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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede