accountability, performance and support with the department of education, said board members mostly went along with schools’ plans because they wanted teachers, principals, and parents to have buy-in.

“But they were left with this concern,” she said. “What happens now? What if they don’t make progress? What if it wasn’t enough? We took this bet on them, and statute is just silent.”

The State Board of Education has asked schools to come back for one- or two-year check-ins, depending on the situation. However, the law doesn’t give the board that authority, and Aurora argued that the five-year clock should restart once the board signed off on an improvement plan.

“If we’ve gone to the state board and implemented one of those pathways, we’ve implemented a fundamental change at that school,” Munn said. “We believe at that point the clock should restart.”

The bill goes further than some school districts, like Aurora, would like and not as far as some advocates, who want faster change, would prefer.

Munn, himself a former State Board of Education member, said some of the changes would create a kind of “perpetual probation” that he doesn’t see as helpful for school change.

“The accountability clock itself casts a specter on an individual school, and as you are trying to motivate staff to focus on improving outcomes for students, you want to have a clear target in mind so you can motivate people to that target,” Munn said. “That target keeps moving. This is another effort to move the target.”

Pearson said that when schools improve for just one year, they lose access to leadership training, visits from consultants, and other assistance that could have kept them on the right track. The goal of the bill isn’t to punish low-performing schools, she said, but to make sure they get the help they need to change course.

“This would allow us to keep resources going to them, both money and people,” she said. “They would still be on our priority list of people we’re helping.”

However, schools that otherwise have acceptable ratings but dip down into priority improvement or turnaround for one year will only need one year on improvement status to get off performance watch. State officials are suggesting treating those dips essentially as an anomaly to keep attention on schools with more chronic low performance.

Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Colorado, an advocacy group, called the bill a step in the right direction and said the real change needs to happen at the State Board of Education.

“It’s a step in the right direction because right now they can’t do anything past year five,” Schoales said. “It gives the state board more authority. The question is, is the state board going to do anything? The state board has had the ability to do many things, but so far they’ve done very little.”

Neither the Colorado Association of School Executives nor the Colorado Association of School Boards raised major concerns in interviews before the bill was introduced. State education officials did extensive outreach during the drafting process and modified certain portions to respect local control. For example, the Colorado Department of Education will be present at certain community meetings to explain the process directly to parents, but it won’t run those meetings.

Lisa Escárcega of the Colorado Association of School Executives said earlier versions of the bill had department officials taking on roles that belong to the superintendent and elected school board members, who are the ones ultimately accountable to parents and voters.

But in some districts, information hasn’t always been freely shared with the public or even with board members. At a recent Adams 14 board meeting, school board members were surprised when a representative from the state department said the district hadn’t met certain requirements.

Schoales said it’s vital that parents have accurate information about school performance and the accountability process, and they don’t always get that under the current system.

Pearson said the accountability system is very complex, and department officials want to be present in communities to explain the process and the options accurately.

Schoales said that it’s important, as schools come back to the state board for additional review, that the focus be on student learning.

“We’re very concerned that there hasn’t been a serious intervention in any of these places,” Schoales said. “They’re setting up a system where accountability is whether or not they administer their plan.”

Other changes in the bill include:

  • Moving up the date at which state action occurs to the fifth year a school is on priority improvement or turnaround status, rather than allowing five years to pass and taking action in the sixth year.
  • Requiring that schools or districts plan for all available options under the law, rather than just the school’s preferred option.
  • Changing the focus of the state review panel to do more site visits and spend less time on paperwork.
  • Expanding the uses of state grants available to turnaround schools. Right now, they can be used for leadership training at the school level. The bill would allow that money to be used for teacher training and to develop capacity at the district level. However, the bill does not increase the amount of money available for this program.
  • Requiring greater efforts to ensure parental involvement in a community meeting that takes place in the third year of low performance.
  • Making training on the turnaround process available to parents, teachers, community members, and elected officials.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Monday.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.