First Person

A retired Dougco teacher's take on tenure

There has been much discussion of late about teacher tenure and whether it impedes reform and the quality of public education by protecting bad teachers. EdNews Parent expert and retired Dougco teacher R. Kim Herrell shares his personal views on the subject.

You would think this would be simple to answer, but in the three school law courses I have taken, the issue of teacher tenure has been one of the most hotly debated. Some folks in the general public, led by others with a clear anti-union agenda, seem to think that it is a magic forcefield that makes teachers untouchable, at least from firing. In my opinion, that is simply not the case.  It has never been that way, but it sure can look that way if procedures aren’t followed.

In my first school law course, we were asked to equate tenure with “due process.”  Teachers who didn’t behave for three years would have to be told why they were being fired and could counter the firing at a hearing.  The administration and district could move for dismissal, though, of a teacher anytime during those first three years:  first week; first semester; first year; second; third.

That doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Due process itself, however, is a little more complicated.  The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that the government may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  In the case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even teachers could expect procedural due process. It listed four distinct steps in due process:

  • Tenured teachers must be given notice of dismissal, written or oral
  • The reasons must be noted
  • An explanation of the evidence must be provided by the employer
  • A fair and meaningful hearing must be given the teacher if requested

So, after three years, a teacher gets to learn why he or she is being dismissed and can present contrary evidence in a fair hearing. I think anyone would want to know why they were being dismissed.  Because due process requires reasons and evidence from the employer, it keeps firings from being arbitrary and capricious.

One long discussion in the first school law class I took centered around a small school district in southeastern Colorado that fired all its teachers after three years, only to rehire them one month later.  This kept all teachers in that district from ever reaching a tenured level.

The second school law course ignited a small celebration over the fact that Colorado labor law extended due process to all workers. Employers had to tell an employee why she was being let go. So where did that leave teacher tenure?  No one really knew. And what about teacher evaluation systems?  No one saw them going away.

The third school law course, the most comprehensive of the lot, explained how through labor agreements, a form of tenure (teacher protection) and teacher evaluation could continue. School district management wanted a way to streamline teacher dismissal, especially in the first three years. Labor leaders agreed. They didn’t want incompetent members, either. The current systems of teacher evaluation in Colorado are supported by both labor and district management.

Enter Colorado Senate Bill 191. Colorado has very little industry from which to gain school funds so we get a piece of property taxes and car sales taxes. So, we passed SB-191 to improve our schools. The main focus of the legislation is to get rid of bad teachers and put an effective teacher in front of all students in the state. Noble, but that has always been the goal of education. It will go through development and trials from now until 2013 and be implemented in 2013-14.

Under the new law, teachers will be able to gain, lose or regain tenure by jumping through the right hoops. School districts, with less money and less evaluators, are to do more evaluation than before, still manage the school, provide vision and leadership, and discipline those few students who need disciplining.  The new legislation wants to get rid of “ineffective” teachers but doesn’t define what that is. I’m dizzy.

SB-191 has left us not knowing what tenure is, if due process will be followed, or how an ineffective teacher is defined. Nor does it provide money to help school districts to evaluate their staffs or hire the most effective teachers (depending on the survey, Colorado is somewhere between 49th and 39th in school funding).

Clear as mud?  Turns out I can’t tell you what tenure is anymore, or whether there will be due process for teachers in the future. The state doesn’t seem to have the answers, either.

First Person

I’m a black male teen in Aurora, and I see how ‘achievement gap’ forms

The author, Ayden Clayton.

Have you ever heard of the achievement gap? Every column, blog or article that I’ve read on this topic has never come from a African-American, let alone an African-American male.

Here is a voice that should be heard: mine.

Recent research from Stanford showed that African-Americans come in behind other students on standardized tests and enrollment in honors to AP and college classes. This is very important because the gap is also prevalent at Rangeview High School in Aurora, where I am a senior.

There really is a problem. Look at the facts: 25.8 percent of African Americans are in poverty according to Census information published in 2013. The problem is how their lives at home are affecting classroom behavior or attention in class. This goes for all races, but the trend is that many of the students with families living in poverty drop out of high school.

“I believe the achievement gap is a multi-level problem in the education system,” English teacher Mr. Jordan Carter, who works at Rangeview and is a mixed minority, told me. “The hardest thing about it is telling people it is a significant problem. We can solve it by devoting time and resources to find the problem and we need to address kids from all backgrounds. Kids with better resources usually do better.”

I see other problems, too. As a student at Rangeview, I’ve been in numerous AP, honors and CCA classes (college courses) throughout my high school career. What I really have noticed were the underprivileged kids being treated differently, almost like the teachers thought of them as troublemakers without even knowing them.

I’ve had many teachers stereotype me about drugs, hip-hop, if I have a dad and more, and it made me pretty uncomfortable to the point where I didn’t want to go to the class. I feel that when issues such as these that occur in the classroom, it makes students of color not want to focus, and teachers could probably use better training on how to teach kids that do not look like them.

Those students would continuously sit in the back of classes, wouldn’t raise their hand, and wouldn’t ask questions. I used to be one of them. It’s not because the urge to not learn, but the discomfort of the setting in the classroom. When you get looked at and thought of like that, you don’t feel welcomed.

It is becoming evident that Rangeview is in need of a serious sit-down with some of our staff, such as the principal, teachers and all administrators. That way, students can see where their minds are and how they are trying to deal with the way they feel about fair conditions in the classroom.

The administrators should also talk to students – particularly minority students – about our wants and needs so we as students can have some input. For the students who are struggling, it would be great to have counselors talk to them and find a way that would help the students improve their academic careers, such as tutoring or staying after school.

I have faced the stereotype of being another dropout who is eventually going to jail, but I use that as inspiration every day. I know that all African-American males and females can make a change by letting our voice be heard.

Although I haven’t been through as much as other African-American students, I’ve been through enough to have my opinion matter. We — as minorities — can also take responsibility to change this problem by staying in school and voting into our government people who will fund impoverished areas.

As a community we need to fight stereotypes together. We either defeat stereotypes together or become the stereotypes ourselves.

Ayden Clayton is a senior at Rangeview High School. This piece first appeared in the Rangeview Raider Review.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.