State Board changes

Republican candidates lining up for State Board vacancy

The Colorado Department of Education.

At least half a dozen people are interested in the State Board of Education seat being vacated by Republican Marcia Neal of Grand Junction.

The potential applicants include a former candidate for the 3rd District seat, an anti-Common Core activist from Pueblo, three people with local school board experience and a parochial school principal from Grand Junction.

Neal announced two weeks ago that she’s resigning effective July 31. Her decision was sparked by board dysfunction and personal health issues, she said. (See this story for details on her decision, and this article about reaction.)

Under state law the seat will be filled by a Republican Party vacancy committee. The chosen applicant will have to run for election in November 2016.

Freida Wallison of Snowmass, Pitkin County Republican Party chair, said earlier this week, “We are in the process of setting up the vacancy committee.” She’s set a June 30 deadlines for applications, which consist of biographies and photos.

Applicants have to be registered Republicans who live in the 29-county district, which covers all of the Western Slope from Glenwood Springs west but also includes the San Luis Valley and Pueblo County. No other qualifications are required.

“The inquiries we are receiving are by and large from people who have a connection to education,” Wallison said.

The 13-member vacancy committee will include members of various other GOP committees, representatives from Mesa and Pueblo counties and five other members, each representing a group of smaller counties.

Wallison hopes to convene the committee in July for a single meeting to interview candidates and vote. State law requires the winning applicant to be selected by a majority of committee members present and voting.

Chalkbeat Colorado talked with people across the 3rd District, including potential candidates, to develop this list.

Jake Aubert
Jake Aubert

Jake Aubert – As principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Grand Junction, Aubert said, “I think I bring a unique perspective.”

He said earlier this week, “I am interested and working toward applying for that position.”

Aubert said he’s concerned about the amount of standardized testing in public schools and hears that concern from many other educators. “What PARCC testing and the Common Core mandate is extremely frustrating” for teacher, adding, “Parents are extremely frustrated with the amount of class time their students are missing.”

He added, “The centralization of education is very concerning. A one-size-fits-all model simply doesn’t work.”

Roger Good
Roger Good

Roger Good – A Steamboat Springs business owner, Good was elected to the Steamboat Springs school board in 2013 and serves as president.

He confirmed Wednesday that he’s applied for the appointment, saying he has “a passion for education and an appreciation for education.”

Good said he would bring “a very open mind” to contentious issues like testing. The two most valuable things about testing, Good said, are that results provide data for comparing schools and districts and that results be timely.

He also said protecting local control of schools is very important for him. “Local control is under attack.”

Michael Lobato
Michael Lobato

Michael Lobato – A rancher, Lobato is president of the Center school board in the San Luis Valley and is serving his last term.

Lobato, who has background both on the Colorado Association of School Boards and in Republican politics, said, “I’ve sure had a lot of pressure put on me. Am I interested? Yeah. Have I made a firm commitment? No.”

He said he’s weighing personal considerations before deciding whether to seek the post and indicated he also wants a better sense of who will be on the vacancy committee and of the other candidates.

Lobato believes his experience in Center, where the district has improved academic performance and built a new school in recent years, means, “I think I can bring a lot to the table.” He also feels it would be valuable to have a small-district rural voice on the State Board.

Debbie Rose
Debbie Rose

Debbie Rose – A former member and president of the Pueblo 70 school board, Rose has been active on other local and state charitable and government boards.

She’s currently board vice president of the San Isabel Electric Association and ran unsuccessfully for Pueblo County commissioner in 2008 and 2012.

Rose believes she could be helpful on the State Board, “having had personal experience with turmoil on boards.”

“I strongly believe in local control. The community knows best,” she said, adding that she’s concerned about over-testing and about a lack of vocational training in schools.

Reflecting on education in general, Rose said, “I think we need to be rethinking the direction we’re going.”

Rose is a businesswoman in Beulah, west of Pueblo.

Barbara Ann Smith
Barbara Ann Smith

Barbara Ann Smith – Having lost to Neal by only 1,783 votes in a 2014 primary, Smith is trying again for the seat. “You bet I’m going to run. I’ve applied for it,” she said.

In a letter she distributed this week, the retired teacher highlighted her opposition to the Common Core, PARCC tests and improper uses of student data. She also says she’s a strong supporter of local school control.

Smith has been active in Republican politics and civic groups in the Grand Junction area.

Neal last year said she wouldn’t run for reelection, but she changed her mind after Smith entered the race. Neal was victorious in the Republican primary, with 26,138 votes, compared to 24,355 for Smith. Neal went on to win the general election by nearly 33,000 votes over Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo.

Anita Stapleton
Anita Stapleton

Anita Stapleton – A fixture at State Board meetings and many legislative hearings, Stapleton has become one of the better-known grassroots critics of the Common Core and PARCC testing.

A nurse from Pueblo, Stapleton speaks frequently to civic and political groups about her criticisms of a wide variety of education reforms. She also was active among the parents and activists who monitored testing and data privacy legislation during the 2015 session.

Stapleton said, “I do have other issues than Common Core.” She said schools need to better support both parents and teachers and “rebuild” relationships with parents. “How we’re going about it now is not the answer.”

Learn more about the State Board’s tumultuous spring in this archive of Chalkbeat stories.

If you’ve heard of other people interested in the State Board vacancy, write to Todd Engdahl.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.