From the Statehouse

Teacher bill – next comes the vote

Four reform-minded superintendents and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña headlined the witnesses supporting Senate Bill 10-191 in testimony before the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon.

Superintendents Tom Boasberg, John Barry, Mike Miles and Charlotte Ciancio lined up April 22, 2010, to support the proposed educator effectiveness bill.

Peña spoke passionately about the need for the bill and for education reform and easily parried questions from Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who emerged as the most skeptical and persistent committee member Thursday.

“There are some who want us to go slow,” said Peña, who heads the A+ Denver citizens’ group advising Denver Public Schools. “I understand compromise. I understand we have to be flexible.” But, he said, proposed amendments that would extend the bill’s timeline “should give some comfort to teachers and principals.

“Let us not wait another 10 years to be bold,” he said. “Let us seize this historic opportunity.”

The meeting, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran well past 6 p.m., ended two sessions of testimony on the high-profile bill, which would substantially change the state’s rules for evaluating teachers and principals and for moving teachers in and out of probation. Read background.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has mounted a full court press in opposition to the bill. CEA witnesses testified during the committee’s first meeting Wednesday and at the beginning of Thursday’s session. See this story for details on the Wednesday meeting.

The CEA is organizing a rally at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Capitol’s west steps, promising about 600 teachers will show up. About 60 presidents of CEA local associations plan to lobby legislators.

At Thursday’s hearing, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the CEA’s parent organization, gave an articulate critique of the bill.

“The status quo for too many of our students in unacceptable,” he said. “I hope another thing we can agree on is that if you really want to transform a school … it requires collaboration. … You must have a good evaluation system and a professional development system.”

The supporting side had its own national witness, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, who vigorously supported the measure.

He argued that the bill actually “would give teachers far more protection than they have today.”

And a different union leader, Brenda Smith, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado unit, testified in qualified support of the bill Thursday. “We are looking forward to improving the language … for the best possible results,” she said.

Four superintendents who have tried various reform experiments in their districts also put their weight behind the measure.

Charlotte Ciancio of Mapleton led off the testimony and noted that all other metro-area superintendents back the bill.

Mike Miles of Harrison and Tom Boasberg of Denver talked about teacher quality reforms in their districts.

John Barry of Aurora was perhaps the most forceful, saying, “Evaluations and tenure change must happen together. … We need an environment of continuous improvement … based on evaluations every year.”

Other civic heavyweights backing the bill were Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver; George Sparks, head of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney; and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Groups such as Padres Unidos, the Urban League and the black and Hispanic chambers of commerce also support SB 10-191.

It was obvious that both the CEA and supporters carefully selected and prepared their witnesses. Almost all read from prepared statements, and both sides had marshaled teachers, principals and other representative figures to speak.

Some CEA witnesses told emotional stories about how they had lost jobs or struggled against unfair evaluations.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the prime mover behind SB 10-191, roamed around the Old Supreme Court Chamber, looking for witnesses and checking the list he carried in his hand.

The sharpest moment of the hearing came when Hudak challenged Peña, saying, “If I read between the lines, it sounds like you’re saying the reason we’re losing those [at-risk] students is because the teachers are bad.”

Pena, whose rhetorical skills have been honed by years as civil rights lawyer, legislator, mayor and federal cabinet secretary, replied, “I said the exact opposite, with all due respect.”

With several witnesses, Hudak raised the question of how teachers can be evaluated on the basis of tests that students may not take seriously. She repeatedly used the analogy of a dental hygienist whose patents don’t take care of their teeth.

It got to the point that some witnesses started to pre-empt Hudak by using their own dental analogies.

Senate Ed, which normally meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, will hold an extra meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday to consider a lengthy list of proposed amendments and to vote on the bill.

The clock is ticking for SB 10-191 and several other pieces of key education legislation. Starting Friday, lawmakers have only 14 working days left before they must adjourn. If passed by the committee, the bill has to go through two rounds on Senate floor consideration before it can go to the House, where the whole process will have to be repeated starting in the House Education Committee.

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.