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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?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.