First Person

Commentary: The "yays" and "boos" of SB 191

This piece was written by Kate Mulcahy, an English teacher at Northglenn High School, a Boettcher Teachers Program graduate and a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative.

I feel overwhelmed.  Colorado is hammering out a new teacher evaluation model that ties teacher tenure to student performance. The Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness Act, formerly known as SB 10-191, is on the lips of most educators. This bill has been the pride and joy of well-intentioned education reformers and the bane of existence for others who see it as a misguided political move to attract Race to the Top money.

Me? I’m on the fence.

I fought this bill initially, contacting my state representatives and voicing my concern. But recently, I have heard good teachers make solid, positive points about SB 10-191. I’m being persuaded…but not yet convinced. When contentious issues overwhelm my mind, I approach them with the time honored method of discerning which side of the issue deserves my allegiance: The yay-boo system.

To some, this method might seem too simplistic for such a complex issue, but I would disagree.  At this point in this intense educational overhaul, I need a little straightforward simplicity.

Here are the yay-boos that keep me on the fence:

Yay: Say goodbye to nepotism

For all of the concern that I hear regarding the possibility of unfair or biased teacher evaluations, I do not hear much acknowledgement that principals are being evaluated in this process as well. Is it possible that a principal could give a specific teacher an unfair evaluation due to personal bias? Yes.

However, under this new process, isn’t it also possible that this principal will eventually be revealed as someone who puts their personal interests above their students if she or he keeps focusing on keeping favorite teachers instead of quality teachers? Principals, like teachers, will be evaluated on student growth. It is also important to point out that principals will be evaluated on teacher quality and improvement.  SB 10-191 might help nepotism be a thing of the past.

Boo: State education already is underfunded

Let’s face it.  There’s not much money floating around for new ideas. Class sizes are growing. Programs like art, music, and sports are disappearing. Teachers are losing their jobs.  How is there money to implement SB 10-191 properly?  According to Governor Hickenlooper, the Colorado Board of Education would need  $7.7 million to continue the implementation of these reforms.  That’s a lot of money considering we already don’t have enough education funds to support basic needs for students.

Yay:  Stronger evaluations could mean a stronger, more respected work force

I’m glad that people are admitting that the current teacher evaluation system is not very useful.  School principals and other evaluating administrators are too bogged down to make the kind of in-depth teacher evaluations that are useful or informative. Good teachers do not benefit from the superficial feedback, and struggling teachers don’t get the guidance they need so that they can positively impact their students.

Tenure seems like an undeserved status to the non-education world when great and not-so-great teachers receive the same benefit. Perhaps if SB 10-191 does help create the kind of evaluations that are more purposeful and that educate as much as assess teachers, then the outside world might not question teacher tenure as much because it would be a status reserved for quality teachers.

Boo:  Evaluations rely on a controversial, unstable standardized test:

Fifty percent of teacher and principal evaluations will be based off of student achievement. While this may sound clear-cut in theory, the big question is how do you measure student achievement?  One method, the Colorado Growth Model, currently uses the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) as its main measure of student learning.  Many educators, myself included, are reluctant to base their performance evaluations and job security off a test they view as either unreliable or a distraction from quality learning.

Furthermore, the status of CSAP is not secure. Students will soon test their skills using the TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program), and talks of either a new permanent test for our state or using a multi-state test show that the future is uncertain. I think it’s fair that many teachers protest the fact that this bill relies so much on a test that may not even exist in the near future.

Yay: Teachers are involved in the implementation process of the bill

The development of this bill is not a closed-door process, and anyone who thinks it is isn’t making an effort to be involved.  I have seen the evaluation drafts for both teachers and principals and have received several opportunities to give my feedback.  Groups such as The New Millennium Initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality have given teachers the opportunity to help shape these policy changes.  (Check out Voices from the Classroom, a teacher-constructed recommendation for ways to successfully implement Colorado’s Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness Act)  Critics may doubt whether the policymakers will listen, but I have had positive experiences so far.

Boo:  Teachers are not the biggest influence in a student’s success

Teachers may be the largest in-school factor to improving a student’s academic success, but they are not the largest factor that determines a student’s success. Many educators are in an uproar because SB 10-191 puts a heavy burden of a child’s success onto a teacher’s shoulders with little acknowledgement of the larger factors to a student’s success, such as poverty, family, and health.  True, value-added models (VAMs) try to account for these issues, but there are legitimate concerns as to the accuracy of VAMs (a few raised by the American Mathematical Society).

Personally, I am honored and humbled by the level of influence that I can have on a student, and I agree that teachers need to be held accountable for this responsibility. However, I don’t want the other factors ignored. More importantly, the students cannot afford for us to continue to ignore the larger factors.

I set up this yay-boo system more to “talk” out loud than to convince since an informed conversation should be the second step to any significant reform. The first step, of course, is an open mind. I would be interested to hear other perspectives. What are your yay-boos for SB-191?

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.