"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Truth About "Tenure" in Colorado

Tomorrow Colorado legislators decide whether or not they will be bamboozled by corporate education's billionaire boys' club to disrespect and demoralize Colorado teachers once again. Here's some facts to consider from an op-ed in the Durango Herald News:
What makes a good teacher? Is it longevity, popularity, education or good test scores? Denver politicians are trying to tell the people of Colorado that there is only one answer: test scores. Senate Bill 191 would deny or remove “tenure" from teachers whose evaluations did not demonstrate student academic growth as evidenced by standardized tests such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

Most of the controversy and misinformation surrounding this bill comes from the term “tenure." It means only one thing to people outside education - a guaranteed job for life. That connotation, the idea of a publicly funded job for life, stimulates knee-jerk responses.

What the supporters of this bill, including The Durango Herald, have failed to inform the public is that tenure for public teachers in Colorado ceased to exist in 1990. Under Gov. Roy Romer's administration, the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act of 1990 was passed. This law eliminated tenure and replaced it with a due-process clause and created the terms probationary and non-probationary.

Probationary teachers are those who are in their first three years of employment in any school district. Probationary teachers could have a doctorate, National Board Certification or 20 years of proven classroom experience. Nonetheless, they may be dismissed from their employment at anytime during those three years for things as minor, for instance, as sitting on a desk while teaching a lesson, missing a faculty meeting because of child-care conflicts or daring to stand up to a bullying principal.

For probationary teachers, these three years are stressful. Good evaluations are no security for receiving the fourth-year contract. Effective and competent third-year teachers with good or even excellent evaluations are routinely dismissed. It happened this year in Durango. Under the proposed legislation, all teachers could become probationary at any point.

In Colorado public schools, non-probationary teachers are offered some protection from the sometimes arbitrary whims of principals and administrators, though they may be fired for reasons such as: “physical or mental disability, incompetency, neglect of duty, immorality, unsatisfactory performance, insubordination, the conviction of a felony … or other good and just cause." (Colorado Revised Statutes 22-63-301) This is hardly the guaranteed job for life that politicians and pundits would have you believe.

So why then is there this perception that poor teachers are so difficult to dismiss from their jobs? Current law says that a district that wishes to fire a non-probationary teacher must demonstrate with facts why they have good cause to fire the teacher, and that the teacher and district must select an impartial hearing officer if the teacher does not agree with the reasons he or she is being fired. Again, this is hardly an impossible hurdle; it just requires districts to have a reason for firing a teacher. School districts can remove poor teachers from the classroom.

SB 191 attempts to tie 50 percent of teachers' evaluations to student test scores and 50 percent to the whims of the undefined “educational mission" of individual principals. The problem most educators have with this is there is no equitable way teachers can be assessed by the way students learn.

This would imply all students learn the same, that all students have the same support at home, that all assessments of learning are fair and equitable, that parents are held accountable for ensuring their children attend school regularly, and all students come into the classroom motivated to learn and do their best. None of these things are the case. Teachers cannot be held accountable for variables over which they have no control.

Additionally, this bill will unfairly punish teachers who teach very low-performing students, students who by definition do poorly on standardized tests. Strangely enough, it will also dramatically affect teachers who work with students who are advanced or gifted. If a gifted student is in the 99.9th percentile in a subject, how much more growth could the student statistically exhibit? Likewise, Advanced Placement classes could likely be eliminated in an attempt to equalize the performance of classes on standardized tests.

Lastly, SB 191 is entirely unfunded. Each subject not tested by CSAP - kindergarten through second grade, art, music, physical education, drama, career and technical education, social studies and all classes for high school juniors and seniors - will need to be attached to a district-developed standardized test. Districts will bear the cost of this testing and the cost of the constant hiring and firing this bill may create. Communities will pay the price of high teacher turnover rates and the race-to-the bottom mentality this bill will create in public education.

There are good and bad teachers in every system. Revamping educational evaluations to define quality teaching is necessary, but falling for political chicanery that does nothing more than increase the polarity that already runs rampart in our society is not a viable solution.

If preparing students to be efficient 21st-century learners is the intent of Colorado's legislators, then we need to look at the misplaced emphasis on high-stakes testing, the practices that continue to prepare students for our past instead of their futures, and the state funding for schools that ranks Colorado 49th in the nation.

By the way, if you want to know what makes a good teacher, ask any student; they know.

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