From the Statehouse

Teacher effectiveness council starts 18-month run

Colorado’s experiment in crafting a new educator evaluation system kicked off Thursday with the first meeting of the 15-member Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness.

The council, created by Gov. Bill Ritter as part of the state’s Race to the Top application, is based on the premise that more effective and durable reforms can be achieved through a process representing a broad array of education interests, from the Colorado Education Association to administrators and from school board members to one lone student.

That approach stands in contrast to the more top-down way some other states have approached both the quest for federal education stimulus funds and the broader national push to improve teaching.

Thursday’s session, held at the Lowry headquarters of the state Community College System, was the usual first-meeting mix of introductions, setting expectations and deciding on a future meeting schedule.

The introductions gave some hints of how individual members are approaching the 18-month assignment.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien
PHOTO: via E. Genco, Achievement School District
Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien opened the first meeting of the Educator Effectiveness Council March 11, 2010.

“It’s always the adults who find it hardest to change.” – Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who welcomed the group but isn’t a member

“We shouldn’t be constrained by the past. … We’re not looking for a little tweak.” – chair Matt Smith

“My expectation is that we will be brave but cautious.” – CU education dean Lorrie Shepard

“My hope is to make a great system that is fair and equitable.” – Brighton teacher and union official Shelley Genereax

“Every time I think about this work I feel a weight upon my shoulders.” – vice chair Nina Lopez

The governor’s charge to the council is to develop a proposal under which teachers are:

  • “Evaluated using multiple fair, transparent, timely, rigorous, and valid methods, at least 50 percent of which is determined by the academic growth of their students.
  • “Afforded a meaningful opportunity to improve their effectiveness.
  • “Provided the means to share effective practices with other educators statewide.”

The council has a Dec. 31 deadline to draft definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness and to “develop and recommend guidelines for adequate implementation of a high-quality educator evaluation system,” in the words of the executive order.

The order also sets a Sept. 30, 2011, deadline to make recommendations to the governor, legislature and State Board of Education on policy changes to:

  • “Support districts’ use of evaluation data for decisions in areas such as compensation, promotion, retention, and removal, as well as the criteria for earning and retaining non-probationary status.
  • “Ensure that the standards and criteria applicable to teacher and principal licensure and the accreditation of preparation programs are directly aligned with and support the preparation and licensure of effective educators.”

State education leaders have repeatedly acknowledged that despite a series of recent education reforms, Colorado is weakest in the area of educator effectiveness. The 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions passed important education reforms in the areas of standards, testing, P-20 alignment and school and district accountability. Last year lawmakers also approved creation of an educator identifier system that ultimately can be used to link teachers and principals with student achievement data.

There’s been debate in education circles about why Ritter chose to use an executive order rather than pursuing legislation this year. When he announced the council, Ritter pointed to some other states, which have been busy in recent months passing new laws to burnish their R2T applications. “That’s simply not how we go about school reform in this state. … Collaboration is essential to this process,” the governor said.

Colorado is one of 16 finalists for the first round of R2T grants, and the state’s application asks $605,000 to fund the work of the council, primarily for staffing.

Educator Effectiveness Council
Members of the state Educator Effectiveness Council met for the first time on March 11, 2010.

Council member Kerrie Dallman asked, “Who’s going to pick up the slack?” if Colorado doesn’t win. Lopez said, “This work should be done regardless of the funding.” Ritter education advisor Liz Aybar said, “We’re in conversation with some other folks” about support. “Just rest assured that what you guys need will be taken care of.”

The group will meet again in April. The executive order expressly says that the council’s decisions are to be reached by consensus.

Council members

  • Chair and at-large member: Matt Smith, vice-president of engineering, United Launch Alliance
  • Vice chair and Department of Education representative: Nina Lopez, special assistant to the education commissioner
  • Department of Higher Education: Lorrie Shepard, dean, School of Education, University of Colorado – Boulder
  • Teachers: Shelly Genereax of Brighton School District 27J (also president of Brighton Education Association), Kerrie Dallman of Jefferson County Public Schools (also president of Jefferson County Education Association), Amie Baca-Oehlert of Adams District 12 (also an at-large Colorado Education Association director and union chief negotiator in his district), Nikkie Felix of Aurora Public Schools
  • Public school administrators: Margaret Crespo, principal of John Evans Middle School in Weld County, Tracy Dorland, executive director of teacher effectiveness in Denver Public Schools
  • Public school superintendent: Sandra Smyser, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, which has a pay-for-performance system and an evaluation system that includes student achievement
  • School board members: Bill Bregar of Pueblo District 70, Jo Ann Baxter of Moffat County
  • Charter schools: Colin Mullaney, principal of Cheyenne Mountain Charter in Colorado Springs
  • Public school parent: Towanna Henderson of Denver Public Schools
  • Student: Shelby Gonzales-Parker of Justice High School in Denver Public Schools, and a member of the student group Project VOYCE, which participated in drafting the state’s Race to the Top application

The council follows the classic Colorado “one-of-each” model for creating balanced commissions. Various members were selected with the advice of the following interest groups:

  • Teachers – Colorado Education Association
  • Administrators and superintendent – Colorado Association of School Executives
  • School board members – Colorado Association of Schools Boards
  • Charter representatives – Colorado League of Charter Schools
  • Parent – Colorado PTA

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Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.