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Working In These Times

Monday, Sep 26, 2011, 7:00 am

Colorado Teachers Fight New Evaluations

BY Kari Lydersen

BOULDER, COLO.—As teachers nationwide are under attack by Republican and Democratic politicians for their performance and collective-bargaining rights, Colorado teachers are struggling to deal with a new standard for how they're evaluated.

Last May, the state legislature passed a bill known as the "Great Teachers and Leaders Law," which changes Colorado’s version of tenure for K-12 schools and mandates new evaluations for teachers and principals, ultimately making student performance 50 percent of an employee’s evaluation.

Many teachers and administrators agree that a new system is needed, as the current process doesn't seem to identify areas for improvement. For example, a recent report from The New Teacher Project finds that, in Denver, out of 2,410 teacher evaluations in the last three years, only 32 ever received “unsatisfactory” ratings, despite teachers and administrators alike complaining about problem or burned-out teachers.

But, as the Denver Post reports, the legislation, also known as Senate Bill 191, "has pitted teachers against each other, teachers against superintendents, and the state teachers union against Capitol reformers."

Proponents of the Colorado bill say that the most important key to a student’s success is a highly effective and motivated teacher in the classroom, and few educators or parents would likely deny that. They argue in the Denver Post that it's a "solution to some of Colorado's worst education problems, that focusing on effective teaching is the best way to cut the achievement gap between the races, reduce the dropout rate and boost the number of students ready for college." Several states, including Tennessee, Delaware and Illinois—where the Chicago Teachers Union has battled with new mayor Rahm Emanuel and state officials—have implemented similar changes to teacher evaluations.

But the question remains, how do you fairly determine a teacher’s quality? Student improvement, particularly measured through standardized tests, has become an increasingly popular yardstick on the federal level and in school districts nationwide. In Colorado, that would be a 15-year-old exam called the CSAP.

The Denver Post quotes Jason Nurton, a teacher at Fort Collins middle school, pointing out that it's unfair to "judge a teacher's effectiveness on one test, on one day, when the student has absolutely no buy-in." Beyond that, many teachers and their union representatives argue that in schools that are grossly under-funded and mired in bureaucratic problems, and in neighborhoods rife with violence and other social problems, it is unfair to pin teachers’ evaluations directly to the performance of their students.

While the Colorado program bases evaluation on student improvement while in a teacher’s class, without mandating that students meet specific standards, some teachers say even this is not a fair measure, since students may miss class often or otherwise fail to learn much from even the best teachers because of other factors in their own lives. The Colorado Education Association opposes the new program, and says developing different assessments for subjects not covered by the CSAP standardized test would cost too much.

Standardized testing approaches can even be highly detrimental to students—since they tightly tie teachers to preparing for standardized tests instead of implementing more holistic and creative curricula—and evaluating teachers and schools based on those test results provides incentives to remove troubled or sub-par students.

On Sept. 16, PBS aired a roundtable discussion among Colorado teachers and principals.

Henry Roman, an elementary school teacher in Denver and educator for 14 years, called for more flexibility for individual school districts, which serve greatly different demographic groups of students. Roman, who is president of the CEA union affiliate Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said:

Just like we use a body of evidence to rate the performance of our kids, we should be able to use a body of evidence to rate the performance of our teachers, following that concept of multiple measures. There’s definitely a great deal of work that needs to be done in identifying the right assessments … there are many subjects beyond the focus we have right now on reading, writing, math and technology and science … We also need to think about a well-rounded education, and make sure we put emphasis on arts, music, P.E., all the other parts that make a well-rounded education.

Jessica Keigan is a high school English teacher and member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative, which works to increase teachers’ say outside the classroom on education issues. Keigan had 55 sophomores in her class last year, many of them with special needs ranging from autism and mute students to “gifted and talented” students seeking greater challenges. During the discussion on PBS, she said:

[Performance] is going to look very different for each of those 55 kids in the classroom … We’d like there to be more opportunity for teachers to assess student growth … you’d be hard-pressed to not see kids grow when you have effective teachers in the classroom, it would be nice to show the teacher’s side.

Amendments to the bill would allow more complex evaluations for teachers of subjects not covered by the CSAP test and for teachers with high proportions of high-risk students and students who don’t speak English as a first language. But union officials said developing such standards would be too costly, with the money better spent directly on students.

The Denver Post quoted Colorado Education Association executive director Tony Salazar saying that schools are "underfunded and starving," and the paper said he “asked lawmakers whether districts should take away the money from classrooms to develop the new system.” Union spokesperson Deborah Fallin added, "When we got this version of the bill, we were laughing, but it's very sad."

The union also points out how the new law—in the view of many—takes a presently difficult situation for teachers and makes it even worse:

The union also detests a section of the legislation that would overhaul a policy on how displaced veteran teachers who cannot find a job are redistributed when their schools shut down or enrollment drops and fewer teachers are needed.

Under current law, teachers who cannot find a new position in their districts before the school year must be assigned to another school—even when the principal doesn't want the teacher and the teacher doesn't want to work there. Some call it "direct" or "forced placement."

Johnston's bill would require "mutual consent"—a teacher would not land a job at another school unless the teacher and principal agreed. Displaced teachers who do not secure a position would be taken off the payroll after two school years.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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