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Colorado Literacy & Policy Summit 2011

CLAS and CCIRA (Colorado Council International Reading Association) co-sponsored a public meeting on November 12, 2011 with a panel of policy makers to discuss literacy issues that face teachers and students.  Two state legislators, both former educators, a representative from the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education, and the head of the Denver Classroom Teacher's Association responded to questions about the direction of legislation and education policy in Colorado. Mike Wenk moderated the discussion.

Following are notes and photos by Sarah Zerwin, a teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder and editor of the CLAS journal, Statement.


  • Andy Kerr, Colorado State Representative for House District 26, a curriculum specialist in Jeffco Public Schools and former social studies teacher

  • Dr. Diana Sirko, the Deputy Commissioner for Learning and Results for the Colorado Department of Education, 37-year educator, and has been a teacher and administrator at the building and district level

  • Henry Roman, the president of Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, representing about 3000 teachers, and a 14-year teacher

  • Dave Young, Colorado State Representative for House District 50, former adjunct faculty/senior instructor at CU Denver, and taught math and science in Greeley-Evans SD6

  • Jane Goff, State Board of Education member representing the 7th Congressional District, 26 years' teaching French, Spanish, and ELA in Jeffco Public Schools and 8 years at the district level including curriculum coordinator for world language program in Jeffco

What is the state of literacy in Colorado? What's going well? What could use some improvement?


Diana Sirko: we just received National Assessment of Educational Progress results; Colorado is in the top 8 in 4th grade reading and top 3 in 8th grade reading, but has one of the fastest growing poverty rates for children. CDE's focus is on literacy for every child. We are in the process of updating standards and incorporating CCSS, trying to create more rigorous and clear expectations in all areas, including post-secondary and workforce readiness. We want to give everyone the tools and skills for college, then let students choose.

Henry Roman: Literacy is not just one more thing on the plate, it is the plate. We have had some challenges and successes in integrating the CCSS into the Colorado standards. This has gone well in some areas, but in others we need more work. E.g., students should write for a variety of purposes, but what does that look like at each grade level? This interacts closely with the assessment framework, so what does that look like? What kinds of assessments do we have? How will those be used effectively for instruction?

Jane Goff: Colorado has been progressively aggressive in pursuing grants and partnering with other organizations in order to address the whole realm of what contributes to literacy, including community health organizations and non-profits. The data show that kids who have access to preschool and kindergarten do better in later years in school with literacy. There is a strong connection to kids’ home lives as well -- how can we support that? Early literacy directly relates to achievement on CSAP and future state assessment system, and college and post-secondary pursuits. There are many literacy programs in place right now across the state, and achievement results show things are working. The Literacy Matters initiative has three prongs:

  • community involvement - a bus tour around the state to visit different communities and talk about what they’re doing

  • civic engagement - further reaching out to bring in entire entities in communities, involving health organizations

  • policy/legislation - families need access to ways to promote literacy very early on

Should the state develop specific policies around this?

Dave Young asked Jane Goff if she had been on the bus yet. The Literacy Matters bus tour came to his community and he found it an impressive discussion with a lot of groups involved. He wonders how well-coordinated the effort is.

Diana Sirko: there are many programs going on all over the state and the Literacy Matters program is providing some awareness of those efforts across the state. A big focus is on helping to be sure children don’t start behind when they get to school, providing resources to families and access to early childhood programs.

Dave Young: Data shows the Colorado Preschool Program is working, but we know we’re not serving as many students as are eligible. These students are not clearly identified. Why? Diana Sirko replied that it is difficult to find children of poverty whose families move around a lot.


How does 3rd grade retention or students who are not proficient in reading affect these efforts in early literacy?

Andy Kerr: At a town hall meeting in Lakewood, an attendee asked why we didn’t have mandatory retention because it worked in their day. We’re more of a standards-based system now and we help students to meet the standards. Statistics show that retention doesn’t work and works against what we’re trying to do, which is not a popular response to the constituents. For whatever reason, many voters seem to think retention works. When we talk about educating kids, we also have to educate adults about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Henry Roman: There is a body of research about retention and its negative effects. Many school issues are related to the breakdown of the community, so school has become the ultimate safety net (free breakfast, vaccinations, etc.). We see two kinds of school reform: "little r" reform that came in the form of SB 191, and "big R" reform we need in community-based efforts to support kids to have what they need to be successful. The most recent Jeffco mill levy, which would have cost homeowners about $20/month, failed. What do we really value in society? We support kids, education, and early childhood, but are not willing to really invest in it. We need to have deeper conversations about these things. Family and community engagement is not a one-time event but relationship building to get authentic engagement in the education of a child/children.

Diana Sirko: As we move toward differentiation, we still retain some kids (around 2% each year). It is the right thing for some kids, but a blanket policy on this isn’t what we need to do. Florida retains 3rd grade students that are not proficient in reading, but also has kindergarten for all students. The data are not clear yet on the long-term effects of Florida’s policy. As we updated the Colorado Basic Literacy Act, we need to talk about early intervention, be very clear about what schools need to do and be sure we are not allowing students to fall through the cracks. It’s all about early intervention.

Jane Goff: Florida is only one example and has been discussed heavily. Is it good? Reliable? Valid? There is activity in the retention area going on in New Mexico as well, and there are some similarities between Colorado and New Mexico. We must be consistent in what else is happening. As a state, we believe in high, clear standards and that students have the opportunity to move through the standards at their pace. The achievement gap is important, but it is not always pertinent to just one group of students. There are gaps in terms of growth and learning in students who are proficient on the exams as well. When we talk about retention, are we talking about seat time/credit hours or competency and achievement?

Dave Young: RTI is another wrinkle in this retention issue. In identifying students with learning needs, there has to be a gap. If we retain students, would we still be able to see that gap?

Diana Sirko: Intense reading intervention would have a .62 or .68 effect. Retention has a negative 1.6 effect. The name of the game is aggressive, targeted intervention designed around the needs of that child instead of a blanket statement for all students.

What will assessments look like with the new Colorado standards? What’s happening with the national consortia working on an assessment package? How will the new assessments be different from what we’ve become used to with CSAP?

Diana Sirko: The Colorado Department of Education is working on these issues every day. The last rounds of CSAP were last spring; we are now administering TCAP, a transitional test between CSAP and the new system. We are part of one national consortium watching to see the design of state exams, which will allow for cost sharing, comparability between states, and adherence to the Common Core State Standards. Let's begin at what it will cost to develop a Colorado assessment.

Our teachers want to see test results during the same school year and a more adaptive system where questions are delivered to individual students based on how they do on questions. CDE is working diligently toward what an assessment system would look like and how it would provide meaningful data for teachers and leaders. We know more now about testing and psychometrics than we knew fifteen years ago, so we are looking at building a system with interim assessments and a formative assessment bank. We want assessment to do what it has always been intended to do: match the tenets of high-quality instruction.

This development process is a bit on hold now and may take three years, not two. We need to re-approach the Colorado State Legislature for funds. It we can’t have the twenty-nine million needed for the whole system, we could start with two million to develop the science assessments.

Jane Goff: We invited both national consortia to the most recent State Board of Education meeting. Both consortia presented components of their systems and progress. The cost for one view is equivalent to what CSAP costs per student right now. We’re back in limbo here because of funding and upcoming budget projections. A three-year TCAP situation is a concern for the districts that are working very hard to integrate the new standards.

One way or the other, we need to make a move on this soon. We need to get it going and do a good job on it. Content areas that were not in CSAP, such as the resource bank with formative assessment ideas, will be really important. We want to give districts resources that they can use at their option.

[Moderator Mike Wenk asked panelist Henry Roman to address this issue from the lens of his constituents and from teachers.]

Henry Roman: I would love to say that assessments should not be the only driver of instruction, but they have become that because of the high stakes attached to them. Teachers find value in formative assessments, but much of what we’re talking about now are the summative pieces. There are several issues with this: we are looking at subject areas not tested on the CSAP or TCAP; there is an emphasis to center on the outcome of the assessment rather than the process of how to get there; and the upcoming implementation of SB 191 on teacher effectiveness.

One of the significant issues in using test scores as an indicator of teacher effectiveness is the sample size. When n is less than 30, what you’re looking at is not a precise measure and it's not a stable measure from year to year because of the small sample size. Data is more valid and reliable at the school level. If you’re thinking of a precise measure that will tell you if someone is effective or not, you need a body of evidence, which is extremely labor intensive. There’s convenience and then there’s reality: if there’s a system that will simply become a system of compliance, it will lose all value.

The conversation now is about value-added models. These are good models, but you cannot simplify things that are not simple. There needs to be a willingness to accept the complexity of our profession. We must be mindful about what we’re looking at and how we’re using that information. We need to consider smaller school districts that don’t have the same resources to implement things. People tend to concentrate on deadlines and timelines; do you want to meet the deadline and timeline, or do you want meaningful data?

Funding looks kind of bleak right now. What happened with Colorado's application for Race to the Top? How about Proposition 103? How are we going to move forward with new assessments and literacy initiatives as we face these cuts? Is there any good news about funding?

Dave Young: The small amount of money that we spend on adult literacy measures trickles down to early childhood literacy. We need more funding in this area and more talk about what works.

Diana Sirko: We did receive a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help develop the assessments and further the reform agenda around great teachers and leaders. Part of this will be funding content collaboratives to build expertise and teacher-leaders across the state.

We are in the Race to the Top consolation round (nine states that applied in rounds 1 and 2 and weren't funded) and could get 12.5 million dollars or possibly more, which must go into programs articulated in the second round.

The state Board of Education passed the SB 191 requirements last week and a key one is multiple measures, acknowledging there are different ways of measuring the richness that occurs in a high-quality classroom every day.

Henry Roman: When we think of eighty-seven million dollars compared to the one-time Gates money, another twelve to fifteen million dollars, we’re looking at twenty million in one-time money. This does not deal with the issue. Maybe the state legislature needs a workshop in how to get along with others, which is part of our 21st century skills. We need different sources of revenue, different areas for tax income - everything needs to be on the table because investment in education is not about now, it’s about the future. We need long-term solutions, an honest conversation about what can and can’t be done, and to look at overall picture to see areas where we can get additional sources of revenue.

Jane Goff: If you put aside all the grant income, the thing about this latest cut announcement is that enrollment in schools across the state is increasing very quickly and significantly. We do not have funding for this growth and cannot keep the programs operating at the same level. Something has to give. Education, health, and the correctional system are the three biggest pieces of state spending. These are all important and woven together. If you give one special treatment or pull funding away from one, you affect all three.

[Moderator Mike Wenk announces a lightning round.]

Henry, Denver Public Schools is one of the most diverse districts in the state. How will DPS recruit and retain teachers who reflect that diversity?

Henry Roman: We must be intentional to achieve that goal, but our district is facing the challenges of not finding professionals who come to us meeting that goal. Sometimes we need to go outside of the state to recruit highly-qualified teachers from diverse backgrounds. We are trying our best, but if you look at the actual numbers we are not meeting our goals.

Dave, you spent some time in higher education. Can you address the different ways that teachers are coming into the system?

Dave Young: Troops to Teachers and other avenues that downplay master’s degrees. There was a push at one point to do alternative licensure for people in the tech industry who were out of work. My area of expertise over the past few years has been in e-learning and teachers who are trying to move their instruction online. Does K-12 online teaching just need content knowledge? It's complicated.

Diana, is there a new literacy coordinator at CDE?

Diana Sirko: The Gates grant has given us money for three years for a literacy content specialist. The position has just been offered and we are waiting for the person to accept.

Jane, can you speak to the idea of why you think Colorado is note moving toward mandated and fully-funded kindergarten?

Jane Goff: Ask them. [gestures to the legislators on the panel] It's complicated, but funding is definitely an issue. We are a local-control state; local school boards make decisions about how their programs will go and how they will spend their budget. The number of states that have gone to full-day kindergarten has increased and Colorado is in the lesser column now, but it will be a tough conversation right now with funding.

Andy, what would you advise the audience in terms of how we can advocate for literacy issues?

Andy Kerr: Jane mentioned civic engagement, which is a very important piece. The legislative session is 120 days long (January-May) and each legislator is allowed to sponsor five bills. With 100 lawmakers, that's a 500 bills plus an additional few hundred budget bills. Usually a little over half of them pass and become law. During the session is a bad time to initiate conversations with lawmakers, so get to know them before the session starts and if they get a phone call from you in the midst of things. they know you. Encourage educators to reach out to your legislators. Legislators have a bit of a bully pulpit to educate adults about these issues.

Henry said that the legislature needs to have a conversation with everything on the table. Colorado is about the weakest legislature in the nation due to constitutional restraint; for instance, we cannot raise taxes to create new revenue. This handcuffs lawmakers in ways that are unconstitutional. We must have these conversations statewide. That’s what proposition 103 was.

Dave brought up online education. There’s a view out there that online education will solve all the problems in the world. There are good programs, but some that are not so good and need more oversight. People need to differentiate between the ones that are research-based and have oversight. Jeffco has a great online program that is very targeted for kids who can be successful in that way.

On local control: Twenty to thirty years ago, an average of 40% of money going into local school districts was coming from the state. Now the state backfills over 60% of the money going into local school districts. No one actually sat down and said what the percentage should be, it has just developed this way over time.

[Moderator Mike Wenk apologized for the unanswered questions. We just barely touched the tip of the iceberg here. Keep in touch with these panelists, other representatives and board members, and the CDE.]

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