status quo holds

Lawmakers torpedo yet another bid to change teacher evaluations

Rep. Jeni Arndt (left) and teacher Russ Brown listened to committee questions during the hearing on Arndt’s bill.

Lawmakers killed a bill Monday that would have allowed school districts to scale back evaluations of teachers who’ve earned an arduous national certification, another blow to efforts to remake Colorado’s educator evaluation system.

The House Education Committee killed the bill 7-4 — a vote that crossed party lines — after a motion to move the bill forward failed. The second vote means the legislation is dead for this legislative session.

The defeat of House Bill 16-1121 in the Democratic-controlled House came just four days after the Education Committee in the Republican-controlled Senate defeated a much more sweeping proposal that would have shaken up how teachers are evaluated.

That legislation would have eliminated the requirement that districts base at least half of a principal or teacher’s annual evaluation on student academic growth, a centerpiece of a landmark 2010 educator effectiveness law.

The House bill’s scope was much narrower, covering teachers who have earned National Board Certification status. Only about 900 of Colorado’s roughly 56,000 teachers have earned that qualification, which involves passing a rigorous program of exams and demonstrations of teaching skills. A private group, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, offers the certification.

The bill would have allowed, but not required, districts to exempt those teachers from required annual evaluations. Teachers instead would have faced evaluations at least every three years.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins. But the idea was the brainchild of Russ Brown, a history and social studies teacher at Poudre High School in Fort Collins.

He told the committee that he hoped creating an exception for board certified teachers who inspire others to seek that credential.

“The key to saving American education is that we must inspire good teachers,” he said.

Brown said the idea came to him three years ago. He said  he hasn’t sought certification to avoid the impression that he was seeking a personal advantage.

Arndt acknowledged that “this bill touches on a sensitive topic. It touches on Senate Bill 191,” referring to the 2010 law that created the current evaluation system.

She described the bill as a way to recognize top teachers.

“Quite frankly,” Arndt said, “it’s a pro-teacher bill.”

From the start of three hours of testimony and discussion, committee members of both parties raised many questions. Major themes included whether to tinker with evaluation before the system is fully put into practice, the wisdom of valuing board certification over measurable results from student growth data, and whether the bill would create “inequities” among teachers.

Lobbyists from three education advocacy groups — the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds and Stand for Children — testified strongly against the bill. Another major reform group, Democrats for Education Reform, was neutral, Arndt said.

But other witnesses from the Poudre school district — as well as board certified teachers and representatives of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union — urged the committee to pass the bill.

In closing statements before the vote, some committee members clearly were torn.

“I’m really struggling with this one,” said Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.

With the defeat of the House bill, no other pending bills would alter the state system, which requires that principals and teachers be evaluated half on their professional practice and half on student academic growth.

Only two other evaluation-related bills are currently pending at the Capitol:

House Bill 16-1016 – Provides state help to districts to develop additional measures of student growth. It’s scheduled to be heard by House Education on Feb. 29. While there isn’t a partisan or ideological divide over this bill, its current $20 million price tag is a big problem in a tight-budget session.

House Bill 16-1099 – Repeals a provision that requires mutual consent of a teacher and a principal for placement in a school and creates additional protections for teachers who aren’t placed. It’s on House Education’s March 21 calendar. It’s not expected to survive.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”