Balking at the future |

Balking at the future

Scott N. Miller
Fifth grade teacher Carol Blevins helps her students with spelling at Gypsum Elementary School Friday, November 15.

With a school board and administration bent on reform – and a significant number of teachers balking at those reforms – Gypsum Elementary has over the past few months launched full-bore into the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP.

The school – along with Red Hill Elementary and Avon Elementary, Minturn Middle School and Red Canyon High School – is part of the pilot TAP program adopted by the Eagle County School District. The program combines increased accountability and professional development for teachers, along with merit pay.

It’s controversial, the subject of considerable debate among local teachers and administrators last year when the school board elected to link merit pay with the advancement program. And it’s been a complex experience so far, too, with no end in sight. “Master” and “mentor” teachers – those who sit in on classes being taught by the rest of the staff – were selected and trained. Beyond that, it took three months just to re-arrange the schedules of teachers and students to accommodate the program. There are several teachers resisting the new program, too, saying the monetary rewards are insufficient compared to the stress of implementing a new system of teacher evaluations and accountability.

Still, the district intends to expand TAP to the rest of its 16 schools over the next few years.

Being “average’

A product of the Milken Family Foundation, a private, nonprofit group focused on education, TAP is being used in three school districts in Arizona, as well as districts in South Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana.

The impetus behind the program is student achievement, say local administrators. After all, Eagle County School District scores on the Colorado Student Achievement Program, or CSAP, tests have remained flat for the last two years, falling right about in the middle of state school rankings.

John Brendza, assistant superintendent of the district, says that fact left local administrators asking, “Are we really an average district?” because the district has resources, technology programs and salaries in the upper ranks of the state’s public schools.

“Eagle County’s public schools shouldn’t be average,” Brendza says.

The next question, Brendza says, was “What are we going to do about it?” The TAP program, with its focus on evaluation and teacher development, is part of the district’s answer.

Professional development or headache?

The new system has been welcomed by some teachers. They say they see in it an opportunity for professional development and improved student achievement – along with some extra cash. Other teachers, however, say the new system is intrusive and takes time away from students.

That time away is spent in meetings with other teachers in collaborative sessions hosted by “mentor” teachers. The sessions are intended to help teachers learn from each other and see how work in one class can apply to others.

One teacher, a longtime district employee who didn’t want to be named, says she has yet to see any kind of professional development value in those meetings. Rather, she says, the meetings have mostly explained the evaluation process.

“That’s not making me a better teacher,” she says.

The evaluation process also has come under fire, too. Brendza says the district’s old evaluation form was an eight-part assessment; the new program, however, evaluates teachers in more than 20 areas. Much of that evaluation will be done by peers.

Brendza agrees with Gypsum Elementary School Principal Mike Gass’ view that the old evaluation was a “plays well with others” document, one that didn’t really address performance and professional development.

Brendza, the former principal of Minturn Middle School and Berry Creek Middle School in Edwards, used the old evaluation forms for six years.

“It was not diagnostic; it wasn’t very effective,” he says. “The new one focuses on instruction.”

The new evaluation is also a frequently used tool. Gass says teachers will now be evaluated six times a year, rather than annually.

But those evaluations grate on some teachers. Janice Wilson, a first-grade teacher at Gypsum Elementary School, says she and other veteran teachers who have received outstanding evaluations in the past have been told those scores will inevitably drop with the new system.

“We were told that getting a two out of five will be a good score at first,” she says.

Wilson questions what effect that’s going to have on teacher morale, especially since it takes high evaluation scores to cash in on any significant performance pay.

School librarian Linda Birk says many teachers she’s talked to are questioning the system. Second-year teacher Becky Cuevas, for example, says the environment at Gypsum Elementary these days is “much more stressful” than it was last year.

Change is tough

Apparently, teacher resistance is common in schools that have implemented TAP. Brendza, who attended a TAP-related conference in the Phoenix area this week, says surveys reflect resistance to the evaluation and performance pay elements. For example, fewer than 40 percent of teachers support the performance-pay system, and the plan’s accountability element also draws only about 40 percent support.

On the other hand, about 60 percent support TAP’s concept of multiple career paths, in which teachers can pursue mentor and senior status to get on a path to higher pay instead of taking the old career track into administration. In theory, the path to mentor and senior status will keep more teachers teaching. About 70 percent support the concepts of professional growth in the plan.

With that in mind, the current resistance to the plan “doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Brendza. “It’s a lot more work. Most of these teachers have never had peer evaluation before.”

The plan is likely to remain in place, however. Brendza says when voters passed the ballot issue last fall authorizing money for both a cost-of-living pay increase with a performance-pay requirement, it became evident the status quo was no longer acceptable.

Rejecting the status quo isn’t unique to Eagle County, either. Last year, the federal government adopted the No Child Left Behind Act.

“People are saying there needs to be comprehensive reform in education,” says Brendza. “The winds of change are blowing strongly, and with these changes there will be some negative sentiment.”

TAP supporters

But there are teachers who support the plan. Mark Bernhardt, the physical education teacher at Gypsum Elementary, is one of them; and his wife, Mary, is one of the school’s mentor teachers.

Mark Bernhardt is an enthusiastic participant in the TAP program, working to bring lessons from other classes into his course. In a recent first-grade physical education class, Bernhardt says he talked to kids about staying safe. Writing on the board in the gym helped reinforce reading skills.

“That helped reading, and it took a minute. Now they can get on with the rest of the class,” says Principal Gass.

The concepts of instructors helping each other, and PE, music and art teachers helping out kids in math, reading and other core classes apparently has some value. Brendza says a study presented at a recent TAP conference indicates kids in schools using the advancement program are showing marked improvement in student achievement compared to students in schools not using the program.

Abbi Hertz of the Milken Family Foundation says schools chosen for the comparison were matched as closely as possible regarding student population and demographics, including such factors as ethnic diversity and the number of kids in the school’s reduced-price or free lunch programs.

The study revealed students in TAP schools show a 13 percent increase in achievement compared to students in control schools. More TAP-school teachers had student achievement gains in their classrooms, with those gains recorded over a two-year period.

Paying off

So the results are out there, but the road won’t be smooth.

Gass says it took three months just scheduling time to let master and mentor teachers sit in on other classes and hold collaborative sessions.

In addition, taking teachers away from the classroom has resulted in a class size increase in fourth and fifth grades.

Master teacher Chris Botherus says students are now being broken into smaller groups through several periods through the day.

The master and mentor teachers are also put under the gun. Both Botherus and Mary Bernhardt say they have a lot more on their plates than they used to. There is some extra pay involved, but that pay has come through adding days to the mentor and master teachers’ annual contracts rather than raising their base pay.

The work, though, is starting to pay off, says Botherus.

“It’s really exciting,” she says, adding that teachers are starting to share some practical knowledge in their collaborative sessions.

Despite the reservations of the staff, Gass and the mentor and master teachers say they are excited about the progress made so far – and the progress to come.

“This is the most unbelievable piece of reform I’ve ever been involved with,” says Gass.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

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