Colorado is re-examining its academic standards. Will it avoid the political turmoil seen in other states?

About 180 Colorado educators, parents and community members have been split into committees reviewing standards in 11 subjects.

Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Third graders at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences work during class. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Colorado’s in-depth review of its academic standards — what kids are expected to know in several subjects in each grade — has entered a new and potentially political phase.

About 180 Colorado educators, parents and community members have been split into committees reviewing standards in 11 subjects, along with standards for students learning English as a second language. They also will propose the state’s first academic standards in computer science.

The committees’ work, to be carried out over the 10 months, will help inform the State Board of Education, which must approve any changes to the standards by July 2018.

Other states have become embroiled in controversies over repealing the Common Core State Standards in English and math, which Colorado also adopted. But efforts to kill the Common Core in Colorado have not gotten serious traction. A recent state-sanctioned survey found both mixed reviews for the state’s existing standards and little appetite to overhaul them in a big way.

Colorado adopted its current standards in 2010. It was the first time the state had updated its standards since the 1990s. For English and math, it joined 45 other states in adopting the Common Core standards, which were developed by groups representing state governors and education commissioners.

“Our old ways of doing things didn’t put us competitively with the rest of the world,” said Joanie Funderburk, president of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics and co-chair of the math standards committee. “It didn’t allow every person to graduate high school prepared to do whatever they wanted to do.”

The Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and analysis and demphasizes memorization of facts. Supporters believe they are rigorous and if taught correctly prepare students for college and career in the 21st Century. Some critics say the standards either ask too much or too little of students depending on their grade level. Others call them a federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them.

Colorado’s standards update, which is required by state law, opens up the possibility of another round of public debate on the value of the academic standards.

“We’ve done a lot of preplanning to help this be a conversation about substance,” said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner of student learning at the Colorado Department of Education. “But I don’t think we’re afraid at all to have (political) conversations. We don’t shy away from conversations that are important to have.”

Part of that work leading up to the committees’ first meeting last month included a perception survey and a chance for the public to leave comments on individual standards on the state’s education website. The education department also commissioned a research group to compare the state’s standards to internationally recognized high-quality standards.

The survey found that 49 percent of respondents, which included teachers, parents, and education advocates, had a positive impression of the standards. Similar to national trends, teachers that received more training on the standards liked them more.

About 350 educators, parents and community members left nearly 4,000 additional online comments about individual standards, the department said. The committees will review those comments.

“We didn’t get feedback that was calling for a big overhaul of the standards,” Colsman said.

Some state Board of Education members have strongly opposed the Common Core. Republican members Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and Pam Mazanec of Larkspur have described the standards as federal overreach. Durham has bemoaned the move away from emphasizing mastery of facts.

Some states that dropped the Common Core ended up adopting nearly identical standards, just with different names.

In Colorado, the standards have enjoyed support from the governor, lawmakers from both political parties, the state’s education reform and business communities, and the state’s teachers union.

While other states fight over the Common Core, Colorado policy makers have spent their time reducing the number of high-stakes standardized tests, which are meant to measure students’ mastery of the standards.

The research group that compared the state’s standards to other high-performing states and counties found that Colorado’s standards were generally comparable — with some exceptions. In both math and English, the research group said other states and countries did a better job of providing additional background information and resources to help educators teach to the standards.

The standards are often written in technical jargon, and making them more accessible to teachers, students and parents is a key goal for the committees. But it’s unclear how far the state can go in providing additional resources.

The state’s constitutionally protected local control forbids the policymakers from creating a statewide curriculum.

“Bringing better clarity is definitely part of this work,” said Zac Chase, the curriculum coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District and co-chair of the English standards review committee. “But deciding how to use those standards to serve communities will always be the purview of the school district and school board.”

The committees are expected to meet regularly through April, and their meetings are open to the public. The education department is expected to release draft recommendations for more public input early next  year.

“Right now, the work is in the hands of the committees,” Colsman said. “We’ll feel like we’re successful if everyone feels like they had their voice heard.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.