Taking on SB 191

New bill would eliminate use of student growth data in teacher evaluations

High school language arts teacher Kimba Rael, left, talks homework with student Shantelle Bell, Centennial High School in San Luis (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post).

An unlikely pair of senators has teamed up to mount an assault on Colorado’s landmark educator evaluation law, which still hasn’t been fully put into practice after six years.

School districts could drop use of student academic growth data in teacher evaluations under a bill introduced Friday by Sens. Mike Merrifield and Vicki Marble.

The proposal, Senate Bill 16-105, also would give districts discretion to eliminate annual ratings for teachers who are rating effective or highly effective.

The prime sponsors are something of a political odd couple, liberal Democrat Merrifield of Colorado Springs and conservative Republican Marble of Fort Collins.

But the two have made common cause in opposition to state standardized testing and to using testing data to evaluate educators. Merrifield, a retired music teacher, is a longtime opponent of the landmark evaluation system created by a 2010 law. Marble is the legislature’s most vocal critic of the state testing system.

Their bill going after the educator effectiveness law had been expected, and they’ve also teamed up on Senate Bill 16-005, a measure to eliminate 9th grade testing.

State law requires that principals and teachers be evaluated annually and that at least 50 percent of those evaluations be based on student academic growth as determined by state test scores and other district and classroom measures.

Because the state switched to the new PARCC tests in 2015, no state growth data is being used to evaluate teachers this school year. Districts instead must use locally chosen tests and other measures.

The new bill would eliminate the academic growth requirement but let districts use student growth for up to 20 percent of evaluations if they choose. Districts that have their own evaluation systems could exempt principals and teachers from annual reviews if they’ve previously been rated effective or highly effective. They would have to be evaluated at least every three years.

Such a major change in the evaluation system is considered a long shot this session and likely would face a gubernatorial veto if it passed both houses.

Merrifield, as a solo sponsor, introduced a similar bill in 2015. It never got out of the Senate Education Committee.

Merrifield and Marble sit on that nine-member committee. Two other panel members, Democratic Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Nancy Todd of Aurora, are cosponsors of SB 16-105. There’s no House sponsor yet.

Two other education bills were introduced Friday.

Senate Bill 16-101 would create a five-member ethics commission within the Department of Education to hear ethics complaints against members of school district and charter boards. Kerr is the prime Senate sponsor.

Senate Bill 16-104 proposes several programs to encourage teachers to work in rural school districts, including creation of rural education centers, stipends for student teachers, cadet programs in rural districts to encourage high school students to become teachers and financial support of rural teachers who seek board certification or credentials for teaching concurrent college courses. The introduced version doesn’t include a price tag. Todd is the prime Senate sponsor, teamed with Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, in the House.

unpaid leave debate

Colorado Supreme Court weighs challenge to law governing job protections for teachers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
The Colorado Supreme Court.

Are good veteran teachers still guaranteed jobs in Colorado, provided they don’t mess up?

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on that issue and others related to a landmark 2010 state law that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments.

Lawyers for Denver Public Schools squared off against lawyers representing individual teachers in two separate lawsuits. One case was brought on behalf of seven current and former DPS teachers. It challenges a provision of the 2010 law that allows school districts to, under certain circumstances, put effective teachers who’ve earned job protections on unpaid leave.

The other case was filed by a single teacher, Lisa Johnson, who was put on unpaid leave.

In both cases, lawyers for DPS argued that putting experienced, effective teachers on unpaid leave is not the same as firing them — and thus doing so doesn’t violate their due process rights.

But lawyers for the teachers said unpaid leave is essentially “an end run” around those rights.

To understand both lawsuits, it helps to have some background on the 2010 law, known as Senate Bill 191. It did several things, including change the way teachers earn “non-probationary status,” which affords them job protections. To earn that status, teachers must now have three years of effective ratings instead of just three years of employment.

Earning that status is desirable because non-probationary teachers can only be fired for a limited number of reasons, including insubordination and unsatisfactory performance. In addition, non-probationary teachers are entitled to a hearing before being fired.

The 2010 law also effectively eliminated a practice known as “forced placement.” Before the law, teachers who lost their jobs not for cause but due to circumstances such as a decrease in student enrollment were assigned to open positions at other schools.

DPS officials didn’t like forced placement because most teachers were placed at low-income schools, which they said led to the neediest kids being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there. So after Senate Bill 191 passed, DPS changed its policy. The district now gives teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they will look for “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them.

If a teacher doesn’t find a mutual consent position within 18 months, he or she is placed on unpaid leave as per Senate Bill 191. The teacher is welcome to continue looking for jobs in DPS and is entitled to his or her previous salary and benefits if hired.

Since Senate Bill 191 went into effect, at least 1,113 non-probationary DPS teachers have lost their positions due to a decrease in student enrollment, the closure of a school or other similar circumstances listed in the law, according to data the district provided at Chalkbeat’s request.

The majority of them have found mutual consent positions. Sixty-two teachers are currently on unpaid leave because they were unable to do so, according to DPS.

However, that number doesn’t include teachers who resigned or retired rather than be put on unpaid leave. That information is difficult to gather, a district spokesman said, but DPS did tally some numbers in response to an open records request the Denver teachers union submitted in February. As best the district could tell as of earlier this year, 39 non-probationary teachers who lost their positions between 2010 and 2014 resigned and seven retired.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for the teachers who brought the lawsuit argued that state law has historically afforded teachers a “basic bargain:” if they work for three years and are asked to come back for a fourth, they’re entitled to job protections. Lawmakers were wrong to alter that under Senate Bill 191, attorney Philip Hostak told the seven justices.

But DPS’s lawyer pointed out that the historical idea of tenure no longer exists — and hasn’t since lawmakers stripped the word from state law in 1990. “There is no indication in the legislation itself … that these folks are permanent teachers,” said attorney Eric Hall.

Pushing back on Hostak’s argument, Hall said lawmakers can amend laws however they see fit — and in the case of Senate Bill 191, they added the mutual consent provision and unpaid leave.

A lawyer for Johnson also challenged that provision and argued that Johnson shouldn’t be subject to it because she lost her position for a reason not listed in Senate Bill 191.

“The legislature tells us exactly which teachers can be displaced,” said attorney Eric Harrington.

However, the lawyer representing DPS in the Johnson case, Jonathan Fero, argued that the reasons listed in the law aren’t exhaustive and mutual consent applies to all teachers.

The lawyers did not debate the reason Johnson lost her position except to say they disagreed on the facts but that those facts aren’t an issue for the Supreme Court to decide.

The justices typically take months to issue an opinion.

teacher leaders

Indiana teachers say they need more classroom practice before starting their jobs

PHOTO: Matt Detrich / Indianapolis Star
Teacher Eddie Rangel at IPS Key Learning Community School.

Too many teachers are entering classrooms without the right training to meet kids needs, say a group of 24 educators who’ve taken a deep look at their profession.

The educators are fellows from the Indianapolis chapter of Teach Plus, a national organization that trains teachers to be policy advocates in seven states. They’ve spent the last year exploring how better training and support could help keep teachers in their profession longer and planned to present their findings at an event tonight where they present their research projects.

Among their recommendations:

  • Teachers need to spend more time in a classroom before they begin in their jobs;
  • They need more practice working with students who have special needs and those who for whom English is not their first language; and,
  • They need mentorship from senior teachers once they start in a classroom.

The focus on how to keep teachers in the classroom comes as some Indiana school districts report difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. The shortage led state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to appointed a committee that last year recommended teachers get more time actually teaching in schools before earning their teacher certifications. The legislature also passed a bill to support teacher mentors in 2016.

The Teach Plus fellows say they’ve looked into ways to implement their recommendations including new federal rules that could make it easier for Indiana districts to get government funding for teacher mentors or for a residency program that allows teachers a longer time in the classroom before they finish their education.

Another idea that wouldn’t necessarily require extra funding would be for districts and colleges to partner to let prospective teachers work as substitutes in schools that have difficulty filling temporary positions. That way, teaching students get the practice they need and schools can have more qualified substitutes without having to pay more.

“After I graduated I didn’t teach right away, I substitute-taught for six months to figure out what schools I liked and what I didn’t like,” said one second-year teacher interviewed for the research project. “Until you’re in the situation you don’t know how you’ll handle it. Substitute teaching made me resilient and gave me on-the-job training I didn’t get in my teacher prep at school. I would advocate for making that a requirement for graduating.”

Many of the educators interviewed by the Teach Plus fellows said additional training in special education is important for all teachers — not just those who work exclusively with children who have special needs.

Many teachers said they didn’t feel adequately prepared to handle this once they took their jobs, and those who did felt overburdened by the requests they often got from colleagues who needed help with a special-needs student.

Ultimately, the researchers said it’s important that legislators and other education officials get involved to help address some of these gaps.

“We routinely lose promising novice teachers because they enter the classroom underprepared,” the report said. “As a state, we cannot continue this trend. Teacher recommendations to improve the preparation process must be foremost in policymakers’ minds.”