Thursday, June 28, 2007

Open Source Textbook Website

What does K-12 education look like in the future? There's a new open source website that allows anyone to go on the site and create their own teaching modules or numerous modules in a course--in essence, creating their own "textbook." The website is cnx.org and it was developed by some people from Rice University.

In the future, textbook publishers could take the same path as the encyclopedia salesman. When a website collects a vast array of content, and makes it reproducible, there is no end to the ways it can be used. Rather than creating another napster scenario, this content is attributable to the author, but not copyrighted. The site is meant to meet the needs of teachers who want a unique curriculum, that allows the student to interact with it. For example, rather than simply typing in the answer to a math problem, the student would be able to interact with it and experiment with different theories for how to solve it. This website is a great tool to align curriculum with model content standards.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pay for Performance

The Lexington Institute has released a report http://lexingtoninstitute.org/docs/788.pdf "Charter School Models for Merit Pay for Teachers," which includes a thorough description of the merit pay system being used by the Liberty Common School in Fort Collins.

Liberty Common School's principal, Russ Spicer, is quoted:
"We liken our model to the free market economy system: If you perform well and have good results you will be rewarded for that no matter how long you have been employed or how many degrees you hold," Spicer commented. "They know they will be rewarded for the positive results they produce."

Liberty's merit pay system has three components: 1) performance evaluation and ranking for the current performance period; 2) salary administration; and 3) professional development. Teachers are ranked on content knowledge; designing, planning, documentation, and assessment of work; pedagogy, instruction, and delivery; classroom management; and supplemental responsibilities. Liberty Common School plans to add another component in the near future: student academic achievement.

According to Russ Spicer, "The goal is to give the teacher who is below the desired pay range more money to move that teacher closer to the desired pay range more expeditiously. Once the teacher is in the appropriate salary range for the band ranking, that teacher will receive the 'standard' salary increase for that year."

Liberty Common School is a model visitation school for the Core Knowledge Foundation, the curriculum used by the K-9 school. Moreover, in 2005 Liberty Common School received the prestigous national Blue Ribbon School award and has received the state John J. Irwin School of Excellence numerous times.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Collective Bargaining Agreements

State law [C.R.S. 22-32-109.4] requires the publication of districts with or without collective bargaining agreements with teacher's unions. I count 133 of the state's 178 districts do NOT have collective bargaining agreements.

The largest school district without a collective bargaining agreement is the Academy 20 school district in El Paso County. The smallest district with a collective bargaining agreement is the Centennial R-1 school district in south central Colorado. Coincidentally, Academy 20 also has the largest brick-and-mortar charter school in Colorado: The Classical Academy with about 2300 students.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Quality Charter Authorizing

Much of the focus related to charter school is on the schools. An equally important part of the relationship is the role of the authorizer. Successful charter schools typically have a good relationship with their authorizer.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has the four principles for good authorizing:

1. Provide charter schools with the autonomy necessary to excel. Meaningful autonomy should be granted by law and supported by authorizers’ practices.
2. Provide families with a range of quality school options. Caps, geographic restrictions, and a limited number of authorizers all constrain families’ choices.
3. Establish strong accountability criteria. Simply establishing more schools is not enough; authorizers must uphold high standards for student performance.
4. Ensure that authorizers have the means and desire to establish quality charter schools. Too many authorizers don’t have the institutional or legal support, financial means, or sometimes even the desire to perform their responsibilities professionally and adequately.

In addition, NACSA provides a variety of resources and assistance to members. Probably the most helpful is their resource library, which contains a variety of sample documents that are good resources for charter authorizers.

A commonly held belief is that charter schools can better serve their constituents when the authorizer is doing quality oversight and monitoring. A balance of autonomy and oversight provides both flexibility and accountability--a winning combination for successful charter schools.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Accountability

Colorado law requires every public school to have an accountability committee, in statute these committees are referred to as School Advisory Councils (SACs). Most everyone still refers to these committees as "accountability committees" however, because the new term hasn't really caught on.

The accountability law was created long before charter schools came around. I say that charter schools are the legislative intent of an accountability committee: meaningful parent involvement. I've been to several accountability committees at neighborhood, district-operated schools and think they're a complete waste of time. Either there is an illusion of involving parents or else it's simply a venue to communicate information about the school. Either way, parents really have no say in their neighborhood school. In fact, sometimes principals use the accountability committee as a place to express all the excuses for why the school is or isn't doing something.

I live in a school district that shuns meaningful parental involvement. In fact, on more than one occasion I've been told as much by either a principal or district administrator. They feel threatened by parents. Especially parents that disagree or ask questions.

What's so threatening about a parent wanting to be involved in his or her child's education? I don't believe that, as a parent, I drop my child off at school and then don't have any further responsibility for his/her education. Why should the neighborhood school believe that? Some schools believe parents should be relegated to candy sales or a book drive. For some parents, this is OK. Others often seek out charter schools where meaningful parent involvement is required!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Charter School Governance: Whose Responsibility Is It?

What right does a charter school authorizer have to dictate who serves on a charter school board, what terms they serve, or what their qualifications are? This is a contentious issue with school districts employing a variety of sanctions in order to address perceived concerns about specific charter schools.

Recently one metro Denver school district barred a named individual from serving on a charter school board. In the past at least two districts have required a clean sweep of a charter school governing board. Individual charter school governing boards and their actions have been the subject of several State Board of Education charter appeal hearings and at least two lawsuits.

Charter school folks contend that the charter contract, based on the charter school application, should allow the charter school to select their own board members, without interference from the authorizer. Authorizers have become frustrated with some actions of individuals serving on charter school boards and have turned to a heavy-handed approach in order to rectify problems.

Although every situation warrants a unique decision, authorizers would be wise to carefully examine the proposed charter school's bylaws and board policies. The time to ensure wise governance is before the charter school board is established. The authorizer can require, for example, conflict of interest policies. They can also require that individual board members have a minimum level of board training, prior to service. In order to innoculate themselves against accusations of a "witch hunt" the authorizer should have a list of required governing board policies in their district charter school policy. Additionally, the charter contract should require the charter school board to provide meeting agendas and minutes to the authorizer. If all expectations are clear and in writing up front, the chance for problems to arise are significantly mitigated.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Charter School Support Initiative

The Charter School Support Initiative (CSSI) is a process whereby charter schools are evaluated with the same 9 standards for school reform that's used in underperforming Title I schools in Colorado. The CSSI process includes an additional standard to address charter school governance, but otherwise the two processes are identical.

Charter schools can decide to voluntary go through the CSSI process. For underperforming Title I schools it's mandatory. The process entails a team of CDE-trained experts conducting a 4-5 day school visit and speaking with almost all of the administration, staff, board members and many students and parents. Within a couple of weeks of the visit, the school is given a report that details short-term and long-term goals to hone in on the specific areas that will make the quickest increase in student academic achievement and/or school reform.

Charter schools that have already undergone a CSI visit said it enabled them to focus on priorities and create a Professional Learning Community. We don't have any CSAP to attribute to schools that have had a CSSI site visit, but if the data reflects anything like it does in Title I schools, there will definitely be a corelated increase in student achievement.

Friday, June 15, 2007

How Does This Week's US Supreme Court Ruling Affect Charter Schools?

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Washington Education Association has to ask its members before using membership dues for political purposes. For more on this go to: http://bestdestiny.blogspot.com/ or the Independence Institute website at: http://i2i.org

How does this affect Colorado's charter schools? It doesn't. In our state charter schools use at-will employees and have waived statutes relating to the union. Even the charter school in Colorado Springs, CIVA Charter School, started with very close ties to the teacher's union, waived these tenure and licensure laws. Moreover, a majority of the small school districts in Colorado do not have negotiated agreements for teachers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Response to Intervention

There's a new phrase floating around in the world of education that may be confusing to many parents. "Response to Intervention" or RtI is a philosophical shift in how the unique educational needs of students are viewed.

Policymakers have voiced concerns that many children, especially minority boys, were being overidentified with Special Education needs. They speculated that boys "being boys" were being labeled with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Moreover, because some children didn't learn how to read through the reading program being used at their school, "something" must be wrong.

RtI is a philosophy that before students are labeled "Special Education" students educators should ascertain what is preventing them from learning through the traditional methods and instead utilize a teaching methodology that will enable the student to learn. This focus on individual student learning needs is sometimes called "differentiated instruction."

The RtI approach to learning is systemic and broad. All the educators in a school need to understand that the end product should be increased student academic achievement. If an individual student isn't learning sufficiently, then it's the educator's responsibility to adjust--not the student's.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whole Language or Phonics?

In the early 1990's "outcome based education" and "whole language" were the norm. Educators thought children learned how to read through osmosis: through exposure. Every child had a random moment when it "clicked" and then they could read for the rest of their lives.

There's been a big change in education since then. Now Colorado has the Basic Literacy Act, which says every child should be reading at grade level by third grade or else be put on an Individualized Literacy Plan. On the federal level via No Child Left Behind, students can receive intensive reading instruction paid for with Reading First funds and students in failing schools can get personal tutors with Supplemental Educational Services.

In order to receive Reading First funds, the reading program must contain the five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Teaching reading IS rocket science. Children don't learn how to read by simply being read to, they need to understand how the individual letters sound and feel in their mouth. Developing a rich vocabulary is important to increase comprehension.

Reading First programs must be validated by Scientifically Based Reading Research, a standard which essentially guarantees the reading program will actually work with the targeted students. In addition, there are intervention reading programs for students who don't learn to read through conventional methods.

I'm glad the whole language phase has been put to rest. I've never agreed with experimenting with our children's education. Now policy makers realize the efficacy of a reading program should be established before taxpayer funds are used, which will increase the likelihood our students will actually learn how to read!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Life Skills of Denver Given One-Year Contract

Life Skills of Denver, after a successful appeal hearing before the State Board of Education in May was given a one-year contract by Denver Public Schools. In the appeal hearing, the school's leaders stated they hadn't had time to see the effect of reforms they'd put into place and that the audit done by DPS was flawed. Since the appeal hearing, DPS has had a different audit team review the school.

This one-year contract, in essence, means Life Skills is on probation. In other words, the student academic achievement will be closely monitored. This is good news for the students and staff of Life Skills who were faced with imminent closure prior to the State Board's decision.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

At-Will Employment in Charter Schools

Colorado is an at-will employment state. This means that all charter school staff members can be employed at-will. Charter schools who employ at-will can terminate or be terminated without cause.

Some schools have unwittingly invalidated their at-will employment by guaranteeing a term in the at-will agreement, entering into a remediation plan, or not appropriately documenting their at-will status in employee handbooks or contracts. No charter school should use an employee handbook without first consulting with an attorney.

Public charter school employees are employees of the charter school only and not the authorizer (the school district or the Charter School Institute). This means a charter school employee does not have due process or tenure rights guaranteed by the teacher union contract with the district. Charter schools model the business community where people are employed to perform a particular job and if they don't perform, they don't continue receiving a paycheck.

A commonly held belief amongst school reformers is that if all public education used a system where people perform their job well or else they're replaced by someone who can do the job well. In the world of public education, this is a novel concept!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Colorado Receives Federal Charter School Grant

Yesterday it was announced that CDE was awarded 20.8 million in Charter School Program funds. This is a federal grant administered by the state for new charter schools. This year the application process was more competitive with 21 states eligible and 10 states awarded funds.

This startup and implementation grant money is vital to the success of new charter schools. Charter schools don't get any startup funds from their authorizer. Things such as desks, textbooks and libraries are paid for with these funds. Starting a charter school is hard. Especially in the months prior to opening, cash flow can be a big issue.

This newly approved grant application focuses on providing professional development in subgrantee schools; topics include CSAP 101, curriculum alignment, data driven decision-making, leadership and board member training. The goal is to ensure a greater likelihood that new charter schools will increase student academic achievement early in their operation. A special emphasis will be on high schools and schools serving high-risk populations.

CDE has administered this federal grant since 1995. We've developed a national reputation for providing high quality technical assistance for our charter schools and having a solid infrastructure to support the schools. New charter schools getting approved can look forward to having these startup and implementation grant funds to help them open and begin educating students!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Brian Anderson, a Charter School Hero

In a few days, the Colorado charter school community will lose one of its staunchest supporters and greatest advocates. Brian Anderson started as the Business Manager at Cherry Creek Academy. He later created the Charter School Business Manager's Network, which is bi-monthly, practical application technical assistance meetings. Brian has also written numerous technical assistance documents being used in charter schools such as the Charter School Handbook and How to Establish a Charter School Business Office.

In addition to being extremely skilled in the business side of charter schools, Brian completely understands and believes in the fundamental philosophy that makes charter schools unique. Brian has, on numerous occasions, advocated for charter schools to do what makes sense for their school, not what someone tells them must be done if all it does is increase the workload without increasing the quality of the school. Brian often tells people not to feel dumb because someone tells them something has to be done a complicated way. Instead, they need to do what's best for their school.

Brian's one of those guys who can do anything. Well, he wouldn't be able to work on his car, but he can figure out complicated federal grant forms, understand how to write a survery that will eventually translate into a report that makes sense to the charter school community, track legislation and pick up on the impact of certain provisions, and ask the right questions during meetings. He's also the only finance guy I know who has excellent writing and editing skills.

Brian Anderson has been working at the Colorado Department of Education for the past two and a half years. I've learned a lot from him during this time. I've sought his counsel many times; his words of advice have stopped me from making bad decisions more times than I can count. I've also come to rely heavily on him. Everything he does, he does with a great deal of quality and professionalism. One of Brian's best qualities is his integrity; no matter what the cost, he'll always do the right thing.

As you can tell, it's not just the charter school community that will miss Brian when he and his wife move to another state to be closer to their families. To say that I'll miss him is quite an understatement. Brian has become a personal friend; one I'll probably have for the rest of my life. I wish Brian and Donna the very best. These two deserve a very blessed life! Best wishes, Brian and Donna!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Then and Now

Last week Brenda Soucie, from the Charter School Institute, spoke to new charter school developers about her experiences from starting a charter school back in 1994. Brenda helped start the Academy of Charter Schools (Adams 12) and was on the governing board for many years.

Back in the early days of charter schools in Colorado:
* Technology was almost non-existent. A few people had DOS-run word processing and dot matrix printers.
* No one had email.
* Many wrote charter applications and submitted them to a district that had never received/reviewed one before.
* Many founders had already exhausted several attempts to work with their district or local school to modify educational programming.
* Many had to appeal the denial of their charter school application to the State Board of Education. This meant many charters were not approved until May, June or even July; just weeks before opening.
* Many were truly "pioneers" setting out in a land they knew nothing about. Everything they did was done for the first time.

Brenda's school wasn't approved until August. They opened Sept. 25th. Brenda has many of the common characteristics of charter school founders: perseverence, driven by the need for a better education for her children, and a passion for doing what's right.

Brenda working for the Charter Schools Institute is very apropo. She's been through the trenches and knows what it's really like to operate a charter school. Too often, people who have never worked in a charter school tell others what to do. Until you've been there, like Brenda, it's hard to fully comprehend what parents will do in order to get a better education for their children!

As Dean Titterington, a CSI board member, said last week to the new charter school developers, "Every time I vote on a charter school application I ask myself if I'd put my own children in the school." If only everyone would remember that it's all about the kids!