They visited schools in a variety of neighborhoods — poor, affluent, urban — and saw some surprising success stories.
This two-day series examines Colorado’s educational system and where it is headed.
Sunday: An examination of successful schools, and those struggling to achieve
Monday: A plethora of reforms have grown from state and federal mandates
Next Sunday, reporters Megan Schrader and Garrison Wells, will examine Amendment 66 and school financing.
What makes a successful school? - Is it putting an iPad in every student's hands? - Employing knowledgeable principals and teachers? - Garnering strong parental support? - Ensuring all students have enough to eat every day? - Scoring high on standardized tests? - Providing free preschool and all-day kindergarten for everyone? - It's all this and more, educators say.
That's why there's no simple fix for America's struggling education system.
This urgent question is at the forefront of education, as parents demand more accountability of schools and success for their children, and educators try to address stagnant student test scores and a system that lags behind education provided elsewhere.
The U.S. education system ranks 17th among developed nations, according to a report that education firm Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit released in November. It ranked Finland and South Korea as providing the best education systems, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
The ranking was based on test scores, graduation rates and the number of students pursuing higher education. Countries rated highly tend to place a high value on teachers, according to Pearson, and create a culture of education.
In the U.S., academic challenges have been met with a whirlwind of state and federal initiatives, including programs to address achievement gaps between rich and poor and white and minority students; new evaluations to help teachers and principals become exemplary; and rigorous curriculum and assessments to provide a clear understanding of what students are expected to know to succeed in college and the workplace.
School districts have scrambled to enact the changes and make them work.
While Colorado often has been at the forefront of legislation to improve education, money to implement programs rarely followed, said Frank Waterous, senior policy analyst for the Denver-based Bell Policy Center.
Colorado for more than a decade has spent less than most states to educate its 864,000 school-aged children, including the 114,530 in El Paso and Teller counties. While improvements have been universally demanded, the recession resulted in drastically reduced budgets, and school districts are now playing catch up.
In November, voters will be asked to approve Amendment 66, a tax increase that would provide $950 million the first year to address the education crisis. The money is earmarked to help decrease class sizes, provide preschool for at-risk kids and all-day kindergarten, allow for longer school days or years, and increase money spent on special education, gifted students and English language learners.
Colorado voters have approved few taxes to fund education or schools. As a result, school districts depend on the state's general fund and local property taxes for funding.
Regardless of funding mechanisms, everyone wants to know why some schools are successful at educating students, even those who are at-risk and impoverished, while others struggle.
Despite a trend toward standardizing classrooms as much as achievement testing, schools are cookie-cutter operations. Some people assume a good fourth-grade teacher at an affluent school will also be a good first-grade teacher at a school with lower-income students, but that's not necessarily the case, said Kevin Vick, president of Colorado Springs School District 11's teachers union.
In general, schools in lower-income neighborhoods are more challenging to teach in, Vick said. Students tend to have more behavioral problems, and there's higher staff turnover and less parental involvement.
"Every year we have more openings in the schools that are more challenging to teach in," he said. "There's always been a challenge with getting experienced teachers in harder-to-fill positions."
Lower-income schools also are the "victims" of good intentions, Vick said.
"Sometimes what's best for the school is to leave it alone and let the educators do their work," he says. "Unfortunately, what's happening is they're being loved to death. Everybody has an idea of how to fix them."
Numerous studies show that family income is the primary indicator of how well a child will do in school, said Mary Snyder, dean of the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Pat Sanchez, superintendent of Adams County School District 14 in Commerce City, noted: "Texas said it could determine how many prison slots it would need by seeing how many third-graders were behind in reading."
Poverty is more apt to play out in a negative way on a child's ability to learn.
Children who didn't get a good night's sleep, are hungry, have witnessed violence, or encounter other obstacles to a supportive lifestyle aren't in the best shape to do well in class, Snyder says.
"I've never met a parent who didn't care about their kids," she says, "but some aren't aware of the best parenting skills and how they can be supportive. Some have experienced school phobia themselves, and barely made it through school."
Test scores and teachers
Test scores don't necessarily equate to the quality of teaching.
"You will find some excellent teachers in schools that are not making the grade as far as TCAP, and I would pit them against others in any district," Snyder says. "Sometimes there are so many handicaps in a school - if you've had kids who've moved around a lot by age 5 or 6, who haven't had parental support, who haven't had preschool like middle- and upper-class kids get - it's going to take you a while to make a dent in those kids' scores."
Mike Taber, chairman of the education department at Colorado College, agrees.
"I'm always cautious of TCAP data," he says. High TCAP test scores do not mean a school is better than a school with lower scores.
"Some schools have a student body with more developmental assets than others, and therefore, have less 'educational debt' - the familial, socioeconomic and political factors that influence a student's ability to be successful in school - and will generally perform better.
"Assessing learning is complicated because we are dealing with human subjects; it's not at all like testing how well a washing machine cleans," Taber says.
And there may never be a point of catch-up for students who start school lagging, says Laura Sanchez, who teaches fifth grade at Monroe Elementary, one of District 11's most impoverished schools.
"When they don't speak English at home, they're already behind in kindergarten," she says. "It's not that their parents didn't teach them anything. They know their colors and shapes and numbers, but in a different language. Teachers have to work to combat that."
Pat Sanchez, superintendent in Adam's D-14, says the system is working as designed - "to sort and separate."
"It was not designed to serve kids at all levels; it's built perfectly to get the outcomes we have," he says. "We want all kids to graduate from high school ready for college or life. The system we built is not serving that purpose - look at graduation rates."
Factors for success
So, what are the components of a successful school?
Classroom size and age don't matter much.
Neither does the amount of technology used.
Nor is it necessarily a teacher's demeanor.
"Classrooms can look very different and still be successful in many different ways," says Katy Anthes, executive director for education effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education.
Most educators and researchers agree that outstanding schools have:
- Strong leadership with vision, focus and buy-in from staff
- Exemplary teachers
- Trust and collaboration among staff
- High expectations for all students
- Accountability for everyone, including students
- Parental involvement
- Tutoring and intervention programs
- Some technology
- Preschool and all-day kindergarten
- School choice
- Administrative focus and mastery of systems: data, communications, management, classroom
- Beliefs and values that drive a school's mission
While educators say these factors can create a strong learning environment, most caution that there's no magic formula to get high standardized test scores - and schools that score poorly must adopt strict improvement programs.
Schools that score poorly on standardized tests are scrutinized more than those that post high scores, says Vick, from D-11's teachers union.
"There are a lot of schools in our area that are getting good scores that could be seen as underproducing," but they're not under any pressure to improve, Vick says.
"What standardized testing has done is reduced education to its most basic measurable component, and that is one test on one day. Unfortunately, that has altered the way schools educate kids."
Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of STRIVE Preparatory Schools, which has eight charters in the Denver area, says the culture of a school - its beliefs and values - drives academic success. "Do they believe that all can go to college, that parents matter in education, that hard work leads to success?"
Achieving such a unified vision "isn't hard, but it is complex," says Adam Volek, principal at McMeen Elementary School in Denver, where 24 languages are spoken and more than 90 percent of the students are minorities - and where academic successes abound.
Most important, he says, is having a common set of values and hiring teachers and staff who share it. McMeen's values include one that you don't see on many lists: joy.
UCCS' Snyder also believes a successful school will have "a positive climate," where "kids seem happy to be there and not bored."
Many educators emphasize the need to support the "whole child" - psychological and physical well-being dramatically affect learning and test scores.
Harrison School District 2, for example, serves not only free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, but dinner. And it works with an on-campus clinic to provide medical care for students and their families. About 70 percent of D-2's students are impoverished.
Teachers at McMeen make home visits to assess well-being and make families, many of them refugees, feel comfortable. In rural Hanover District 28, principal Grant Schmidt eats lunch with small groups of students to learn what's on their minds, and he installed a climbing wall so kids can get strong and blow off stress.
Bilingual staff members at Monroe Elementary in D-11, where 43 percent of the 465 students are English language learners, help students feel like they belong, and translators assist at parent-teacher conferences.
Colin Mullaney, executive director of the Cheyenne Charter Academy and Vanguard School, tells a story about football coach Knute Rockne. Rockne, she says, got wind that a rival coach wanted to steal Notre Dame's playbook.
So Rockne sent it to him. When asked why, Rockne replied, "It's not the plays, it's the execution that counts."
So it is for educating kids, says Waterous, of the Bell Policy Center.
And therein lies the challenge he says: "Students learn in different ways and need different resources to be successful."