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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede