Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Five Examples of Education Collaboration in Colorado

July 29, 2014

Every year, The Colorado Education Initiative and Colorado Department of Education (CDE) bring together 400 teachers, principals, and school district and education leaders from across the state at the 2014 Integration Showcase. The Colorado Education Initiative leads the Integration Project, a collaborative effort among 13 school districts working to integrate and implement programs that support teachers—and ultimately improve the number of students who graduate from Colorado high schools ready to tackle college or a career. The foundation provides support to this state-, district-, and teacher-led project.

I had the honor of attending this summer’s showcase and speaking with the teachers who were there. It is always a pleasure returning to the state where I grew up and spent my college years, and I truly enjoy the opportunity to connect with our partners.

During this trip, I met with many of the state leaders and funders working in education, and I had the opportunity to hear directly from Colorado teachers about how the new state standards and teacher development and evaluation systems are working in their classrooms. For example, I learned about the ways teachers are sharing tools to help their instruction align with the new Colorado Academic Standards through peer “integration liaisons” and teacher-led regional gatherings. I learned about teacher leaders across the state who are offering formal and informal peer observations to provide meaningful and actionable feedback aligned with the new teacher evaluation system. And I learned about the work of districts leading the way to communicate unified, student-centered messages on why better standards, tests, and evaluation systems are important and how they support better teaching and learning.

After all of these meetings, I left with a belief that Colorado needs to coin a new term: “Coloraboration.” There is so much incredible collaboration happening in Colorado—at all levels—and it’s worth highlighting the work happening inside the state as an example for others. Let me share what I learned with you: five ways that Colorado is doing collaboration well.

1. State-Level Collaboration
The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has a strong relationship with the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state teachers union. These two organizations don’t always agree, but they do come together to focus on where they can find agreement—and how they can work together to give Colorado students the best opportunities. For example, CDE collaborated with CEA, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) to host the first statewide integration summit in 2012, focused on – what else – collaboration and working together to implement new education initiatives. 

CEI plays a critical role in coordinating across this ecosystem of public, advocacy and non-profit partners to support innovation, capacity building, and the spread of successful practices across the state.

2. Collaboration Between School Districts
Districts across Colorado are finding ways to collaborate—in person, at events, or through social media and technology. For example, superintendents and project managers across the 13 integration districts meet several times per year to provide feedback to the state department on new reforms, and to exchange lessons with each other about effective tools and supports to improve teaching and learning. Every year, CEI brings together educators from more than 40 districts statewide to share promising practices and lessons learned through the Integration Showcase. Based on a request from districts in search of useful models to adopt or adapt, CDE has gathered educators from leading districts to create a state model educator evaluation system and sample district curriculum aligned to the Colorado Academic Standards. Such district-led collaboration is enabling effective practices to spread across the state, while also benefiting from strong local control and direction.

3. Regional Collaboration
The San Juan BOCES (“Board of Cooperative Educational Services”), a regional support organization in the southwest corner of Colorado, works with nine partner school districts to improve student achievement and oversees the Integration Project in their region. Just two years into the Integration Project, San Juan BOCES leaders report that working together has resulted in better outcomes for students and teachers, and a more efficient use of resources in tough economic times.

These small rural districts are no longer isolated and working independently. They have built trust over time and are working differently thanks in large part to this focus on integration, strong leadership, and a commitment to improving results for students. The San Juan BOCES has shown that relatively small investments in capacity, a collective focus on specific outcomes, and a willingness to share successful practices across districts can lead to quick, substantive wins. Earlier this month, over 400 teachers from across the San Juan BOCES gathered to share success stories and spread tools and resources related to effective instruction. Similarly, other BOCES from across the state are picking up the tools and supports that were initially piloted in San Juan.

4. Teacher Collaboration
As Vicki Phillips highlighted in a letter to partners, we believe that all teachers ought to have the time, tools, and resources to collaborate. Teachers also need to be at the table to address changes taking place in the classroom and design tools and professional development that will help ensure they are ready for these changes.

In the Thompson School District, that’s exactly what is happening. Teachers are leading the effort to integrate Colorado’s new standards, assessments, and evaluations. They have worked tirelessly to ensure these areas are seamlessly connected. Thompson’s Integration Project Manager Tiffany Utoft—a former classroom teacher—is helping to lead the work districtwide. She says Thompson used to be “a district of schools rather than a school district.” Each school had its own values and beliefs.

Now, teachers across the district are working collaboratively across content areas and grade levels. The result: they are more united than they have ever been. As Tiffany says, “It’s brought teachers together on what is best instructionally for students.”

5. Funder Collaboration
Finally, Colorado benefits from a diverse group of local funders who provide resources—money, local knowledge, influence—and cultivate community ownership for making positive changes to improve student outcomes. For example, the Rose Community Foundation has made significant investments to improve educator effectiveness in schools across Colorado and to make educator effectiveness a central priority for the Colorado Department of Education. Other funders such as the Colorado-based Gates Family Foundation and JPMorgan Chase have supported community engagement across the state to develop scalable models for integrated, standards-based instruction for all students.

As I said during my comments at the 2014 Integration Showcase, Colorado has a unique role in showing this country what’s possible for public education.

The opportunity to receive a great education should not be determined by the ZIP code where you grow up. Through strong collaboration, Colorado is helping ensure that every child—from the big urban district in Denver to the small rural districts in Southwest corner—has the opportunity to pursue their passions and learn the skills they need to succeed in college, in life, and beyond.

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