October 14, 2013 Updated: October 14, 2013 at 9:18 am
The lofty goals of the national No Child Left Behind act launched a myriad of education reform initiatives at local, state and national levels.
Under the act, schools across the country are held accountable to ensure all students achieve academic proficiency. States are required to test students every year in grades three through eight in reading and math, and report the scores by race, income, disability and English proficiency. If a school continually fails, it could be closed.
As a result, school districts have changed curriculum (most recently to line up with Common Core standards), created tech-savvy classrooms, emphasized creativity and critical thinking on one hand while stressing classical Latin and basic skills on the other, and emphasized addressing the whole child with not only academics, but social services, health care, food programs and enrichment experiences.
Another outcome of the demand for reform is the plethora of charter schools and educational options that proponents say increases competition and thus creates better schools.
On top of that, academia is awash in entrepreneurs and consultants offering teaching tools and blueprints to feed districts hungry for success.
Reilly Pharo, vice president of education initiatives for the Denver-based Colorado Children's Campaign, calls the federal No Child Left Behind and the follow-up federal grant program Race to the Top "the carrot and stick" of education reform.
No Child Left Behind spelled out what states had to do and the penalties for not doing it. Race to the Top, created in 2010, was the carrot that offered millions of dollars in grant money to make changes.
Colorado is a microcosm of what is happening nationally. The state and some districts and charters embraced change early, but the Legislature has not funded reforms properly, critics say. They point out that Colorado ranks toward the bottom in education spending. Amendment 66, which is on the November ballot, would infuse almost $950 million into Colorado's education system.
Some of that money would go toward teacher development programs, a key part of Colorado reforms.
"Research is clear, teachers are the most important factor in school," says Katy Anthes, executive director of education effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education. "We cherish them and districts cherish them. They have the hardest, most intense and most important work."
It takes a community
The state's required principal and teacher evaluation system begins this year. Teachers are being graded on their students' academic growth and their own professional abilities. There is no penalty for those who fall short this year, but in future years, low scores can result in probation.
The evaluations were created to identify where help is needed and give that support, whether it is mentoring, peer observation and feedback or professional development.
The scoring rubric is detailed. "Nothing on the rubric isn't hard. It's all challenging and demanding work. We unpacked what makes a high quality teacher and principal using research-based information. It took a year to do that," explains Anthes.
Nesting principal evaluations with those of teachers is an important component.
"If we expect teachers to do six things, we need to expect leaders to support them in that," Anthes says. "It takes the whole community at school to make it happen."
"All kids will learn"
Nationwide, some reform solutions have been extreme. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans addressed its failing schools by starting over. It fired most teachers, placed most schools under direct state control and created charter schools. Student achievement in math, reading, science and social studies increased to 58 percent proficiency in 2012 from 35 percent in 2005, according to news reports.
The schools are staffed in part by Teach for America, which itself is an outgrowth of the reform movement. It is a national teacher corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years to help raise student achievement.
In Colorado there are 1,300 Teach for America teachers, including 270 in Denver, and another 110 in Colorado Springs at Harrison School District 2.
School choice and charter schools also are significant results of school reform - and two areas that Colorado has pushed for years.
In 2002, a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school opened in Denver, one of 33 schools nationwide. KIPP is a free public charter system that chooses students by lottery. It was founded in the late 1990s. Some public schools have tried to mirror some of its programs.
A KIPP school in New York City became the focus of the 2010 documentary film "Waiting for Superman" that showed the hopelessness among minorities that the achievement gap wrought, and how it was being overcome.
The movie was shown in Colorado Springs to much fanfare and started a series of community conversations sponsored by dozens of groups debating and envisioning how to create better education systems nationally and locally.
At KIPP Colorado's Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver, fifth-graders sometimes arrive more than two years behind in achievement. But by the end of the year they are on or above grade level in math, reading, writing and science, says Principal Emily Yates.
The school received the highest possible "distinguished" rating on the comprehensive and rigorous Denver Public Schools Performance Framework.
One hundred percent of the 2013 senior class was accepted into college. The school is 98 percent minority and more than 95 percent of students come from poverty.
Change takes time
In Colorado Springs, Harrison School District 2, which has been in the national spotlight for its reforms, has a similar mindset. More than 70 percent of its students are impoverished.
D-2 got ahead of the curve because of a reform-minded superintendent and gritty school board that endured voracious picketing at meetings, name calling and threats when they dared to fire or push out teachers deemed ineffective, and adopted the first-of-its kind pay-for-performance system in Colorado that compensated based on student accomplishment. Now all districts are required to adopt similar evaluation systems.
The Colorado Department of Education placed Harrison on probation about seven years ago because of dismal test results. But last year, the district met or exceeded the state average in 22 out of 27 assessment measures. In 2005-2006, it met none of them, said spokeswoman Christine Lyle.
Many observers say such improvements aren't happening fast enough.
Policy implementation takes time, notes Pharo, of the Colorado Children's Campaign.
Some districts are ahead of the game.
"We had some early adopters of some of the changes and that helped some of the districts."
Colorado only recently adopted legislation to force the more rigorous academics.
"All these changes started in 2008, and it feels like a long time in normal time. But in policy implementation, we are just beginning. We are a ways out to see the impact of all the policy changes."
Finland as a model
National efforts to change tend to "focus heavily on solving only one dimension of the problem: better teachers or better books or more choice," said Michael Taber, chairman of Colorado College's education department.
However, he said, they "fail to look at the issue in a more complex fashion. We can learn from taking a 'system' approach."
Taber cites Finland as an example.
In the 1970s, the education roles were reversed for the United States and Finland. The U.S. was the global leader in education, while Finland struggled with a sizable student achievement gap, correlated to socio-economic status.
Reforms began in the 1980s and Finland now leads developed nations in education scores, based on the Program for International Student Assessments, an international test for 15-year-olds in language, math and science.
Finland achieved the gains in part by decentralizing its education system.
Advanced and extensive teacher education and training - three years of graduate-level preparation paid for by the state - along with an innovative "thinking curriculum" enabled Finland to give its schools broad autonomy.
Also unlike the U.S., Finland requires no external testing for students. The only exception is a voluntary 12th-grade college admissions essay exam.
Finland did not standardize curriculum, gauge curriculum by frequent external testing and narrow the majority of curriculum to the basic skills of English and math.
The Common Core Standards
Some educators, though, favor standardized curriculum.
Mary Snyder, dean of the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said the Common Core Standards, a multistate initiative to standardize education in the U.S., make sense.
"There are benefits to having a common, rigorous curriculum across states, so that a third-grader in Oregon is studying the same thing as one in Tennessee," Snyder said.
Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards for K-12 in mathematics and English language arts and literacy. A new set of assessments starting in spring will match the standards.
The Common Core Standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers based on what teachers, parents, school administrators and education experts think graduating high school seniors need to know to be prepared for college and the workforce. However, Snyder said, "some groups have raised concerns that the end result will be yet more standardized testing and further narrowing of the curriculum."
Choice creates competition
Meanwhile, scores of charter schools have blossomed in Colorado as parents sought choice and more individualization of their students' needs.
Paul Lundeen, chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, has some personal thoughts on that: "Give parents and students more choices. That will create competition and competition will lead to greater quality."
Charter schools emphasize the importance of parents in the education system, he said. "In a freer academic marketplace, where parents realize that they have authority and can change the school system for the better, they become more involved."
He believes even more parents would get involved with their children's schools if they were paying the schools directly - even via tax credits. "If you hand them a check and said 'Take this and go about it.' You bet they would be involved."
Every child in right school
Douglas County School District, in an affluent middle-class community north of Colorado Springs, created a voucher system in March 2011 to give parents the option of sending their children to private schools in the district, using a portion of the state's per-pupil funding.
The "choice scholarship program" has yet to be enacted though, as the Colorado Supreme Court is considering an ongoing lawsuit.
The Colorado Court of Appeals in February overturned the decision of a Denver District Court judge, who put the program on hold in August 2011. It went to the Supreme Court in April.
In a recent online panel discussion, Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said, "We don't fear other choices. Wealthy people already have school choice - they get to choose where they live. We believe every single child should have the right school for him or her. In our choice scholarship program, we partner with other schools, and it's a great option that we believe attracts families to our district."
Already, 13,000 of Douglas County's 65,000 students attend charter schools.
While many believe that replicating the formula for creating a great school is difficult, Pat Sanchez, superintendent of Adams County School District 14, says it's not.
"It's easy to replicate if you have the will and the skill to do it," he said. "It's hard if you've never had anyone do it before - that's a recipe for disaster. It takes talent to manage talent. The bigger question is: What does it take to retain talent?"
While education reform has largely focused on schools, Sanchez believes it's time to target the next level.
"The more the accountability goes outside the school building and up to the central offices - the school board, the education departments - the more it will force collaboration," Sanchez said. "Otherwise, we'll continue this game of blaming, which keeps things the same."