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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.