Colo. teachers worried about changes to tenure law
Vail, CO Colorado
DENVER – A group of teachers is waiting outside the state Senate chambers to lobby against a proposed overhaul of how they’re evaluated and promoted. No one is answering the messages sent in requesting that lawmakers slip away from morning debate to come outside, the normal practice for lobbyists.
A lawmaker finally emerges, and it’s the man who’s been pushing the controversial change, Sen. Michael Johnston.
Nearly 20 teachers crowd around the freshman Democratic senator and former high school principal from Denver. With hands raised as they patiently wait to ask him questions, they’re voice worries about principals who don’t have enough time to step inside their classroom to give them feedback, and about being judged by the results of standardized tests and by the performance of students who don’t show up to class or who are here today and gone tomorrow as their families are forced to move.
Starting in 2015, teachers who have job protections could lose them if their students don’t improve for two straight years. Principals would be judged on how students and teachers are doing and would have to evaluate teachers yearly.
Johnston doesn’t debate the educators. He sympathizes with them, talking about cracking down on parents of truant kids and the need for principals to give them more support. He doesn’t change their mind on the bill, but some end up nodding at his points.
It’s a discussion that could continue during the final 10 days of the legislative session. The bill has passed the Senate but faces greater opposition in the House from lawmakers who were once teachers.
Colorado isn’t alone in tying educator evaluations to student performance. Six other states have recently passed laws or regulations to do so, and Louisiana is considering joining them.
The push is driven by a desire to win millions of dollars in education reform money – known as “Race to the Top” – from the Obama administration, said Michelle Exstrom, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Two states that changed their teacher evaluations, Tennessee and Delaware, won $600 million in the first round of competition. Colorado lawmakers hope the bill will increase the state’s chances of winning $175 million in a second round.
“This has definitely prodded those who wanted to move forward on this issue anyway,” Exstrom said.
Backers say promoting good teachers – and making sure they are working in low-achieving schools – is the best way to help close the achievement gap between white and minority students and to boost graduation rates.
Sometimes, school districts force troubled schools to hire tenured teachers who can’t find jobs elsewhere. The bill would end that and allow principals to only hire teachers they approve. Teachers who can’t find a job after two hiring cycles would be placed on unpaid leave until they can find an assignment.
The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, opposes the bill. It says the details about how teachers will be evaluated should be worked out first, arguing there’s a lack of trust between administrators and teachers after years of reacting to the latest test scores.
At a time when education funding is about to drop by 6.4 percent, the union says districts and the state doesn’t have the money to cover yearly evaluations and new ways to develop new assessments besides the state’s current standardized tests, the Colorado Student Assessment Program.
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, total school funding is to drop from $5.6 billion this year to $5.45 billion – even though formulas used to calculate the annual increases required by Amendment 23 would normally set next year’s figure at $5.8 billion.
Yvonne Bradford, a 23-year teacher from Adams County School District 12 who now working for the teachers’ union, said she tried to target the different levels of abilities within her fifth-grade class, praying that there would be no behavior problems to throw her off track. She said hiring more teachers to teach smaller groups of students who need intensive instruction, like those still learning English or those in special education, would help students the most.
“You can want it but until you truly value it and invest in it, it’s not going to happen,” Bradford said of improving education.
Her district plans to eliminate 188 positions, including social workers and some teachers.
Johnston, a former education adviser to Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, agreed that schools need more funding, and he said he hoped those backing the tenure bill – including former Denver Mayor Federico Pena and philanthropist Dan Ritchie – will support asking voters for more money for education.
Until then, Johnston said, “I don’t think we can wait to improve our schools until we all agree there are enough resources.”