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R2T decision may spur teacher quality bill

A comprehensive bill to change the evaluation and job security of Colorado educators could be introduced as early as this week, Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, said Monday.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Johnston, a former principal appointed to the legislature last year, has been working on the bill since before the 2010 legislative session convened.

But, his plans got somewhat derailed with Gov. Bill Ritter’s Jan. 19 announcement that an appointed Council for Educator Effectiveness would be the main vehicle for developing recommendations to change teacher and principal evaluation and tenure.

The council was a formal part of Colorado’s $377 million Race to the Top application. The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that the state’s application scored 409.6 out of a possible 500 points, ahead of only New York and Washington, D.C., among the 16 finalists. Among Colorado’s weakest spots was its plan to improve teaching quality, which netted just 75.9 percent of possible points.

It’s been widely felt that Johnston was holding off on introduction of his bill to see how the state’s R2T bid fared.

Johnston told Education News Colorado Monday afternoon that he was going to review the state’s scorecard in detail but that his bill was approaching final form and could be introduced later this week.

He noted that Tennessee and Delaware, the two states announced Monday as the R2T winners, have passed teacher evaluation laws similar to his.

Johnston has been shopping his bill around to key interest groups, seeking to gain support, mute opposition and line up agreement on language and provisions before the bill formally surfaces.

The Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Boards are known to have had concerns about various aspects of the proposal.

Johnston said Monday that the current form of the bill has the same elements that he started with, including:

  • Changing the current satisfactory/unsatisfactory evaluation system to a multi-step ranking.
  • Making student achievement a substantial part of evaluations, and evaluating principals on both the effectiveness of their teachers and school growth. (Ritter’s executive order does require the council to come up with an evaluation system based at least 50 percent on student achievement.)
  • Involving teachers evaluating other teachers.
  • Revising the tenure system so that probationary teachers would have to have strong evaluations and student growth to receive tenure. Johnston’s original idea would have allowed probation to be extended to a fourth or fifth year. And, teachers would have to continue to show good evaluations to keep tenure.
  • Creation of a “career ladder” system under which high-performing teachers could gain additional state-funded stipends by moving into roles Johnston has called model teacher, master teacher, instructional coach and peer observer. The highest rung on the ladder would be the Colorado Teacher Corps, whose members would work in turnaround schools.
  • Changing the system (primarily an issue in Denver Public Schools) of forced placement of teachers into schools without either their or principals’ consent.

Another teacher tenure measure, Senate Bill 10-050, has been hanging around on the Senate calendar waiting for the Johnston shoe to drop. It’s sponsored by Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and a leading GOP figure on education. The bill would increase the teacher probationary period for three to five years and require teacher tenure to be renewed every five years. It doesn’t address evaluation methods.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial
Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial
Patrick Wall

The Spence bill by itself wouldn’t have much chance in a Democratic-majority legislature where the CEA has considerable influence. Spence said Monday she’s had conversations with Johnston about cosponsoring his bill but has made no commitments because she hasn’t seen the measure. Spence’s participation also will depend on whether Senate Democratic leaders decide to allow a Republican sponsor on the bill.

Ritter was asked Monday about Johnston’s proposal but was non-committal about whether he felt such a measure would help the state’s revised R2T application.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, said he’d have to see Johnston’s bill before commenting further. Shaffer did note that there have been lots of discussions designed to “soften the edges” of Johnston’s plan. (Shaffer’s predecessor, Peter Groff of Denver, regularly allied with Spence on education reform proposals.)

If and when Johnston’s bill is introduced, it will tee up the major education policy debate of the 2010 legislative in just the last month of the session, which can be risky for a major initiative.

In 2008, the Innovation Schools Act was introduced in January and the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (with the full weight of the governor’s office behind it) on March 24.

Last year, the educator identifier was introduced in January and accountability reform in February. The concurrent high school-college enrollment bill was introduced March 18 but had broad support behind it.

Also last year, a major higher education flexibility bill was introduced on April 22 but died May 6 because of House-Senate disagreement.

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