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Schools gear up for for trial run of new exams

CLINTON, Miss. — When Kerri Burnside’s fourth-graders solve a math problem, they know they must do more than simply find the right answer. In many problems, Burnside asks her students to explain their thinking with complete sentences, proper spelling, and conventions.

“It takes longer to grade now,” said Burnside on a recent morning in her classroom at Eastside Elementary. “You don’t have just an old-fashioned key.”

But the attention to writing, even in math, is becoming increasingly important, Burnside says. It is a big portion of what her students will be expected to do in 2015, when new, computerized math and English language arts exams are set to debut in Mississippi and more than 40 other states.

The exams are aligned to the new national Common Core education standards, which were adopted by Mississippi in 2010. The standards lay out grade level expectations that present more challenging content in early grades to build a better foundation for higher-level math and English classes. Like the standards themselves, the computerized tests are intended to demand more of students than previous exams. Instead of filling in the bubbles on answer sheets, students will perform a variety of tasks like dragging and dropping fractions on a number line, and filling in graphs. Even in math, students will write out their reasons for coming up with answers and will be graded on showing their work.

“We’re asking students to do far more complex work than we have ever done in a systemic way,” said James Mason, director of student assessment for the Mississippi Department of Education.

This spring, in anticipation of the new exams, Mississippi’s fifth- and eighth-grade students will take end-of- grade science tests on computers. Around the same time, more than 80,000 students in the state will field test the new national exams across all grade levels. Mason says the purpose is to validate the test items and make sure that there are no glitches with the test. But it is also meant to help districts test their technology and give students a chance to familiarize themselves with the new format.

In some states that adopted online testing years ago, like Virginia, experts and officials have cautioned that states may be too hasty in moving to online exams.

In the 2012-13 school year, chaos erupted when several states launched new online testing programs. Glitches halted testing for thousands of students in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Virginia. After a 2010 fiasco, Wyoming temporarily abandoned its online tests and later fired its education superintendent. Wyoming also sued the test provider, Pearson, which is the vendor for Mississippi’s new science exams.

The burden for schools

Although the early transition is meant to prevent similar situations from happening in Mississippi, the new exams have placed demands on budgets and resources. Many schools have struggled to buy computers and upgrade bandwidth without adequate state funding. In the past four years, Mississippi schools have been underfunded by an estimated $1 billion.

In the Lee County school districts in northeast Mississippi, superintendent Jimmy Weeks said in an interview earlier this year that upgrades could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Technology-wise, we are not where we need to be for assessments,” Weeks said. Currently, the district has wireless service on nearly every campus, but it may not be sufficient for testing students. “Ten people can get on and it operates fine,” Weeks said. “Fifty people would shut the service down. It’d overwhelm the system.”

In the Western Line School District, which serves about 2,000 children in the eastern Mississippi Delta, superintendent Larry Green says the gradual shift to online tests has made the transition more manageable. The district, which had revenue of about $18 million in 2012, is working with cable companies to upgrade its bandwidth. “If we had to accommodate all the math, English, and social studies all at one time, we would need more computers,” Green said.

About 80 miles north in the Clarksdale Municipal School District, curriculum director Linda Downing says that the district has been slowly upgrading its technology for the past three years, and should have enough laptops for students to take exams. Downing said that the district also has good relationships with nearby districts, which could serve as a contingency plan. “If need be, push comes to shove, we would share.”

This year, in an attempt to help districts gauge their capacity to handle the tests, the state provided an online technology readiness tool. The tool allows each district to input various information about its current technology and then assesses whether the devices and bandwidth are sufficient for the exams. James Mason says that if a school has enough computers for half of its largest tested grade, it “should be fine.” And there are solutions for districts that are unprepared, like downloading the tests onto local servers, which reduces bandwidth requirements, or using paper tests. “We’re really optimistic that this is not going to be the huge, cataclysmic technology collapse that some folks are making it out to be,” Mason said.

But paper tests could add even more to the rising cost of the new exams. According to projections provided by the state Office of Student Assessment, in 2015, Mississippi will spend about $2.7 million more on the new exams for grades three through eight, than the state spent in 2012 to provide those grades with the old exams. Mason said paper exams could cost an additional 10 to 15 percent more. “We want to incentivize districts to get online,” he said. “So we’re trying to look at who is going to actually bear that cost.”

Regardless of readiness, all districts will be faced with logistical demands when the tests roll out. Unlike Mississippi’s old tests, which were generally given to all students in the state on the same day, the new assessments will be split into two components. The first, a performance-based exam, will require students to write and interact with the technology. The second portion will present items in a more traditional, multiple-choice format. Each component will have about a 20-day window, during which schools can decide when and how to rotate students through the tests. Students will take the first portion in the middle of March or early April, and the second in early May.

Mason says that while the content may be more rigorous, he does not anticipate the technology posing a challenge for students. “I think the kids are going to prove very adept,” he said. “There is uneasiness in lots of different places because the types of things we’re asking kids to do is more rigorous … But what we’re doing is asking students to do the types of things they need to do to be successful, whether it’s in college, or whether its in the workplace.”

New standards bring big changes for Mississippi students

RIDGELAND, Miss. — Nearly two dozen kindergarten students sat neatly on a carpet one sunny December morning at Ann Smith Elementary School here, studying vocabulary words related to timing and sequence.

Their teacher, Charlotte McNeese, chose a timely example to illustrate the meaning of such words as next and finally, asking her students to outline the steps they would take to decorate a Christmas tree.

“Before I do anything else, what do I have to do first?” McNeese asked her students.

Hands shot up and a few students blurted out the answer before McNeese had a chance to call on anyone.

“You have to buy a tree!”

McNeese’s students are ahead of the curve in more than one respect this winter. In past school years, McNeese would not have taught her students the concept of sequence — and the associated vocabulary — until well after their Christmas trees had been tossed out. This “is so much more than we’ve ever done at a kindergarten level,” she said.

It’s just one of many changes McNeese has made to meet a set of ambitious new educational standards known as the Common Core, which are slowly transforming the approach to teaching and learning across Mississippi. The new standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, do not constitute a curriculum. But they do lay out skills students should master in different grades, like in second grade adding two-digit numbers or in seventh grade contrasting a fictional and non-fictional portrayal of the same time period.

Most Mississippi districts have opted to roll out the standards just in kindergarten, first- and second-grades over the past two years. That way teachers and students can grapple with them free of the pressure of standardized testing, which begins in third grade. The state expects schools to start teaching the standards in all grades next fall, however, since students will be tested on the Common Core in 2015.

Mississippi is likely to have a particularly challenging — even jarring — adjustment to the Common Core since its old standards are so weak compared to those in other states.

In 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. that supports the Common Core, scrutinized how old state standards compared to the Core. While about 15 states had English standards that were the same or better than the Common Core, Fordham concluded that Mississippi’s were far weaker. The report described the English standards as “mysterious,” “repetitive” and among “the worst in the country.” It concluded that the Common Core standards are “significantly superior to what the Magnolia state has in place today.”

A view from the classroom

The Common Core-inspired changes in McNeese’s classroom this year offer a glimpse of how the controversial and more demanding approach could reshape education across Mississippi — a state that has ranked near the bottom of the country on national standardized tests for decades. Fewer than 13 percent of adults 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree, below the national average of nearly 18 percent.

McNeese, who has taught elementary school for 19 years, says the standards have raised expectations for her students. In the past, for instance, kindergarteners were expected to draw a picture and write a single sentence explaining the picture. Under Common Core, they are expected to write several sentences about a specific topic and draw a picture that reflects what they wrote. Instead of spending between 15 and 30 minutes on writing each day, McNeese’s students now write for more than an hour throughout the day. In math, her students will be expected to count to 100 by the end of this year instead of 20 (the requirement under the old standards).

Common Core aims to introduce students to more challenging concepts in earlier grades so they will build a strong foundation for higher-level English and math courses.

As a result, McNeese’s kindergarten students will learn skills that used to be taught in first grade, like plural nouns and three-dimensional shapes.

Across grades, the new math standards require students to show their thinking while working through problems, while the English standards require them to include specific examples from their readings.

“We’re moving away from those worksheets into more critical thinking,” said Vincent Segalini, director of English language arts for the Mississippi Department of Education. That means students may read more difficult texts, but will spend longer on each piece to build a strong understanding of the author’s techniques. “Instead of reading ten books every grading period, you’re reading one or two, but you’re spending so much time really getting deep into the text,” he said.

In several districts that have made the transition to the Common Core, elementary grade teachers say they have been surprised by how well the students have grasped the more challenging material. And the first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary School in Canton say a new emphasis on non-fiction — prompted by the Common Core — has piqued the interest of their male students in particular, who have embraced the opportunity to write about their hobbies and interests. Under the old standards, the first-grade teachers focused more on narrative and creative writing.

“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of fluff,” said Martha D’Amico, principal of Madison Crossing about 25 miles north of Jackson.

In the past, D’Amico says there was more of an emphasis on rote learning: Teachers might have asked students to copy down basic facts about insects as part of a science lesson, for instance. Now, kindergarteners at Madison Crossing will learn about insects by reading books, researching facts, and writing short responses.

Meeting a new standard

Despite the encouraging start at many elementary schools, Mississippi educators remain anxious about making the transition in the older grades. Starting in 2015, middle and high school students who did not grow up with the Common Core standards will nonetheless be tested on them. In the meantime, middle and high schools are in a sort of limbo since students will still be tested on Mississippi’s old standards one last time this spring. (Mississippi is one of 18 states plus the District of Columbia that helped develop Common Core-aligned exams through a consortium called PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of readiness for College and Careers.)

In some subjects, the gap between the old and new standards is especially wide. For example, middle school students now enrolled in Mississippi’s pre-Algebra course will not have been taught many of the skills and concepts considered a prerequisite for Algebra I courses that will be aligned with the Common Core next year.

Linda Downing, the curriculum director at the Clarksdale Municipal School District in the Mississippi Delta region of the state, says that some instructors are teaching both sets of standards to prepare students for exams, but also expose them to the new, more challenging material. “Our teachers have been trying to create a crosswalk between the [old standards] and the Common Core,” Downing said. “We’re trying to see where we can make them meet each other.”

For example, about 10 miles west of Jackson in Clinton, veteran fourth-grade teacher Kerri Burnside has started teaching the new standards. But she still fits in lessons on topics like the stem and leaf plot, a type of chart that was part of the old math standards and will be included on the state test in the spring.

Burnside says the Common Core emphasizes depth over breadth. Instead of her typical three-week multiplication unit, she spent five weeks on the topic this fall. In previous years she taught two ways to solve double-digit multiplication problems. This year, she taught her students five different strategies, including the “standard algorithm” method that most adults learned in school. Under that method, students line up the numbers vertically and multiply, then add two products together. (Burnside and her students call it the “old-fashioned way.”) One of the new methods, known as “partial product” involves creating a complex chart to map out two-digit multiplication problems, like 23 x 17.

“It’s opened up a lot more doors and showed me so many more ways to meet different learning styles,” Burnside said, adding that more students are mastering the concepts because they can choose the method that makes the most sense to them. “It doesn’t matter how the children work out a problem or how they find an answer — whatever way works for them.”

A growing controversy

While teachers across Mississippi have been busy rolling out the standards in their classrooms, Common Core opponents, led by conservative and Tea Party groups in the state, have become increasingly vocal.

In August, the Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition sent a letter to the former state superintendent, Lynn House, questioning the rigor of the standards and the involvement of the federal government in their adoption. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Most states chose to adopt Common Core as their new standards.)

In a written response to the Coalition, House said that the standards were set to be revised in 2011, and adopting Common Core “saved the state time, money, and effort associated with creating our own standards that would not have been as rigorous.”

Some critics of Common Core have taken issue with materials that they say are being advertised or promoted as aligned to Common Core. “Just about anybody can stamp ‘Common Core-aligned’ on their materials and sell it,” said Senator Angela Hill, R-Picayune. “There’s not really any oversight.”

In a speech earlier this fall, Hill said she is also concerned by books that have appeared on suggested Common Core book lists compiled by bookstores like Barnes & Noble. “You will find some of the classics, some of the things you were reading when you were coming up through school. But you will also find some highly objectionable material that does not paint the U.S. in a very good light,” Hill said. For instance, she says one Common Core appendix that lists examples of texts appropriate for different grade levels includes “Dreaming in Cuban,” a National Book Award finalist which was banned in September by an Arizona school district for sexual content. The book is suggested as an eleventh-grade text.

But educators say that books and materials used to teach Common Core are selected by the teachers and schools; they are not mandated by the standards. The Common Core “doesn’t dictate how we teach,” said Cindy Hamil, principal of Eastside Elementary.

In the Forrest County School District outside of Hattiesburg, assistant superintendent Jennifer Ward says that some critiques of Common Core stem from misconceptions over what the standards contain. “Before people say ‘Common Core’s not good for kids,’ they really need to stop and look at what it is that’s being taught, regardless of the politics that have been attached to it,” Ward said.

McNeese spends very little time worrying about the politics swirling around Common Core. She says the work her students are producing shows that they are capable of more challenging instruction. “Getting them to believe that they can do this stuff is what’s going to make the difference,” McNeese said. “As a teacher, I now know they can — even at age five.”

Emily LeCoz contributed to this story, which appeared on Dec. 22 in The Clarion-Ledger. Screen shot 2013-12-25 at 1.42.28 PM

Amid budget cuts, school districts struggle to finance new reforms

School districts in Colorado, reeling from years of budget cuts, are trying to scrimp and save as the state launches a potentially expensive set of new reforms, including new teacher evaluations, online tests and more challenging standards.

In particular, as schools introduce higher expectations of students—spanning 10 subjects and all grade-levels—many districts are hoping to avoid costly expenditures on consultants, trainings and new textbooks. They’re turning instead to collaboration with other districts and nonprofits to help with the transition. And much of the responsibility for preparing schools for the new standards has fallen to teachers.

Many worked throughout the summer to create new curricula and train peers in preparation for the official statewide launch this school year.

“I would describe this as a very heavy lift,” said Sandra Smyser, former superintendent of the Eagle County Schools, who led the district during the first two years of work on the new standards. “It is a lot of brain work, a lot of time spent collaborating.”

In Eagle County, near Vail, teachers have spent three years piloting the standards, which include subjects like visual arts and dance. (The state’s math and English language arts standards are based on the Common Core, which 44 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted.)

Smyser says teachers in Eagle County have been creating new curricula, lesson plans and mid-year tests while also teaching the standards in their classrooms. “Our teachers are tired already,” she said.

Kristina Smith and Sabra Miller discuss the new state math standards during a June training at Fort Lewis College. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Kristina Smith and Sabra Miller discuss the new state math standards during a June training at Fort Lewis College. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

A 2012 survey by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that only 48 percent of educators surveyed in Colorado felt they had the necessary tools to teach the standards in their classrooms. What resources do exist for teachers have mostly been created by their peers. Last year, the state organized nearly 500 teacher volunteers to write more than 700 curriculum outlines that are aligned to the new standards for every grade in all 10 subjects.

“There are districts that are reaching out to curriculum-writing consultants and bringing people in,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instruction at the Colorado Department of Education. “And then there’s some larger-resourced districts that are fully doing this in-house. Our goal … was to meet those districts that don’t have the capacity to do either.”

Many of those districts are taking advantage of free resources. In the Elizabeth School District, about an hour southeast of Denver, superintendent Douglas Bissonette says budget cuts have left the district with fewer teachers, bigger classes and little money to pay for materials. This year, the district of about 2,700 students has a $30 million budget.

“The ability, at a district level, to help either organize or support a district-wide curriculum effort or standards effort doesn’t exist,” said Bissonette.

But in larger districts, like the Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 80,000 students with an annual budget of $811 million, several contractors have been hired to help with the adoption of state reforms. Contracts acquired through the Colorado Open Records Act show that since the spring of 2012, the Denver Public Schools have spent more than $80,000 on consultants to help develop math units, plan and lead professional development sessions, and design “toolkits” that provide teachers with sample test questions, examples of student work, and suggestions on how to modify the new standards for English language learners.

In southwestern Colorado, Durango superintendent Dan Snowberger said he is skeptical of companies selling materials that claim to be aligned to the Common Core. To save money, his district is looking at educational websites rather than textbooks, and collaborating with eight nearby districts to create new assessments. Snowberger said the coalition of districts is building an online platform that will allow teachers in the area to access ideas and curricular materials that will help them roll out the standards.

“We have a lot of tiny districts that don’t necessarily have the resources, like Durango,” he said.

Durango is among the Colorado districts that have received the most state help with transitioning. In 2011, the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit focused on improving student achievement,chose 13 districts, including Durango, to act as laboratories and pilot the new standards. In exchange, the districts received support from the foundation in the form of grants, training and staff to manage the work.

Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness in the Colorado Department of Education, says the foundation’s work has helped the state identify successful strategies that can be spread statewide. “CLF has a little more flexibility and freedom to support and try new things,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for state departments to do that. We are in a state bureaucracy. It’s difficult to give grants out. It’s difficult to test things when they’re not fully vetted.”

Although superintendents say they’ve benefited from the foundation’s free trainings and free state resources, they say there’s a need for more. With the new standards, end-of-year tests will move online, which means many districts are scrambling to upgrade technology and Internet access, while also weighing the costs of additional teacher training and classroom materials.

This fall, Sevier says subject-area experts will work with teachers to break down the state curriculum overviews into individual units that teachers can then use in their classrooms. On its website, the state Department of Education acknowledges that continuing the project depends on “the participation of dedicated teachers.”

In Elizabeth, Bissonette says teachers also need more technology and better broadband Internet. He has little money to send teachers to trainings, and even less to spend on experts. Instead, he’s relying on local educators who are familiar with the standards to train his teachers. “We would probably spend more on it if we had the money to spend,” he said. “We’re barely able to keep up with the reforms.”

As online tests approach, new state exams will provide trial run

When Colorado students take end-of-grade exams next spring, many will face arguably the hardest tests yet of their education careers. Rather than bubbling in answer sheets, students in five grades will complete various tasks on computers to show their mastery of new science and social-studies standards, which are rolling out this year across the state.

The state exams will also serve as a trial run for the new Common Core math and English language arts exams, set to debut in Colorado, and as many as 43 other states, in 2015. Like the standards themselves, the computerized tests are intended to be more rigorous—and demand more of students—than previous exams. And as the state begins to incorporate student test scores into educator evaluations, the new exams will carry high stakes for teachers.

The new state tests are just one of many sweeping reforms hitting Colorado this year, including new standards for 10 content areas and overhauled teacher evaluation systems. Yet they are putting the greatest financial strains on districts, which are scrambling to ramp up technology and Internet access, often in the face of extensive budget cuts.

“It’s a big shift for our districts to go to a computer-based system,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment in the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado is making a gradual transition in case technological problems arise; across-the-board testing will follow in all core content areas in 2015. Some experts and officials in states that adopted online testing years ago, like Virginia, have cautioned that the speed at which many states are moving to online tests is unwise.

A sample problem from the new fifth-grade science assessment asks students to adjust the lines on an interactive graph to represent levels of water. (Source: Pearson)

A sample problem from the new fifth-grade science assessment asks students to adjust the lines on an interactive graph to represent levels of water. (Source: Pearson)

In the 2012-13 school year, chaos erupted as several states launched new online testing programs. InIndianaKentuckyMinnesota,Oklahoma and Virginia, glitcheshalted testing for thousands of students, causing delays and anxiety while opening the door tolawsuits. In one dramatic instance,Wyoming temporarily abandoned its online tests after a 2010 debacle. In the aftermath, the state fired its education superintendent and sued the test provider,Pearson, which is the vendor for Colorado’s new science and social-studies exams.

“Our hopes are that we will go through as many of the bumps this fall and this spring as we can,” said Zurkowski.

For many districts, the demands of the upcoming state tests have proven taxing. Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango’s schools, says the district spent more than twice what it usually spends on computers per year in anticipation of the tests. Instead of simply replacing old desktop computers for use in labs, the district bought laptops and mobile carts for every school—which cost about $450,000.

Still, Snowberger says he is grateful the costs weren’t higher. “We are fortunate in Durango, our bandwidth is certainly stronger than [in] rural districts,” he said. “It is certainly an issue in rural parts of Colorado.”

This year, the state Department of Education created an online technology readiness tool that allows districts to check their capacity to handle new tests. Katy Anthes, the state’s director of educator effectiveness, says Colorado is using the information to support districts individually.

“We’re figuring out solutions,” Anthes said, adding that some districts may need to administer the tests over more days if they don’t have enough computers. If Internet bandwidth is an issue, Anthes said districts can also cache the assessment, or download it to a local network, thus reducing bandwidth requirements.

It’s an ideal solution, according to Zurkowski. “We’re trying really hard not to present it as an option,” she said. “We’re trying to present it as a requirement.”

July 2012 report from the Evergreen Education Group found that many Colorado schools still lack the necessary infrastructure to handle the technology requirements of interactive tests.

For some districts, field tests have already highlighted gaps in technology readiness. In the Elizabeth School District, about an hour southeast of Denver, superintendent Douglas Bissonette said the district may have enough computers, but officials realized only last month that the resolution of its computer screens wasn’t satisfactory.

Scott Pankow, superintendent of the Ouray School District in southwestern Colorado, which tested out the new social-studies and science assessments last year, says administering the tests for all fourth- and seventh-graders was difficult. “It was a tax on our system,” Pankow said, adding that in rural areas like his, the speed and reliability of the Internet can be concerns.

The district will need more server space, but Pankow says finding the money is a challenge. “We’ve had to readjust our budget … and see what accounts we can tap into.”

Teachers brace for changes

The switch to online tests may be the most nerve-wracking for teachers, who are concerned about how students will handle the new format, and how test scores will affect their jobs. (In the 2014-15 school year, student scores will be factored into teacher evaluations and ultimately also tenure decisions.) The new exams come after years of stagnant scores that educators anticipate will drop when students take harder tests.

On the new science and social-studies tests, students will be asked to answer questions in a variety of ways, including dragging information into charts, typing written responses, and adjusting interactive graphs to represent scenarios presented in word problems. For the math and English exams, students will have to place fractions on a number line, create graphs, and write paragraphs in response to reading passages.

At a June training in Durango, teachers crowded into a small room at Fort Lewis College to learn about the coming changes. One teacher asked if spelling and punctuation will count in scores on the science and social-studies exams. (They won’t.) Another teacher asked if keyboarding ability has been factored into scoring. (It hasn’t.)

Zurkowski, of the Colorado Department of Education, says that computer skills are an “instructional issue,” as the new standards require that students engage with technology. “Kids are more comfortable, in some cases, with the technology than they are with paper and pencil,” she said.

Although the tests may require more of students, Zurkowski says they only reflect what kids will now be learning in classrooms. “We’re setting a new baseline,” she said. “We have new and different expectations than we’ve ever had before.”

Ready or not, new standards hit Colorado schools

DURANGO, Colo. — On a sunny morning in early June, 30 educators crowded around tables in a room at Fort Lewis College for the first session in a three-day training on Colorado’s new academic standards. Though the school year had just ended, nearly 600 teachers converged on the small college in anticipation of the changes they would face when the new standards rolled out this fall.

In the back of the room, six math teachers discussed the day’s first task: to brainstorm what they knew about Common Core State Standards, nationwide grade-level expectations in math and English that Colorado adopted in 2010.

“Our district hasn’t touched it at all,” admitted one teacher from western Colorado. Her colleague nodded in agreement.

But the two were an anomaly at the table, which mostly included teachers from districts that piloted the standards two years ago. Twenty minutes later, each group taped a large poster to the room’s bank of windows. As the two facilitators read each poster out loud, it was clear that at every table, the teachers’ knowledge of the Common Core varied greatly.

While some groups had drawn diagrams and written several sentences, others had written just a few words.

“What does this mean?” asked one of the facilitators, pointing to the words “curriculum” and “purchases.”

Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Teachers sort through a pile of non-fiction books during a June literacy training at Fort Lewis College. Students will be reading more non-fiction this year, especially in the high school grades. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

“We were just coming up with buzzwords,” a teacher called out.

This year, educators across Colorado are bracing themselves for a rocky road as districts introduce a host of school reforms, including new standards for 10 content areas, new tests, and new teacher evaluation systems. The Common Core standards have sparked debate across the country over their quality and focus, and about the federal government’s role in classrooms. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which for most states has meant the Common Core.)

In Colorado, the transition has been relatively smooth, if slow, up until this year. Thirteen districts rolled out the new standards early, while at least one district rejected them and created its own comparable ones. The rest of the state’s 180 districts have transitioned more gradually to new standards or continued teaching previous versions of the state’s standards until this year, the deadline for all districts to switch.

“There’s heavily resourced districts that have been thinking about this for a while, and in some, other initiatives took some precedence,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instructional support for the Colorado Department of Education. “Now, it’s really starting to hit home.”

“We’re going to find out a lot about the readiness of schools and districts—and where they thought they were, and where they really are. This is going to be a heavy lift over the next few years.” –Brian Sevier, director of standards and instructional support for the Colorado Department of Education.

Even in the districts that have experimented with the new standards since 2011 and received extensive support from nonprofits like the Colorado Legacy Foundation, progress has varied. In Eagle County, outside of Vail, former superintendent Sandra Smyser said in a May interview that the district’s teachers have embraced the reforms. “It’s difficult for us to find advice on how to proceed because we’re so far ahead,” she said.

But in Durango, another pilot district in southwestern Colorado, the transition has been more gradual. District superintendent Dan Snowberger says teachers “dabbled” in the new standards for two years, but as recently as last year the district had “not shifted our thinking to the new standards to any complete degree.”

Despite the delays, the changes have been a long time coming. In 2009, the year before the nationwide Common Core standards were introduced, Colorado released its own new standards for math and English, as well as for less commonly taught subjects like dance and visual arts. An independent review of Colorado’s math and English standards found them to be significantly aligned with the later-released Common Core. But in 2010, the state revised its standards yet again to further integrate the Common Core, while retaining Colorado-specific topics like state history, and standards on financial literacy.

The view from the classroom

As the reforms roll out across Colorado, the biggest impact will be felt inside classrooms, where under Common Core students will learn fewer topics and spend more time on key concepts. Younger students will learn the basics, such as counting to 100 and writing sentences, in earlier grades. Math teachers will move more slowly through mathematical operations to build a better background for higher math, like algebra. Lessons will be steeped in context and modeling real-world scenarios.

In one of the more controversial changes, the new English standards promote nonfiction as a way to prepare students for the types of reading they’ll encounter most in college and at work. In elementary school, students are supposed to read a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, such as speeches and news articles, which will shift to 30 percent literature and 70 percent informational by high school. Not all of the informational reading will happen in English classrooms, but the shift has sparked outcry from some educators concerned that traditional literature like The Great Gatsby will be replaced by nonfiction texts like the Gettysburg Address.

Kimba Rael, a high school English teacher in the pilot district of Centennial, believes there’s room for President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 speech in English class. “It still 100 percent falls into our realm,” she said. “Can’t we teach it as a rhetorical argument?”

The new standards encourage interdisciplinary teaching. For example, the sample curriculum for seventh grade English language arts suggests that students research and write about different perspectives on climate change, a topic typically covered in science classrooms.

Common Core also stresses that students use evidence from texts to support their ideas, and that teachers spend less time on “pre-reading” activities such as asking students to make predictions before they read. Teachers are instead encouraged to devote more days to individual texts—one of the architects of Common Core, David Coleman, suggests that teachers spend three days on the 10-sentence Gettysburg speech, for instance—and ask more specific questions about them.

“I’m finding I’m gearing almost everything toward justification—the importance of particular lines and passages,” said Rael. Student “conversations have totally changed.”

But Rael also says it was hard at first to internalize some of the major changes, like reducing pre-reading activities and handing the discussion over to students. She says it took her about a year before she started to alter her lessons and classroom activities dramatically.

Now, her students participate in frequent seminars about their reading, during which they moderate their own discussions. They no longer take daily quizzes on various facts from the previous night’s homework. “It really became more of an ‘I gotcha,’ ” Rael admitted. Her new weekly quizzes feature two or three important lines or passages from texts that students must analyze. “There’s a lot of ‘Why? Show me.’ Or, ‘Can you prove that?’ ” she said.

At North High School in Denver, which has piloted the new standards since 2011, math teacher Zachary Rowe says the standards have resulted in a “huge shift” in how teachers at his school plan, teach and assess. Instead of listening to lectures and completing practice problems, students participate in group work, projects and debates about math concepts.

“We’ve moved away from naked problems—solving for X for the sake of solving for X—and getting into, ‘Why am I learning this?’ ” Rowe explained.

Last school year, Rowe began infusing his lessons with real-life scenarios—a change from just helping students memorize formulas and how to solve equations. He now teaches a lesson on how to graph the intersection of two lines with a word problem about population growth and food supply. “I was explaining in real-world terms what ‘intersection’ means,” Rowe said. “This is the point where this country reaches carrying capacity and everyone will die.”

As a result, Rowe says his students are more interested in his lessons and eager to talk about, and even debate, mathematical ideas with their peers. Math scores at North High School have risen slightly as well. In the 2011-12 school year, only 10 percent of the school’s ninth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the state math exam. In 2012-13, 14 percent did so.

The incremental growth at schools like North High School suggests that improvements may take longer than some would like. (Statewide, test scores have stagnated in the past two years.)

At the same time, new, more challenging math and English tests based on the new standards will debut in Colorado during the 2014-15 school year, and educators are bracing themselves for lower scores. In Kentucky and New York, where scores plummeted after students took new Common Core-aligned exams, opponents of the new standards have seized the opportunity to suggest that the standards are too rigorous.

Educators around the state are hopeful, however, that in the long term, the changes will ultimately lead to significant improvements in student achievement.

“We’re going to find out a lot about the readiness of schools and districts—and where they thought they were, and where they really are,” said Sevier. “This is going to be a heavy lift over the next few years.”

Head Start hit hardest by shutdown, trouble looms for other programs

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post.

For the short term, most schools will likely be unaffected by the federal government shutdown that went into effect today. But if the impasse in Congress lasts a long time, schools may feel the financial squeeze.

The shutdown is a result of the House and Senate’s failure to agree on a funding bill, which forced more than 800,000 federal employees into furlough Tuesday morning.

If it lasts beyond one week, the government interruption is expected to delay funding to school districts, colleges and universities that rely on federal funds, according to a U.S. Department of Education contingency plan. With more than 90 percent of its employees expected to be furloughed, officials at the Department of Education will be unavailable to assist school districts or answer questions as they attempt to implement reforms, The Washington Post reports.

The biggest immediate impact could be felt in Head Start programs, though, which are still reeling from federal sequestration cuts that pushed 57,000 children out of the preschool program for low-income children. According to the National Head Start Association (NHSA), an advocacy group, 23 programs in 11 states with grant cycles that begin Oct. 1 are poised to lose grant money due to the shutdown.

“Beyond the headline numbers, this shutdown has real consequences,” said NHSA Director Yasmina Vinci in a statement. “Government shutdown is one cut atop an already deep wound.”

In Prentiss, Miss., a town of about 1,100 people an hour south of Jackson, the Five County Child Development Program closed its Head Start classes on Tuesday after failing to receive funding. “The only funds we have coming in are the federal dollars,” said Jonathan Bines, director of the Head Start program, which serves about 900 children.

 

Bines says he has received phone calls from parents who are struggling to deal with the closure. In Jefferson Davis County, where Prentiss is located, the median household income is about $26,000, and about one out of every four residents lives in poverty.

“They don’t have any childcare,” said Bines. “Some of them are working. They’re trying to scramble to find a place to leave their children.”

While institutions of higher education are expected to largely escape the effects of the shutdown for now, it is still unclear exactly how colleges and universities or postsecondary students would be affected if it continues, according to Inside Higher Ed. Prior to a near-shutdown in 2011, several agencies said they would be unable to award new research grants or help with existing grants. While the administration of student financial aid programs will most likely not be affected, a prolonged shutdown could delay federal funding to colleges and universities.

Schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education will most likely not be affected, according to the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). The BIE currently oversees 183 elementary and secondary schools and two post-secondary institutions across 23 states. According to the agency’s contingency plan, the Department of Education has already provided funds to sustain operations for the remainder of the 2013-14 school year.

But if the shutdown continues, it is unknown if tribal colleges would remain open. In anticipation of the 2011 near-shutdown, the Associated Press reported that the two Bureau of Indian Affairs colleges would have been forced to shut down after seven days. A request for comment from BIE officials was not returned as of press time Tuesday.

On Monday, Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a statement that tribal colleges, which are not forward funded, will only be able to operate as long as funds remain available. In general, the Navajo Nation depends on federal funding for two-thirds of its budget, according to New Mexico’s The Daily Times.

“It is unconscionable that the federal government will come to a complete halt due to a few unreasonable members of Congress,” Shelly said. “By failing to provide funding, Congress is once again failing to honor its trust responsibility to America’s first people.”

Once racially troubled, a district shrinks the achievement gap

OSSINING, N.Y.—On a spring morning at Ossining High School in suburban New York, a group of students gathered in a small classroom at the end of the school’s science hallway. It was a day traditionally known to the senior class as “skip day,” when most of the school’s 12th graders play hooky and head to the beach to celebrate their impending graduation.

But in the classroom shared by teachers Valerie Holmes and Angelo Piccirillo, a half dozen students had opted out of “skip day,” to spend the day in the science research room, putting finishing touches on projects and chatting with their teachers and classmates.

Edward Aryee, a senior at Ossining High School, talks to other students in the science research program. Aryee says the program inspired him to pursue science in college. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Edward Aryee, a senior at Ossining High School, talks to other students in the science research program. Aryee says the program inspired him to pursue science in college. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

After struggling to attract students when it first launched in 1998, Ossining’s science research program was thriving by 2001. Last year, the Intel Corporation chose the program out of 18 national finalists to receive the top prize in a contest celebrating excellence in science instruction.

It is a notable award, but only one of many recent accomplishments at a school with a troubled history. At the same time it was building a nationally-recognized science program from scratch, Ossining High—once the site of race riots—has pioneered new strategies for reducing racial tensions, closing achievement gaps and increasing graduation rates. So far, all seem to be working.

“We have a supportive community,” said the principal of Ossining High School, Joshua Mandel. “They give the high school the opportunity to experiment and to try different things.”

The village of Ossining, an hour north of New York City and home to Sing Sing prison, is somewhat of an anomaly within affluent Westchester County. The county’s median income is $80,000, about $10,000 higher than Ossining’s. And while nearly 70 percent of county residents are white, and only 20 percent are Hispanic, half of Ossining’s population is white, and 40 percent Hispanic.

For years, Ossining High School, a large stately brick building that stands on a hill overlooking the village, exemplified an achievement gap that is pervasive across America. In the mid-2000’s, fewer than half of black and Hispanic students at Ossining graduated in four years, compared to 85 percent of white students. There were also wide racial disparities in proficiency rates on end-of-year state exams.

Ossining High School, once the site of race riots, has shrunk its achievement gap between black, white, and Hispanic students. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Ossining High School, once the site of race riots, has shrunk its achievement gap between black, white, and Hispanic students. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Since then, the school has made significant progress, nearly doubling the percentage of minority students who graduate, and greatly narrowing the test score gap between student groups.

Mandel says the progress is a result of acknowledging the district’s pitfalls. “You have to start by saying ‘there is an issue here,’” he said, adding that it was difficult at first to admit that the district was failing its black and Hispanic students.

“It’s a major issue not only here, but in the entire country,” Mandel said. “The first step in addressing it is talking about it and coming up with specific plans.”

Ossining’s focus on race dates back to the late 1960’s, when the district created an integration plan for its elementary schools after a state-commissioned report highlighted racial divides between its schools. At the time, about 20 percent of students in the district were black, but in two of the district’s five elementary schools, the student body was less than 7 percent black.

In March of 1974, just days after the district announced its voluntary plan to balance the populations in the schools by redrawing boundaries, a race riot broke out at Ossining High School, which, as the only high school in the district, had a mix of white and black students.  In the wake of the riot, a curfew was put in place for the residents of Ossining and the school was shut down for several days.

Susan Kafer, who now teaches a popular music program at Ossining High School, was in the 9th grade at the time and remembers being locked in her biology classroom for hours as police secured the school. “There were large issues that were very deeply felt by a lot of people,” said Kafer. “It changed not only the school, but also the entire community.”

The desegregation plan was ultimately successful in evening out student populations. But in 1981, the district went a step further when it eliminated neighborhood schools altogether. Each elementary school took on one or two grade levels, and students began to move, as an integrated class, through the different schools.

Mandel says the plan helped to mollify racial tension. “When they get to middle school, these are kids that they’ve been with their whole life,” Mandel said. “It’s not shocking to them.”

Leslie Lopez, an 11th grader who attended several New York City area schools before her family settled in Ossining, says that the diversity has made her feel at home as a new student. “We’re like a big family,” Lopez said. “The diversity definitely helps [in] the learning experience of other cultures.”

Mixing students wasn’t enough to eliminate gaps between the performance of whites and minorities, however. So Ossining—hoping to help disadvantaged students start school on better footing—established a pre-kindergarten program available to all students in the district, ran an extended-day program, and created full-day kindergarten.

Still, in 2005, the four-year graduation rate for black students at Ossining High School was only 43 percent, lower than the national average. Meanwhile, 92 percent of white students graduated that year. Those numbers pushed the district to zero in on its black male population, half of whom, Mandel says, were failing.

Marisol Wager, a science teacher, assists a student in her bilingual science class. Ossining High School offers two science courses and one math course for students who are native Spanish speakers. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Marisol Wager, a science teacher, assists a student in her bilingual science class. Ossining High School offers two science courses and one math course for students who are native Spanish speakers. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

The district created a long-term plan to “aggressively, comprehensively, systematically and sensitively” address the education of black males, according to a 2007 article written by former superintendents Phyllis Glassman and Robert Roelle. Professional development for teachers began to encompass teaching diverse students and racial issues, and administrators and teachers discussed why black students, and males in particular, felt stigmatized and were performing poorly.

In 2005, the high school started a support group for black males called Project Earthquake, which provided workshops and trips to historically black universities. A similar program was developed at the middle-school level to encourage black boys to start thinking about college as early as sixth-grade. The district also increased the diversity of its staff. Between 1992 and 2007, the representation of Hispanic and black teachers rose from 12 percent to 25 percent.

But the Advanced Placement (AP) and honors-level classes that would further ensure student success beyond graduation were still attracting a majority of white students. Even when the high school did away with admissions requirements to AP classes, black students stayed away. “What we got was a lot more white kids,” said Sam North, a social studies teacher at the school. “Those classes, for whatever reason, didn’t appeal to a large section of students of color.”

Prudence Carter, a sociologist at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, says that it’s not unusual for minority students to avoid AP courses because the classes have historically been majority white or Asian and can seem intimidating. “AP becomes synonymous with ‘for those kids, not me.’” Carter said.

To combat this, the staff at Ossining High decided to try something altogether new. In 2005, the school expanded its relationship with the nearby State University of New York Albany and started a series of college-level courses, including “Racism, Classism, and Sexism,” “The Black Experience,” and “Crossing Borders.”

“Some of the material that we use is challenging, it’s controversial,” said Jillian McRae, an English teacher at Ossining who co-teaches several electives. “We’ve had students who have been angry. They’ve broken down,” she said. “They see inequities in systems, they see inequities in terms of what they’ve had access to, what their parents have access to, what their grandparents did or did not have access to.”

A student watches a presentation about discrimination during an elective course. Ossining offers several college level elective classes with the State University of New York Purchase. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

A student watches a presentation about discrimination during an elective course. Ossining offers several college level elective classes with the State University of New York Albany. (Photo: Jennifer Dev)

The elective classes quickly gained popularity, partly, says McRae, because the students could see their lives mirrored in the curriculum. White students also flocked to the classes. Enrollment numbers rose to 45 in some sections. North says that as black and Hispanic students started enrolling in the college-level courses, enrollment for both groups also increased in AP courses.

Just two years after the elective courses and Project Earthquake began, the graduation rate for black students grew 16 percentage points. Last year, 75 percent of black students graduated, up from 62 percent just four years ago. Between 2005 and 2013, the percentage of black students who graduated and went on to a two- or four-year college increased from 67 percent to 74 percent.

But the demographics of the school were shifting. In the 2003-04 school year, a third of Ossining students were Hispanic. By the 2011-12 school year, Hispanic students represented nearly half of the district’s population.

Most of these students, says Ossining High School teacher Marisol Wager, are recent immigrants from South America. “You have students who have interrupted education. You have students who came with a very strong education. You have some that unfortunately did not go to school in their country,” Wager said.

“It’s challenging,” she added.

As the demographics shifted, the staff of Ossining High School noticed that many Hispanic students had been in the country for a few years, but were still more comfortable speaking in Spanish. They didn’t struggle enough to justify placement in an English as a second language program, but only about 50 percent scored proficient on the state English exam in 2006. That year, high school administrators decided to target these students by creating a bilingual program.

Wager, a bilingual science teacher, says that at the time, Hispanic students would fail the same science class three years in a row. “My job is to help them learn science in the comfort of their language, and also help them develop their skills in English,” Wager said.

Research on the effectiveness of bilingual education is mixed, but Patricia Gandara, a research professor at the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education, cites a soon to be published study from the University of Oregon, which found that while young children in bilingual programs tend to learn English more slowly, by the high school years, they are academically outperforming their peers who were immersed in English-only classrooms.

“If a kid doesn’t speak English, it’s really hard to teach him chemistry,” said Gandara.

Ossining principal Josh Mandel says that the school’s bilingual program has targeted math and science because those are the classes that can be the most challenging for students who are learning a new language.

Ossining’s bilingual program now offers two science classes and one math course for native Spanish speakers, taught by teachers certified in bilingual education. Most students stay in the classes for one year, and after passing the state exam at the end of the year, move on to English-only classes. Hispanic students are performing significantly better. In the 2011-12 school year, 81 percent of Hispanic students scored proficient or advanced on the state English exam, and 75 percent scored proficient or advanced on the math exam, an increase of 27 percentage points in English, and 16 percentage points in math since the courses began.

This has shrunk the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students.  In the 2004-05 school year, 96 percent of white students were proficient or advanced on the state English test, compared to only 62 percent of Hispanic students. But by the end of the 2011-12 school year, this difference had been cut in half, according to state data.

Graduation rates have also risen steadily in the past four years. In 2009, fewer than half of Hispanic students graduated. Last year, two thirds earned a diploma. And among the Hispanic students who graduated this year, 86 percent were enrolled in a two- or four-year college, up from 60 percent in 2005.

Principal Josh Mandel visits a science classroom during one of many daily rounds. Mandel says that acknowledging the achievement gap between students was key to improvement. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Principal Josh Mandel visits a science classroom during one of many daily rounds. Mandel says that acknowledging the achievement gap between students was key to improvement. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

In Ossining—and nationally—the focus on struggling minority students has provoked new tensions. Critics worry the national push to close achievement gaps has prompted schools to ignore thriving students. In Ossining’s case, a non-profit anti-racism advocacy group, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, spoke out against Ossining’s programs in 2007, contending that by targeting black males, the district was engaging in racial profiling, possibly making black boys feel inferior. The Coalition had previously filed a complaint with U.S. Department of Education over similar programs at the City University of New York, but Mandel says no formal complaints were filed about Ossining.

Former Ossining school officials have said that even as they created services for black males, the district has initiated programs to benefit all students, including new arts and athletic offerings.

The school has also expanded the number of college-level courses and programs that target top students. Its science research program, which principal Josh Mandel says is not as diverse as some of the other classes in the school, has focused more on recruiting students who are interested in and curious about science rather than recruiting a diverse group.

“What we’re looking for are students who are passionate,” said Valerie Holmes, one of the two science research program teachers. The program currently has 92 students enrolled for the current school year, of which 60 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 10 percent are black. Even though women are traditionally underrepresented in the science professions, the program has succeeded in attracting an equal number of males and females. Holmes attributes this to a large number of female science teachers, who encourage girls to participate.

Josh Mandel says that the school’s next goal is to increase the number of graduates who are the first in their family to go to college. Last year, the school invited local college representatives to campus to interview students. In some cases, students were accepted on the spot. “Not every one of our students goes to college,” Mandel said. “But I want them to be able to have that choice.”

Despite Ossining High’s list of successes, Mandel cautions that its problems defy easy solutions. “We’ve worked really hard for a long time and we’ve had bad years and we’ve had good years,” he said.

“There’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything,” he added. “We’re willing to try different things and try to instill in our students that we will never give up on them.”

Back to school in Mississippi- without books, basics

RICHTON, Miss. — When Superintendent Noal Cochran had an open teaching position in this quiet town, he looked for applicants at the bottom of the salary ladder—those with as little experience as possible. When he needed a new football coach, he wanted a rookie “straight out of college” who would accept a smaller stipend.

And when he needed new textbooks, he chose history over physics or chemistry—subjects less likely to need updating.

“When you’re trying to survive and make payroll, you really don’t worry about textbooks,” Cochran said of his district, which serves about 700 students and has been underfunded by a total of $5 million since 2011, according to The Parents’ Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports public schools.

Cochran detailed his penny-pinching priorities for this small community east of Hattiesburg on a recent morning in front of the elementary school, where exposed pipes and electrical wires snake along ceilings. The school compound is mix of dilapidated brick buildings and aluminum trailers next to a field of rusty playground equipment.

With school underway throughout the state, superintendents like Cochran have few options for meeting their districts’ many needs, from classroom supplies to coaches. Since 1997, Mississippi has only fully funded its school system three times, shortchanging schools by an estimated $1 billion in the past four years alone.

The shortage of state support enrages educators, advocates and parents, who say Mississippi’s lagging test scores and dismal graduation rates cannot be fixed without better state funding. Only 62 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school within four years—far below the national average of about 78 percent. Resources and facilities are lacking: One out of three eighth-graders in Mississippi attends a school without a science lab, according to the federal Office of Civil Rights, compared to one in five in the rest of the nation.

This shortage has forced many teachers to look elsewhere for assistance. On the website DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that allows teachers to seek matching funds for grants and solicit other donations for classroom items, nine Jackson Public School teachers have requested more than $7,000 for basic supplies like books, equipment for science experiments and math games.

Teachers throughout the state are asking for paper, pencils and rulers, posting more than 180 grant proposals outlining their many needs on the Donors Choose site.

Last year, the state distributed debit cards that ranged from $175 to $225 based on average daily attendance numbers to 35,000 teachers to help with classroom expenses.

For many teachers who taught several classes a day of different students, the cards boiled down to about $1 per student for the year.

At the same time, cash-strapped districts are cutting back on essential positions and purchases to make ends meet. Some examples:

• The Natchez-Adams School District in southwest Mississippi has eliminated 12 special education teacher assistant positions and will reduce the district’s athletic budget by more than $40,000. The district is also putting off buying any new textbooks.

• The Hattiesburg Public School District cut 23 teacher positions during the 2012-13 school year, and was unable to add after-school programs.

• Water Valley School District Superintendent Kim Chrestman is relying on grant money to fund computers and Internet at his three schools in this district of about 1,200 students south of Oxford.

• Forrest County School District Superintendent Brian Freeman will not fill four open teaching positions this year.

The debate over school funding has long been a polarizing topic in Mississippi. In March, several Democratic state lawmakers called for an increase in education spending, which they said could improve schools by providing more teachers and classroom assistants.

Several Republican state lawmakers maintain that spending money on schools is not the answer. “A lot of the districts that are screaming that they need more money because they’re low performing, they’re already spending more than other districts,” said Rep. John L. Moore, chairman of the House Education Committee. “If we went in tomorrow and doubled the amount of spending that we’re putting in education, there’s no data that shows that it would increase test scores.”

For many Mississippi school districts, a state law passed in April has added new challenges. The law—which mandates for the first time how long a student must be present to be counted in that day’s overall attendance—could result in some districts receiving even less state funding, leaving many to scramble at the start of the school year.

Since 1997, school districts have received money based on a complex formula known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, which takes into account such factors as average daily attendance and the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Prior to this year, each district calculated daily attendance in its own way. While some counted students who were present for half the day, others counted any student who came to school at any point of the day. The new law requires that districts count only those students who are present for 63 percent or more of the instructional day.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering says the law will encourage schools to keep students in classrooms all day, and to report more reliable numbers. “[This is] a Democrat and Republican, black and white, rural and urban solution. Everybody recognized and saw the problem,’’ Pickering said.

But because schools provide teachers and supplies based on enrollment, and not just on attendance, funding calculations should include those numbers, educators and advocates say. “You have to provide a teacher and a desk and transportation and textbooks for every child enrolled, not just those that show up on a given day,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign.

The new law follows statewide drops in per pupil spending. In the 2010-11 school year, Mississippi spent an average of $8,572 per student, an amount lower than all but five states, and a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year. Recent estimates by the Mississippi Department of Education suggest that by 2015, per pupil spending could drop to about $5,000

“We’re a poor state,” said Todd Ivey, bureau director of the Office of School Finance at the Mississippi Department of Education. Ivey said that it makes sense to calculate funding based on enrollment numbers, but that will only result in MAEP being even more underfunded, since the state is lacking revenue to fund schools in the first place. “The only other place to get the revenue is to raise taxes,” he added. “Trying to raise taxes to bring in $300 million dollars wouldn’t be popular with anybody.”

Ivey says that it will most likely be December before districts see how the new law will affect their funding, since average daily attendance numbers from October and November this year will be used to determine how much money each district will receive for the 2014-15 school year.
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In Richton, Cochran is bracing for further cuts. The town’s median household income is about $25,000, not enough to supply a strong tax base that could boost the district’s local revenue. Yet compared to other areas of the state, Richton is also not poor enough or behind enough on test scores to attract the attention of donors and nonprofits, he said.

Some test scores have slipped over the past few years in Richton, but the district is still performing above the state average in many subject and grade level tests.

“We either need to just say we’re going to break the district and stop doing everything academically and fall into this terrible financial and academic cesspool,” Cochran said. “Or we’ve got to find a silver bullet. And right now, we’re trying to find the silver bullet.”

Left behind in science: Why Mississippi’s children lose out on STEM jobs

COLUMBUS, Miss. — At the end of his sophomore year, Damonta Morgan left Clarksdale High School as one of its top students. He transferred to The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, hoping for more challenging courses to prepare himself for college and a career as a biology professor.

He soon learned how ill-prepared he was. “I wasn’t behind for Clarksdale High School,” Morgan said on a recent spring afternoon at MSMS, the state’s only public residential high school for academically gifted juniors and seniors. “But when I came here, I was behind.”

Years of attending struggling public schools in a rural Delta town of 18,000 along the Blues Trail left Morgan with holes in his math and science education that are common throughout the state. Similar gaps pose a major roadblock for Mississippi’s students, whose scores on national science exams are among the lowest in the country.

Mississippi’s students lag on state science tests as well. During the 2011-12 school year, only 54 percent of fifth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced. Just 59 percent of high-school students met or exceeded state requirements in biology.

The consequences of a lackluster education in math and science are dire in a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate among young adults. Only 62 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school within four years—far below the national average of about 78 percent. Of those who go on to college, just 10 percent earn a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Yet within the next five years, an estimated 46,000 STEM-related jobs will become available in Mississippi, and most will require a two- or four-year college degree.

“When we talk to companies that are science- and technology-based, one of the first questions they will ask is, ‘What about the education system? What about the pipeline?’ ” said Joe Whitehead Jr., dean of the College of Science & Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “If we can’t say we’ve got kids who are prepared, then they won’t come.”

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of higher-paying STEM jobs in Mississippi increased by eight percent—a notable amount in a state where the median wage is only $38,000 a year.

Schools like MSMS and the brand-new STEM Academy at Gulfport High School see themselves as a potential solution, and have been gaining popularity—and attention— across the United States.

“The science and math piece is big with all the construction going on on the coast,” said Mike Lindsey, principal of Gulfport High School, where the new STEM institute opening this month will work with business and industry to train students for jobs in the state.

Pascagoula is opening a college and career technical institute this school year with seven academies, one of which will be devoted to STEM. The academies will serve a total of 700 students in grades 9-12 and were designed around local needs in the healthcare, energy and manufacturing industries.

The shortage of educated STEM graduates in Mississippi is worrying. The state is currently unable to fill jobs in healthcare; it needs more nurses and has the nation’s largest shortage of doctors. A career as a physician requires intensive training in science and math, and pays an average of $236,000 a year, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

If more Mississippians qualified for STEM careers, they could help close the income gap that separates them from the rest of the country, said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation, a public charity pushing for educational excellence and equity in the South.

Mississippi’s median income of about $38,000 per household pales in comparison to the national average of $52,000, and the state has the country’s highest percentage of children living in poverty.

“The only way for that economic gap in Mississippi to close is for young people to get better-paid jobs,” Suitts said. “Those better-paid jobs are going to be in the STEM fields.”

The need for more-qualified job applicants in Mississippi is so great that businesses have started investing in STEM initiatives. Ingalls Shipbuilding, a major employer in southern Mississippi, awarded nearly $110,000 this year to programs aimed at improving STEM education and increasing student interest in STEM fields.

Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, has half a dozen locations in Mississippi and gave more than $20,000 in scholarships to 15 students during an annual spring STEM competition in Jackson.

The Mississippi Department of Education is investing as well. In June, five Mississippi school districts, including three on the coast, received grants totaling $955,979 to upgrade equipment and improve engineering courses. The state has also been helping schools expand offerings through its STEM Cluster program, which focuses on preparing students for jobs in major industries, like engineering, plastics manufacturing and energy technology, near the 33 participating schools.

Ingalls Shipbuilding president Irwin Edenzon said his company invests in STEM education to create a stronger pipeline of high-school graduates who are well grounded in STEM skills.

“We certainly have identified a gap between the requirements we have for that STEM foundation, and the number of applicants who have that foundation,” said Edenzon, noting that all positions at Ingalls require a solid understanding of math, science and technology—even those in welding and electric work that don’t require bachelor’s degrees.

“We build some of the most complex and technically sophisticated warships in the world,” Edenzon added. “The better foundation they have in the STEM skills, the better they will adapt to the environment.”

Why students aren’t prepared

There are many reasons why so few students in the state are prepared for STEM jobs.

At Clarksdale High, where 95 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and the average family’s income is $24,000 a year, Morgan’s teachers scrambled to prepare students for the state’s biology exam that just 60 percent passed last year.

Little time remained for activities like science experiments and enrichment classes, said Morgan, who is headed to The George Washington University this fall.

“I wasn’t really getting as much as I should have been getting,” he said.

Mississippi’s weak performance in science is even more woeful for black students, who account for 50 percent of the state’s public-school population. An enormous achievement gap persists; last year, 72 percent of white fifth-graders in the state scored proficient or above on the science exam, compared to only 36 percent of their black classmates.

The disparities only increase as students reach high school. Black students accounted for a third of all Mississippi public-school students who took a college-level Advanced Placement (AP) science exam during the 2011-12 school year, but just six percent of those who achieved a passing score.

Some educators point to a lack of resources as the culprit in the state’s poor science performance. One of every three eighth-graders in Mississippi attends a school with no science lab. Black students are even less likely to have access to laboratories or advanced classes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

About 30 percent of black students in Mississippi attend high schools that don’t offer physics, while seven percent attend schools that don’t teach Algebra II, a required course for admission to the state’s public universities.

Mississippi isn’t the only state lagging behind when it comes to science education. For years, U.S. students have posted abysmal scores on international science exams—a trend the U.S. Department of Defense considers a national security issue. Only 34 percent of U.S. eighth-graders, and just 10 percent of black students, scored proficient or advanced on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress science test.

President Barack Obama has pushed for change, challenging educators to create 1,000 new STEM schools over the next decade. Obama has also promised to build a diverse national teaching corps of 100,000 STEM educators, and suggested investing $180 million in STEM education programs in his 2014 budget proposal.

Some experts say that the creation of STEM schools may help address a historic underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields, particularly because some make a concerted effort to enroll unrepresented populations.

Sharon Lynch, a professor in George Washington’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, estimates there are anywhere from 300 to 500 STEM-focused high schools in the country, but there is “great variability” in how schools define STEM instruction.

“This is kind of, in an odd way, a grassroots kind of movement,” said Lynch, who studies STEM-focused high schools where any interested student can enroll.

Lynch said STEM schools began to crop up long before the Obama administration made the fields a federal priority. “It’s almost as if communities realized they needed better STEM education.”

Little research has been done on schools that emphasize STEM subjects, but initial studies are encouraging. One study suggests that graduates of selective STEM schools—where student test scores and grades are taken into account during admissions—are nearly 50 percent more likely to pursue STEM majors in college than their peers who didn’t attend STEM high schools.

Ohio has experienced so much success with its STEM high schools that it has created a district of STEM schools, spread out across the state. At one such school in Cleveland—where all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and three-quarters are black—86 percent of 11th-graders tested proficient or above on the state science test last year, some 25 percentage points above the district average.

Lynch says the most successful open-enrollment STEM schools offer curricula that infuse other courses, like English, with STEM concepts. They tend to focus on project-based learning, give students access to advanced technology, and allow them to apply their skills in real-world situations.

“It’s also an economic bonus for communities and their businesses and industries to be able to have a better-educated population,” Lynch said. “Students can do much more meaningful work if they’re allowed to get involved in their communities and do STEM within their community.”

Whitehead, however, cautions that creating new, STEM-specific schools isn’t enough.

“You’re taking kids who are going to do well anyway,” Whitehead said. “The kids who are left at a regular high school, they’re in a place where they’re not getting what they need,” he said.

Whitehead wants all students to be exposed to more math and science classes from a younger age and to have access to more advanced classes. “If we want to solve the problem on a long-term basis, we’re going to have to change the mainstream secondary school system,” he said.

That is exactly what Gulfport High is trying to do, Lindsey said. Two years ago, the school restructured its sequence of science courses. Now, instead of starting with the traditional progression of biology followed by chemistry, most Gulfport ninth-graders first take physics.

Already, Gulfport High has extensive STEM offerings. Students have partnered with local professionals, like those at NASA’s nearby Stennis Space Center, to learn skills in robotics and engineering before graduating.

“They get to work side-by-side with the Michael Jordans of the engineering profession,” said David Fava, director of career and technical education at Gulfport High. “These kids come out heads and shoulders above their peers.”

The decline of science education in Mississippi: A classroom view

GULFPORT, Miss. — Two 10th-graders stand over a large whiteboard in their chemistry class at Gulfport High School, trying to recall the previous day’s experiment so they can present it to the class.

“What substances did we use?” the first student asks.

His classmate picks up a paper with notes and examines it for a moment. “It was sodium hydroxide and…”

The first interrupts excitedly before his classmate can finish and quickly writes on the whiteboard. “It was sodium bicarbonate decomposed to create disodium oxide in water. And carbon dioxide.”

At Gulfport High, such hands-on learning through experiments is common. Laboratories are well stocked with equipment and supplies. The school boasts a large classroom dedicated to building and testing robots, and its robotic team has won several awards. There’s even a separate wing where students can practice in-demand skills like repairing cars and welding.

Gulfport High, though, is an anomaly in Mississippi, a state that lags behind in both the types of science classes offered and the way students are taught. Students post some of the lowest test scores in the country on national tests. Only 19 percent of Mississippi’s eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced on a 2011 national science exam, compared to 31 percent of all U.S. students who took the exam.

Research has found that hands-on learning and collaboration can be very effective ways to teach science and boost interest in the subject. Yet just 42 percent of eighth-graders in Mississippi do hands-on activities or investigations at least once a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That’s a big problem for a state already having trouble graduating high-school students with sufficient science skills for higher education and the many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs expected to become available in the near future.

“The kids are just underprepared,” said Joe Whitehead Jr., dean of the College of Science & Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, who said many freshmen graduate from Mississippi’s public high schools without encountering physics or advanced math, like calculus.

Some experts believe the root of Mississippi’s problem is a weak teacher-preparation pipeline, with programs that don’t provide the skills or deep knowledge of science necessary for educators to teach it well.

There is no national standard for the number of classes related to science that aspiring elementary-school teachers must take; preparation programs vary greatly in how much, or how little, they teach teachers about science.

“Most elementary teachers often don’t have the content background to teach science, and have sort of a science phobia,” said John Rudolph, a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In addition, the amount of classroom time spent on science in the younger grades is declining. Elementary teachers in Mississippi spend an average of just 2.4 hours per week on science instruction, slightly higher than the national average of 2.3 hours.

At the same time, the hours dedicated to math and reading have steadily increased over the past decade. Teachers now spend an average of 5.6 hours a week teaching math in elementary schools, and nearly 12 hours teaching English language arts, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Educators are also increasingly teaching science through reading rather than through hands-on learning, which can make the subject less appealing to students.

“Just reading about science is not going to get kids engaged; it’s not going to get them interested,” said Dave Saba, chief operating officer of the National Math and Science Initiative in Dallas.

A visit to Lori Johnson’s second-grade classroom in rural northeastern Mississippi illustrates why. On a recent spring morning at Saltillo Primary School, Johnson’s second-graders were spread out across her room in small groups, clutching Post-it notes as they examined a passage about the Earth’s layers.

“Find your words worth noticing,” instructed Johnson, as she circulated around the room to help students. “We do a lot of vocabulary for science,” Johnson explained.

The room erupted in chatter as students chose words from the text, wrote them on sticky notes, and added them to a growing cluster of vocabulary words posted on a chart at the front of the room.

Johnson’s was a typical elementary science lesson possibly aimed at improving test scores, according to Rudolph. While some students searched the passage earnestly for new vocabulary words, others skimmed the passage quickly and then opted to draw a picture to visually depict the vocabulary words that group-mates had found.

It was the second part of her lesson—where Johnson had the class build a Play-Doh replica of the Earth—that truly generated excitement.

“What color do you think we’re going to use to represent the mantle?” Johnson asked.

“Red,” answered one student. “It’s really hot.”

“When we get to the crust, we’re going to use blue,” Johnson said. The class grew loud with confusion.

“Why?” Johnson prompted, as the class quieted down.

“About 70 percent of the Earth is made of water,” responded a student.

After finishing the directions, Johnson dismissed groups of students to begin. Back at their desks, the second-graders buzzed with excitement as they got to work.

By the end of high school, research has found that the initial enthusiasm for studying science so evident in Johnson’s class may die out, according to a 2010 report by the Raytheon Company.

Some students grow discouraged by repeatedly low scores on STEM tests. About 60 percent of the nation’s eighth-graders who are proficient in science will decide not to pursue STEM careers while still in high school.

In many schools across the country, science instruction tends to focus heavily on preparing for state tests.

In Jill Daniel’s class at Saltillo Elementary School on a recent morning, the fifth-graders sat silently listening to directions for their test review game. The students had just 16 days to prepare for the first science assessment of their educational careers.

“The students aren’t used to taking rigorous science tests,” Daniel said, as she prepared to lead the review. Some concepts, especially in the physical sciences, are challenging because they’re so abstract and students have little background in them, she said. “Especially since it’s kind of put to the wayside in other grades. By the time they get to fifth grade, it’s pretty deep for them.”

While some students start fifth grade performing on grade-level, Daniel said many lack the study skills necessary to do well on state tests that involve extensive memorization.

“The hardest part is remembering everything,” agreed 11-year-old Seth Clark, as he sat with two classmates, stumped by the test question projected on the board.

After a few minutes of debate, the group was last to raise their white board with their answer tentatively written on it. The three boys breathed a sigh of relief when told they were correct.

“That was a wild guess,” Clark confessed in a whisper, wiping his white board clean.

Mississippi’s fifth-graders have traditionally had a tough time with the state’s science test. Last year, only 54 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, and there was a large gap in the performance of white and black students. Just 36 percent of black students tested proficient or above, compared to 72 percent of white students.

Kendra Taylor, program supervisor for technology education and STEM in the Mississippi Department of Education, says that schools’ lack of resources could be contributing to this achievement gap.

For the past four years, Taylor has been pushing schools across the state to join the state’s STEM Cluster program, which provides sequences of classes in 33 schools to prepare students for some of the state’s major STEM industries, like engineering and polymer science.

This year, in anticipation of new job opportunities, the state added an energy technology program.

“I think it’s important that we try to ensure that our students are successful and have the skill-set where they can be successful in those types of careers,” Taylor said.

But Joe Whitehead Jr. of the University of Southern Mississippi believes that it’ll take more than four years of STEM classes to improve student preparation. “Kids need exposure over a number of years in these subjects to really learn it,” he said.

Some educators say that Mississippi’s adoption of new common math and English language arts standards—which 44 other states have also adopted—may improve outcomes in science. The standards emphasize reading nonfiction texts, which Lori Johnson said has increased the amount of time students learn about science concepts during instruction in other subjects.

New science standards, which were developed by 26 states and unveiled earlier this year, have yet to be adopted by Mississippi. Several scientists and groups like the National Science Teachers Association have endorsed the standards, saying they will better prepare students to enter college and the STEM workforce.

For students in Mississippi who wish to major in a STEM field but are underprepared when they graduate from high school, Whitehead says that community colleges could play a key role. Although the University of Southern Mississippi sees about 200 students transfer out of biological sciences a year, they gain back the same number with students who transfer in from community colleges.

“The transfer population have already gone through the general-education courses and what we call the ‘gatekeeper courses’ on the STEM side,” Whitehead said. “If we want to solve the problem on a long-term basis, we’re going to have to change the mainstream secondary school system. We need to do a better job helping students understand what science and engineering [are] all about.”