5 May 2010: Senate Bill 191

Senate Bill 191 doesn’t make sense

Both locally and at the state level, teacher evaluation and dismissal have been front-page news. As such, they provide us a teachable moment.

First, Colorado law provides a teacher during his/her first three years of teaching no protection or recourse in a Colorado public school. An incompetent teacher should be let go for cause, but any probationary teacher can be fired on a whim, from the cut of his hair to her opinions. I have counseled rookie peers to keep their opinions private, despite my being an ACLU card-carrying member. “Don’t rock the boat!” I would tell them. “That’s my job.”

Second, since they need not give a reason for their actions even if it is for cause, the most principals usually say is, “You’re not a good fit.” End of discussion.

Third, superintendents invariably support their principal’s decision whether they concur or not; otherwise, they would have to fire the principal or boot him/her upstairs, a time-honored tradition in larger districts because it would show a lack of confidence in his/her decision making, thus undercutting his/her authority.

Fourth, boards of education invariably approve the superintendent’s recommendation for the same reason.

That is the way of our public school systems. It is how bureaucracies function and beyond the classroom, public schools systems — like government and the military — are bureaucracies. To paraphrase the Frontier slogan: public schools, when compared with the private world, are a whole different animal.

Senate Bill 191 would deny fourth-year teachers non-probationary status if their students fail to achieve certain artificial benchmarks and would strip non-probationary teachers of their status if their students fail. The bill, if adopted, would serve to exacerbate that.

At best, SB 191 is a dumbed-down vehicle for evaluating teachers. At its core, it is not about improving student learning; it’s about blame. After creating a false measurement of learning, it zeroes in on teachers, the ones least able to defend themselves, while others — indifferent students and parents, administrators, and boards of education — are allowed to skate and duck responsibility.

Every day, teachers work miracles. Over the years I have worked with outstanding teachers who should be listed, as I have been privileged to be, in the “Who’s Who Among American Teachers.” I also worked with a number who should not have been there but were because administrators, failing to recall one of the reasons they make the big bucks in public education, were unwilling to do the heavy lifting to help them improve and if unable to, to move them out of the profession. When it comes to a teacher whose heart is there but whose skills are weak, it is the principal’s job to model best practices.

Three former Colorado governors along with the sitting one recently pontificated about what is best for public education in The Denver Post. Only one, Roy Romer, has any credentials related to the topic, and his come only by way of him having been a superintendent of the Los Angeles School District. Bringing in people like that to “fix” what’s wrong in the schools is akin to having me rewrite the laws separating commercial and investment banks: While I have a strong opinion about what the case is and why it needs fixing, I am out of my league when it comes to offering details about solutions.

In a letter to the Democratic caucus calling SB 191 “the wrong bill at the wrong time,” Rep. Claire Levy states, “What I hear teachers saying is that they do not oppose being evaluated based on whether they are effective at their professions.

“This bill looks at only one aspect of the issue of student achievement. If we really want a better education for our children, we should be working on smaller class sizes and longer school years, looking at enriching the curriculum with classes that help students learn critical problem-solving skills and learn how to harness their innate creativity, asking students what it would take to get them excited about school, [and] rethinking the concept of progressing from grade to grade based on seat time.”

Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in President George H. W. Bush’s administration and a one-time charter school advocate, told The Denver Post in a phone interview, “If they pass this legislation, they will be promoting fraud. When you attach rewards and salaries to test scores, people will do anything to get the scores up, and it will not lead to better education.”

The Post reports Ravitch believes, “The current reforms are based on a business model and shouldn’t be legislated. Instead, professional standards for teachers should be devised by educators in the profession, not by lawmakers.”

That’s a no-brainer, unless you’re a smarty-pants, like the senators who voted to pass the bill, pretending to know something about something they don’t.

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