First Person

Voices: Dougco evals should follow state pilot

Douglas County high school teacher and union member Traci Mumm says district leaders are rushing development of Dougco’s own teacher evaluation criteria instead of following the state’s lead.

In an apparent rush to once again be “innovative,” Douglas County School District has found a way to further distance teachers.

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen addresses the school board in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Superintendent Liz Fagen would like for the nation to look at our school district and marvel at the great “cutting edge” things happening here. Yet, in our hurry to amaze and impress, we have once again alienated and ignored the people who make their way into the classroom every day and do the actual work of education.

Senate Bill 10-191 requires districts to have a new teacher evaluation in place by the 2013-14 school year. Although teacher evaluations have always existed, the law requires that these new evaluations measure teachers according to principal’s judgment and student performance. The Colorado Department of Education is working on a version that will be made available to any Colorado district, and will work with these districts to understand and pilot these new tools. Of course, districts are welcome to create their own evaluations as long as they meet or exceed the state’s version.

The transition to this new system is the cause of growing anxiety in schools across the state as teachers and administrators work to find a balanced and reasonable approach to handling this change. In Douglas County, though, the top-down approach and frantic implementation of an incomplete evaluation is causing waves of trepidation in our schools.

Twenty-seven school districts have chosen to pilot the state’s evaluation this year in preparation for next year’s required implementation. Littleton Public Schools is piloting the state evaluation as is and says on its website that after much research, teachers and administrators found the Colorado model to be “a fairly good match with LPS priorities, which are to improve teaching and learning in all of our schools.”  Cherry Creek Schools is also working with the state to pilot a version of its evaluation.

Dougco creates its own teacher eval

Douglas County, however, has spent considerable time, effort, and money writing its own model and has decided to implement it this year in a high stakes, high anxiety rollout. Teachers came to school in the fall understanding that, unlike other districts, DCSD has decided to run the new evaluation, even though it is incomplete and seemingly incomprehensible.  Further, teachers’ pay will be tied to the documents that make up CITE 2.0 (CITE stands for Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness).  As other districts ease their employees into a completely new system, Douglas County has hurriedly marched us into the undiscovered country.

In a recent public forum, Christian Cutter, assistant superintendent of elementary education, touted the fact that the district spent $65,000 to hire an education consulting group, Teaching & Learning Solutions, to train administrators this summer to use new evaluation tools. It is admirable that the district chose to hire a group committed to helping building administrators learn to evaluate teachers in a consistent manner. Having a consistent evaluation process guarantees that a teacher at ThunderRidge High School is scored the same way as a teacher at Sierra Middle School. According to Cutter, the group [TLS] “facilitated a five day training for evaluators” to get them up to speed in preparation for the upcoming year’s CITE 2.0 rollout. He continued that the training was “imperative so that evaluators can use whatever tool with fidelity.” His description of what happened in those five days would lead a casual listener to believe that the district is concerned that evaluators know the process so that they can accurately measure teacher performance on CITE 2.0.

However, in its final report dated October 2012, TLS recommends that the district proceed slowly because “consistency between observers [administrators] is of great importance” and “only 31 of 145 observers scored within a statistically acceptable range.”  Additionally, the report warned that “data from multiple calibration assessments is needed before TLS can recommend that the scores from the observers are reliable enough to be used in a formal, high-stakes manner.”  In other words, administrators did not pass the calibration test. And, before the district proceeds with high-stakes evaluation (like tying evaluation to compensation), principals and teachers need more training.

Because we’ve all been in school, we believe that we know who the great teachers are and who the bad teachers are. If it were that easy, we would not be in this mess. It’s not that easy. An accurate and appropriate teacher evaluation is complicated and takes time to design and implement. There are too many people affected by the process to hurry and not get it right.

Yet, here we are. Teachers’ pay is tied to an evaluation that is unfinished and premature. Administrators cannot effectively evaluate teachers because their training is sporadic and incomplete. Other districts are still in pilot-mode, but, because DCSD is “innovative,” we are marching forward regardless of buy-in, collaboration and complete understanding from teachers and principals.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.