P-20 Council success rewarded

Ritter gives it new assignments

By John Schroyer

When the members of Gov. Bill Ritter’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council reconvened this week, they found that, although their recommendations had led to major education reforms during the 2008 legislative session, their work was far from over.

The council, a group of educators, business leaders and policy experts charged with aligning Colorado’s public education systems from preschool to college, learned it will play a significant role in implementing the recommendations it made. The panel will advise the State Board of Education, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in implementing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP for Kids) measure that was signed into law just last month.

And, as he addressed the group Monday, June 16, Ritter gave the council two more assignments: to come up with new recommendations to the Legislature to help slash Colorado’s dropout rate and to institute a series of new post-high-school certificates and degrees.

It sounded like a lot to Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, co-chair of the P-20 council.

“I’m really worried about taking on much new work when … if we don’t implement well, the whole foundation of standards and assessments would be for naught,” she said.

In his remarks, Ritter acknowledged that the group will be called on to work intimately with the SBOE and the CDE, and also stressed the importance of implementing the new standards required by CAP for Kids.

“It’s absolutely critical that we get this right,” Ritter said. “We can’t switch horses every year. This has to be it.”

O’Brien said CAP for Kids creates several issues. For example, it charges the state — mostly through the CDE — both with creating new grading standards and with simultaneously beginning to test on those standards.

“How do you start testing when you haven’t worked your standards out?” O’Brien asked. “It’s just lots of things that somehow have to be coordinated.”

CAP for Kids also calls for the state to redefine “school readiness” by December 2008 and “post-secondary and workforce readiness” by December 2009 — none of which will be easy.

“The jury’s really out about whether the (CDE) can step up and do this,” CDE deputy commissioner Ken Turner told the council.

Much of the afternoon, however, was devoted to discussing Colorado’s escalating high school dropout rate, which was 4.4 percent in the 2006-07 school year.

A big part of the problem, according to Martha MacIver of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, is that schools often focus on the wrong statistics when they set up dropout prevention programs. Instead of looking at income level, race, school statistics or other traditional indicators, she said, reformers need to focus on attendance rates and academic performance.

She said prevention needs to begin no later than middle school, noting educators have known for years that kids who don’t learn how to read or fail to gain basic math skills by the third grade are more likely to drop out of high school than children who learn the fundamentals early in their school careers.

Through her research in Baltimore-area schools, MacIver found that irregular attendance and grade-failure as early as 6th grade often culminates years later with students dropping out. The same is true in 9th grade, MacIver said, but if the pattern isn’t broken before then, it’s usually too late.

“Dropping out really starts at age 11 or 12,” MacIver said, and urged the council to start thinking about how to develop an “early warning system.”

She also suggested innovative methods for involving kids in schoolwork, and said some teachers have gotten good results simply by phoning truant students and voicing their concern in a supportive manner.

MacIver further proposed altering school systems so that students with spotty attendance records can re-enter the classroom more easily. She said many high school kids give up when they start feeling that they’ll never be able to do enough make-up work to succeed.

“The majority of these dropout outcomes can be prevented,” she told the council.

In addition to work on CAP for Kids and the dropout rate, the council will begin addressing other questions and issues that they didn’t raise or that the Legislature didn’t tackle this year. For example, several members noted during the meeting that higher education was largely absent from the discussion last year, as was the issue of promoting parental involvement.

The latter, however, would prove difficult to deal with from a legislative standpoint, said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, because it would be impossible to impose a mandate on parents.

“It’s not something we can say, ‘Thou shalt do it,’” Middleton noted.

Instead, she hopes the council will recommend adding funding to schools for family outreach programs.

A number of legislators who were on hand for the meeting also said they’d like to expand on much of the work done in the past session. Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, said she’d like to create another 70 new school counselor positions, doubling the number created by House Bill 1370 this past year on P-20 Council recommendations. She also would like to see even more state money put toward full-day kindergarten, further boosting the 7,000 new full-day slots the 2008 School Finance Act provided this year and the 22,000 more that will be added over the next five years.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, echoed Ritter’s message and predicted the dropout rate will be the central focus of education reform in the 2009 session.

“If it’s not, it should be,” Spence said firmly. “There are so many children living in poverty who are part of that equation … They don’t have the motivation and the energy and the means to even stay in school.”

Ritter also stressed that the council’s work in 2007 did not go unnoticed, and noted that half a dozen bills could be traced back to its recommendations. He also praised the group for its bipartisan focus.

“Yes, there was some partisan wrangling over some things,” he noted, “but at the end of the day, we did some very important things in a bipartisan way.”