Who Is In Charge

Hearing teases out teacher bill fears

Just what does the Colorado Education Association want in a teacher evaluation system?

Headquarters of Colorado Education Association in Denver

Members of the Senate Education Committee kept raising that question in different forms Wednesday as the panel opened two days of hearings on Senate Bill 10-191, the proposed teacher evaluation and tenure legislation.

The 40,000-member CEA was first in line to oppose the bill after it was introduced last week, saying the just-started work of the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness should be allowed to proceed without change by SB 10-191.

An extensive set of amendments has been prepared for the bill, changes that were discussed a bit on Wednesday and that Senate Ed is to vote on Thursday. Those amendments seem to have diminished potential opposition by some committee members and have raised interest in how CEA would react.

Bev Ingle, CEA president, and executive director Tony Salazar made it clear that the proposed amendments haven’t changed the union’s mind.

“We object to reform that is being done to teachers rather than with teachers” Salazar said, calling the bill “one more example of untested top-down policy.”

“We need to work as partners, not have things done to us,” Ingle said.

Ingle and Salazar were among several CEA officials who testified Wednesday, and the main points of concern emerged in all that testimony.

Timetable: The CEA believes definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness have to be developed before taking other steps, like changing the system of education evaluations and deciding how evaluation results can be used in discipline, assignments, salaries and termination.

“The real issue is building a system in the right way. It’s about not determining outcomes before the system is built,” Salazar said.

Some committee members had some difficulty with that view. “I don’t see anything here that interferes with that process” of doing effectiveness definitions first, said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. “Is that not enough time?” (One of the key proposed amendments would substantially lengthen the implementation timeline, compared to what was proposed in the original bill.)

Due process: Prime sponsor Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, has maintained that the bill wouldn’t change existing due process rights for teachers. (Probationary teachers in their first three years of work can be dismissed without cause. Non-probationary teachers have the right to impartial arbitration in dismissal cases.)

But union lobbyist Julie Whitacre and CEA general counsel Martha Houser raised due-process concerns about provisions of the bill that would allow non-probationary teachers to be put back on probation if they had unsatisfactory evaluations, require mutual principal-teacher consent for placement in a school and allow administrators to consider evaluations when deciding on layoffs.

House said returning non-probationary teachers to probation would eliminate their due process rights, and that mutual consent would in effect allow principals to remove even teachers with a strong evaluation record.

Cost: The CEA witnesses repeatedly raised concerns about the uncalculated and unfunded potential costs of a new evaluation system. (One proposed amendment would fund initial costs from “gifts, grants and donations.”)

The bill “creates unfunded mandates for school districts,” Salazar said. “The funding issue … that’s a major issue we can’t brush aside.”

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, Colorado Education Association President Bev ngle (center) and CEA executive director Tony Salazar listen to committee discussion of Senate Bill 10-191 on April 21, 2010.

Whitacre suggested it would cost “a minimum of over $70 million” in costs for evaluations and professional development of evaluators. The bill calls for annual evaluations. Current practice generally evaluates teachers every three years.

Colorado has a recent history of passing education reforms without the budgets to pay for them. Several small programs have been legislated with “gifts, grants and donations.” The major example is the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which calls for a multi-year overhaul of content standards, tests, high school graduation requirements, college admissions requirements and more. A recent estimate put the price tag for just the first phase of that at more than $170 million. Further studies are scheduled.

Lynn Huizing, president of the Colorado PTA, testified Wednesday that her group opposes the bill because “we are concerned this bill sets forth a system without adequate funding.”

Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus said that group is “in favor of the broad concepts of the bill” but is worried about “a huge administrative burden. … We don’t know if this is the time to ram legislation through for the sake of change.”

Committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins has set aside four hours for testimony on the bill. The committee will resume at 1 p.m. Thursday, take another hour of opposition testimony, two hours of supporter testimony and then decide on amendments and vote on the bill. Bacon hopes to finish all that by 5 p.m.

Thursday’s testimony will allow the coalition of education reform, civic and business groups backing the bill to make their case. To bolster their case, the advocacy group Stand for Children commissioned a poll of Coloradans about school spending, education issues and teacher effectiveness.

In opening remarks Wednesday, co-prime sponsor Sen Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, cited the poll as showing public support for changes such as those proposed by SB 10-191. (See the at the end of this article for a summary of poll results.)

The bill got a boost Wednesday from Gov. Bill Ritter and his three predecessors, Republican Bill Owens and Democrats Roy Romer and Dick Lamm. In a column distributed for newspaper publication, the four wrote they “enthusiastically support” SB 10-191 and “passionately urge” the legislature to pass it. (Text of column via Denver Business Journal. PDF)

Meanwhile …

While the committee was mulling the future of the Educator Effectiveness Council, that very body was meeting across East Colfax Avenue (at CEA headquarters) and actually discussing how to define teacher and principal effectiveness.

During its second meeting, the panel did some organizational tasks, received a briefing on research about effectiveness and then broke into small groups to brainstorm what effectiveness might look like (previous story with background on the council).

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New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.