A Little More About the Messenger
I had a reader question how thoroughly I research people today. The comment was made by Lorie Brady on the Testing (Our Patience) post from last week.
I would like to point out that Teri Brecheen completely transformed her poverty riddled, rural school district. It went from a failing school to a nationally recognized academic success story. If there is anyone who knows about reading instruction and passion for student success, it is Teri. I suggest that you find out a little more about the messenger before you start taking shots at her.
Thanks for the suggestion. I have in fact done my homework on the Cottonwood “miracle.” Here are some basic numbers from the K-8 district in Coal County from the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years (the year before Brecheen joined the SDE, and the following year):
|Cottonwood Public Schools||2010-11||2011-12|
|Average Daily Membership||245.2||247.2|
|Free/Reduced Lunch %||58.9%||63.3%|
|Special Education %||33.9%||34.4%|
|3rd Grade Reading Passing %||90%||69%|
|4th Grade Reading Passing %||94%||95%|
|5th Grade Reading Passing %||90%||94%|
|6th Grade Reading Passing %||100%||75%|
|7th Grade Reading Passing %||80%||100%|
|8th Grade Reading Passing %||100%||83%|
While I firmly believe that numbers tell part of a story, I don’t believe they tell the whole story – probably less than half (which is why I hate high-stakes testing, A-F Report Cards, VAM, and Roster Verification). In this case, let’s see what story the data tell.
In 2011-12, the state average for special education was 14.8 percent of students. Cottonwood more than doubled that. In fact, Cottonwood has had more than 30 percent of its students on an IEP every year since 1998-99. Prior to that, they were in the teens. Their high year came in 2001-02, when they hit 42.4% of students classified as special education. For the 2011-12 school year, this ranked Cottonwood 12th out of 522 school districts for highest percentage of students in special education programs.
I point this out because Ms. Brecheen’s boss’s boss likes to claim that schools don’t know how to identify special needs students. Last fall, Superintendent Barresi stated that 75 percent of all identifications were wrong. Earlier this month, she said it was between 50-60 percent. It’s also worth noting that those reading scores above only include regular education students.
As for poverty, Cottonwood’s free/reduced percentages are within a couple of points of the state average. In 2011-12, they were above it. The previous year, they were below it. There is a lot of poverty in the community, but not to a remarkable extent.
Fortunately, I’ve also had the opportunity to hear Ms. Brecheen speak on multiple occasions. I heard her discuss management strategies that are definitely important. It is clear that she paid attention to reading in the early grades. For a superintendent to be that involved in at least understanding where the students and teachers stand in the development of that most critical learning skill is noteworthy.
What I haven’t heard from her is anything concrete in terms of teaching strategies. Every time I hear her talk, it’s an amalgam of folksy anecdotes, and it’s heavier on faith, hope, and love than it is on methodology. I agree with the commenter in terms of Ms. Brecheen’s passion for student success. I remain unconvinced of her understanding of quality reading instruction.
That said, I have nothing against faith, hope, and love. This blog is predicated on the faith I have in our state’s teachers to do the best job they can (while continuously improving). Every student – even the most challenging or at risk kids – deserves our genuine hope. And any teacher incapable of loving children doesn’t belong in the classroom.
On top of that, Ms. Brecheen saying that our students’ struggles are due to our teachers’ inadequacies shows her lack of contact with the rest of the state. Cottonwood is one school district. It’s a small one. It’s a K-8 school. What works there might not work in a K-12 district…or one with 1,000 students…or 10,000…or 25,000. And so on. Her experiences there might not even translate to another district with 250 students in the next county. Every district has different kids, different needs.
Then again, how many of us in the blogosphere have been saying that until we turn blue?
Another way to say this is that I have no need to disparage the hard work of the teachers at Cottonwood. It is clear that they have been tireless and had a tremendous amount of success with their regular education students. I have no data confirming or disconfirming the success of their special education students during Ms. Brecheen’s superintendency. I’d go look at the old API reports from that era if the SDE hadn’t removed them in the name of transparency. Or something like that.
This state has some incredible teachers working in tough situations. No doubt many of them are in Cottonwood and other small communities. I’d just like to hear something resembling respect and understanding from Brecheen – and others at the SDE – when talking about the rest of the state.