First Person

Voices: Some Monday morning quarterbacking on Amendment 66

A+ Denver CEO Van Schoales reflects on lessons that supporters of school finance reform should learn from the failure of the school tax measure Amendment 66. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here. 

moneymagnifiedReform-minded school board candidates swept the largest districts in the state for the first time ever. At the same time, voters rejected Amendment 66 by a 2 to 1 margin. One might think that the same voters who wanted to reform school districts would also want to reform the school finance behemoth — assuming they understood that 66 might make school finance more equitable, targeted and transparent.

Why didn’t the $10 million spent on the campaign lead to better results? What lessons should be learned? Here is a little Monday morning quarterbacking, a reflection on what might have gone wrong, what we might learn and what we can do differently next time.

  1. Partnerships of convenience make for weak alliances: The school finance partnership was well-meaning and led to some great conversations among education leaders. However, its makeup was lopsided in favor of the status quo: leadership from school boards, administrators and teacher unions. The partnership was convened because it was necessary to have everyone at the table so that a bill might get passed. Yet, while the partnership developed broad principles, it was never able to agree philosophically on what needed to change or provide the specifics about what would change. It is like the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on a general peace agreement but with nothing about the settlements. A “grand bargain” was struck wherein everyone would get more money but would be required to swallow some reforms, but it was a compromise, not a partnership. Therefore, a true coalition between reformers and status quo representatives never gelled. As a result, the establishment camps continued to undermine the parts of the bill they never agreed to throughout the legislative process. This raises some important questions about who should be at the table and what agreements should be made before a bill idea arrives at the capital.
  2. Coloradans are not fans of statewide taxes: Coloradans generally don’t like taxes unless someone else is paying. We are only willing to pay if we know exactly what our money is going to do and how it benefits us directly. Even Denver voters, who recently voted 69% to support last year’s mill levy increase for the Denver Public Schools, only voted 53% in favor of 66. Some have argued that if only the campaign had enough funding, a tax increase could be passed; clearly this was not the case. Proposition 103, which cost about $600,000, lost by 65%, compared to the 66 campaign loss of 64% with almost 20 times the funding for the effort. Was greater clarity needed about how new taxes directly benefit the taxpayer? Or, as many have said, was this too big a bite for too many voters?
  3. Colorado is purple and maybe cynical gray a la George Packer: Senator Mike Johnston and his partners did a remarkable job ushering SB 213 through the state house and senate. Ultimately, however, the bill had to be carried by Democrats. In retrospect, not having a single Republican made the bill too tough to sell to purple state voters. Amendment 66 might have had a better chance of passing (think Owens cheering while Hickenlooper jumped out of planes for Referendum C) if the first draft had been crafted by Senator Johnston and a Republican. This might have sent the education establishment and some of their Democrat friends spinning, but in the end, aligning too closely with the (Dem-backed) establishment alienated a lot of reformers and Republican voters. Significant reforms in Colorado (from standards and teacher effectiveness to school accountability) have almost always stemmed from bipartisan efforts.
  4. Organize Colorado business: The business community provided a great deal of support when SB 213 was moving through the legislature by pushing against the education establishment when it came to getting and keeping school reform in SB 213. Many of these business folks were happy to stand with Governor Hickenlooper when he signed 213 into law, yet many of these same groups went silent or changed direction when it came to paying for the reforms and supporting 66. These same groups seem more than happy to line up for more taxes (probably a regressive sales tax) to build roads, but quickly scatter when asked for education reform funding. Kudos to Colorado Succeeds for seeing the whole process through to the ballot. We all need to do a better job working with the business community so that they might support a more effective public education system that directly benefits them and the rest of us. Or maybe we need to understand more has to be done with less.
  5. Messaging matters: The 66 campaign was built on the supposition that if the far left mailed their ballots, 66 would pass. They bet that the message of smaller classrooms, more art classes, gym and funding to meet student needs would motivate voters (particularly given some of the recent cuts). At the same time, messages about reform were mentioned as an afterthought, if hardly at all. While A+ Denver did not have access to the polling or focus group data, the “more money equals better outcomes” message was worrisome because so few we talked to were motivated by this message. Most people agree that we need to improve our schools but questioned the price tag and exactly how the money would be spent. Clearly there is enormous skepticism about the effectiveness of government, particularly when at the state or federal level. What remains confusing is how campaign insiders believed that they were within several points of winning up until a week before the election. This is puzzling, given the well-funded, sophisticated campaign. They engaged in regular polling and focus groups throughout the summer and fall and ended up with a message that could have been written by the teachers’ union. Was this what voters wanted to hear? More needs to be understood: what worked for the campaign and what did not?

I supported 66. It would have been a great step forward and I knocked on doors trying to convince voters of the same. Finance reform is necessary, along with full-day kindergarten and high quality early childhood education, if we are serious about having a world-class public education system. No higher performing system, whether Massachusetts, Shanghai, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden, lacks these components. Maybe we need to regroup and take much smaller bites of the apple to build a public education system that lives up to our desires and the needs of our state.

However, we all (winners and losers in the 66 fight) must ultimately take stock of what happened and what is possible in Colorado on the reform and funding fronts before we return to the education battlefield to do what each of us believes is necessary to improve public education.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.