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The TAP dance

Tom Boyd

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series exploring the way education policy changes are affecting Eagle County public schools. Part one focused on the way high schools deal with the Colorado School Assessment Program tests. This week we turn to TAP, or the Teacher Advancement Program, which is already in place at Gypsum, Red Hill, Edwards, Red Sandstone, Meadow Mountain and Avon elementary schools, Gypsum Creek, Eagle Valley and Minturn middle schools and Red Canyon High School. The school administration plans to have all district schools participating in TAP within the next few years.There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction.– John DeweyIt is a motto that replicates itself in one form or another in many classrooms in America on posters, placards, chalkboards and calendars: “Old teachers don’t die,” it reads, “They just fade away.”That slogan may be more applicable to Eagle County’s current teaching situation than at any time in its history. After several highly experienced teachers left the district two years ago, a new wave of experienced teachers is planning or considering leaving the school district at the end of this year.Among the most pressing concerns of frustrated teachers is the new Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, a five-step program designed to increase accountability among teachers district-wide.A few teachers who have experienced the program at the elementary school level have already left the classroom, and several high school teachers are planning on leaving before TAP is implemented at Battle Mountain High School. Battle Mountain will be the first major high school in the district and among the first in the nation to implement a teacher accountability program.”(TAP) takes the best teachers out of the classroom, and I believe the best teachers should be working with the children because that’s where they belong,” says one teacher, we’ll call her Jenny, who plans on retiring before TAP is implemented.Part of the TAP program involves in-class evaluation of teacher methods. Qualified teachers have the option to become Master Teachers or Mentor Teachers, who will then spend a significant portion of their time “grading” other teacher’s performances in the classroom.But teachers who are qualified for master or mentor positions most likely won’t want the job, Jenny says, because it will pull them away from the classroom. And, she says, it is basically an administrative position.”Most of us who would be qualified or eligible would also be qualified or eligible to be administrators,” she says. “But we’ve chosen not to do that. If we wanted to be administrators, we would be.”Jenny’s sentiments have been echoed by multiple teachers throughout the district and at Battle Mountain High School, but all teacher sources asked to remain anonymous because they feared losing their jobs or suffering demotion. While a small number of teachers are frustrated to the point of quitting, the majority seem to have mixed feelings about the program. Another segment of the teacher population agrees with the administration and feels the program has potential to create major improvements in the district.Battle Mountain principal Mark Bullock says mentor and master teachers will have the opportunity to improve the level of teaching at his school and create an atmosphere of teamwork and learning among the faculty. In this way, he says, experienced teachers who work to improve the abilities of inexperienced teachers will have a greater effect on a greater number of students.Tax dollars not at work yetTAP has ties to a teacher pay increase approved by Eagle County voters by a significant margin (69 percent to 41 percent) two years ago but stymied in the courts by local tax gadfly Michael Cacioppo.New district superintendent John Brendza says he is confident the school district will win the ongoing court battle within the next year, which means that an estimated $1 million a year of the $3.1 million-a-year tax increase earmarked for the TAP program will be released.Rather than evenly divide the $1 million a year among teachers, the school district plans on distributing the money on a sliding scale based on TAP results.District officials report that teachers in Eagle County previously received an automatic pay raise each year that averaged around $700 annually, regardless of teacher performance.Brendza says the TAP program allows teachers to receive a bonus of up to $2,500 depending on their performance. And whatever money is earned as a bonus under TAP becomes part of a teacher’s salary the following year. So, for example, a teacher who makes $40,000 a year could earn an extra $2,500 by performing well under TAP guidelines, and the following year he or she would be paid $42,500, and still have the opportunity to earn another significant bonus.”We feel strongly that we want to reward teachers for the best possible performance,” Brendza says. “In the business world, when you look at the bottom line the way people are rewarded is determined by the people who were responsible for the (improvement).”This is a systemic effort to try and get everybody to realize that we’re all in this together,” he adds. “Performance pay is only a part of that effort.”Teacher performance is judged by a three-part system: 50 percent of the bonus depends on teacher assessments (from mentor and master teacher evaluations); 25 percent is based on school-wide Colorado School Assessment Program scores (see more on CSAP in the Sept. 5 edition of The Vail Trail at http://www.vailtrail.com); and another 25 percent is based on the Northwestern Evaluation Association Program scores.About half of a teacher’s bonus, then, is tied to student performance on standardized tests.Motivation, not moneyWhile the bonus money TAP offers is appealing to local teachers, money is clearly not the primary motivation for Eagle County educators.”If we were out for the money, we would have chosen a different profession,” remarks one retired teacher, echoing the thoughts of many others interviewed for this story.At the heart of the TAP debate is a dire concern for the well-being of the students, but what is not clear is if the students understand how important their test scores are to their teachers and administrators.Clarifying the importance of CSAP and NWEA scores is a major administrative goal for Bullock, and he thinks doing well on teacher-generated assessments (also known as the good ol’ fashioned test) is a proper starting point.Reliance on standardized testing causes major concerns among some teachers. Beyond those doubts, other teachers fear that young, inexperienced teachers will be the only ones willing to take on the mentor or master teacher role. And teachers with 10, 20, 30 or more years of experience aren’t likely to deal with criticism very well when it comes from much younger educators.Still, Bullock and Brendza have faith that the system will work, and sweep away stagnant teaching practices that date back nearly 100 years.”I think that some people will get to a point where they’ll lose the fear that comes with having someone coming into the classroom,” he says.In the meantime, teachers like Jenny say they feel the high school that they’ve worked so hard to create is being broken up and dramatically changed right before their eyes.It seems clear that teachers like Jenny are on their way out, and a new group of educators with a new outlook on school operations will be moving in. Only time will tell how Eagle County will cope with the upcoming changes, and how students will fare under a new system of accountability in public high schools.


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