Pondering performance

His job on the line, Jeffco superintendent says he’s been given no hint of problems

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Controversy surrounded Dan McMinimee’s summer 2014 hiring as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.

Some worried he was inexperienced, that he would be paid too much and that he would bring many of the conservative, market-based reforms of the Douglas County school district, where he previously worked.

Yet while working under two completely different school boards in less than three years — one that hired him and one that took over after a heated recall campaign — McMinimee has focused on his district work and gotten things done, various people agree.

That may not be enough to save his job.

The Jeffco school board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on launching a search for a new superintendent, in effect telling McMinimee he will no longer be needed after his contract expires at the end of June.

The school board’s discussion about McMinimee — which included two closed-door meetings — didn’t start over concerns with McMinimee’s performance, said Ron Mitchell, chairman of the school board. He declined to say what did prompt the talks.

“I think there are a lot of things Dan McMinimee has done for Jeffco schools and has done well,” Mitchell said. “The politics of Jeffco have been challenging. I honestly believe that Dan worked hard to serve the current board.”

That’s what’s puzzling, McMinimee told Chalkbeat Wednesday afternoon.

“There’s been no indication that there was a problem,” McMinimee said. “There’s been a big change in the climate since I arrived. I thought we were moving forward.”

In his time as superintendent, McMinimee has helped Jeffco create a new strategic vision, increased the number of college classes high school students take and moved the district to a student-based budget system that gave principals more control over how to spend money in their schools. His team has reformed the way teachers get paid — twice — and helped negotiate a longer contract for teachers.

The district’s teachers union — which vehemently opposed the the board members who hired McMinimee — did not respond to a request for a comment about McMinimee’s work or potential departure.

It’s not uncommon for districts to change superintendents often — or for newly elected school boards to want their own person in the job.

Most superintendents tend to stay in their roles for about three years, and in some years as many of 25 percent of Colorado’s school districts are searching for new superintendents, said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards. School board turnover is one of many factors that plays into that, he said.

Leonor Lucero, a mother of two Jeffco students, said she’s disappointed the board is considering breaking ties with McMinimee.

“Dan has worked well with both boards,” said Lucero, who opposed the recall of conservative school board members who hired McMinimee. “He’s not controversial. He’s working with them not against them.”

She said she wishes the board would keep McMinimee to give the district some stability needed after district setbacks including when voters in November turned down the school district’s two ballot measures asking for tax increases.

“The school district has gone through a lot,” Lucero said. “We’ve had a recall, a whole new school board starting from scratch, the failing of the 3A and 3B ballot measures… and there’s a new election coming up. I think they should just let Jeffco settle.”

The board finalized an evaluation in September used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The board found McMinimee helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

Yet the board was not entirely pleased with McMinimee’s a draft of his suggested goals late last year, asking for more goals that can be tied data, and suggesting some goals sounded more like job expectations and not additional goals for bonuses.

 

One of McMinimee’s bigger reforms in Jeffco involved turning two high schools into seventh through 12th grade schools in a reconfiguration of two boundary areas on the eastern side of the district where a larger number of students are low-income and English language learners.

Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective, which is working with schools that have been affected by those changes, also said he’s happy with McMinimee’s work.

“I have been very impressed by his leadership skills in our area specifically and in our efforts,” Newton said. “He’s been very focused on student achievement and building bridges. He’s been very visible in our area.”

McMinimee’s contract will expire June 30 unless the board notifies him of an extension by March 31.

Asked if he expects to serve the remainder of his contract, McMinimee said it’s up to the board for now.

“It’s a hard position to be in when you’re no longer focused on the future,” McMinimee said. “When a CEO is removed from a major company or a head coach is removed from a team, they don’t stay around for spring practice or for the next six months.”

The work in the months ahead includes budgeting, including finding ways to raise teacher salaries for negotiation discussions and making cuts after the loss of the school tax measures, hiring of principals and district staff as well as adjusting programs for next year.

The challenge in Jeffco has also been trying to bridge a community that was divided by a divisive recall election. But it’s a large geographic area with too many people who may never completely agree on the district’s philosophy, McMinimee said.

“For me if we could all get to the point of focusing on student achievement and opportunity, that would be the goal,” McMinimee said. “I still think we’re a ways from that, and I’m not sure that one person is responsible for that.”

This story has been updated to include updated data provided by Mark DeVoti about the average time superintendents stay in their role.

Father of TVAAS

William Sanders, pioneer of controversial value-added model for judging teachers, dies

William Sanders, who developed the TVAAS method for measuring a teacher's effect on student performance, died on March 16. Retired since 2013, he had been living in Columbia, Tenn.

William Sanders, the Tennessee statistician and researcher who came up with the nation’s first system for evaluating teachers based on student growth, kicking off a contentious, decades-long debate about how best to measure learning, has died.

Sanders died late last week of natural causes in a hospital in Franklin, Tenn., his family said. He was 74.

A former professor at the University of Tennessee and senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanders is best known as the developer of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS. That model has become the foundation for judging the effectiveness of teachers in Tennessee public schools, and has been emulated in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and cities across the nation — playing a key role in one of education reform’s central debates.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called Sanders’ death “a loss to the education community.”

“During his career, Dr. Sanders made significant contributions to the conversation on how to distinguish our most effective educators in terms of improving academic achievement,” McQueen said in a statement on Monday.

Sanders’ value-added model, also known as the Educational Value-Added Assessment System, became a lightning rod for criticism by many teachers and teachers unions skeptical about whether it yields fair and unbiased estimates.

The model has prompted numerous federal lawsuits charging that the evaluation system, which is now tied to teacher pay and tenure in Tennessee, doesn’t take into account student-level variables such as growing up in poverty. In 2014, the American Statistical Association called its validity into question, and other critics have said TVAAS should not be the sole tool used to judge teachers.

The method measures the effects of a teacher, school or district on student performance by tracking the progress of students against the progress they would be expected to make based on their previous performance. The formula is complex, the method requires a huge database, and the name is a mouthful to say. But the model is meant to show the “value” that was added by each teacher, school or district when measured by the change in student test scores each year.

Sanders’ research soon zeroed in on teachers as the most important part of the equation.

“Determining the effectiveness of individual teachers hold the most promise because, again and again, findings from TVAAS research show teacher effectiveness to be the most important factor in the academic growth of students,” he co-wrote in a 1998 paper. “A component linking teacher effectiveness to student outcomes is a necessary part of any educational evaluation system.”

Sanders went on to become a national leader in policy discussions on value-added assessments.

In his obituary, his family said that Sanders’ findings challenged decades of assumptions that the impact of student family life, income or ethnicity superseded the quality of classroom instruction. That conclusion has been complicated by other research showing that teachers matter more than other aspects of a school, but not as much as outside factors like poverty.

Sanders “stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth,” his family said. He believed that “educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Growing up on a Tennessee dairy farm, Sanders devoted most of his research to agricultural or wildlife questions at the University of Tennessee until 1981, when he came across a newspaper article suggesting that there was no way to hold teachers accountable based on test scores. He disagreed and wrote the office of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to say that the effectiveness of teaching could be measured against the rate of student progress.

“Basically, all I was trying to do is [say] here’s the statistical methodology that solves the problem that some of the critics are talking about,” he told Nashville Public Radio in 2014.

The Tennessee Department of Education commissioned his first wave of research beginning in 1982, and Sanders began by looking at student and teacher data in Knox County. He found that he could measure the impact that a teacher had on a student’s trajectory if he tracked that student’s data over time.

The resulting TVAAS methodology linked student academic outcomes to educational evaluation for the first time. Tennessee teachers began using the data in 1997, and their evaluations became tied to the tool under a 2010 state law.

While teachers and teachers unions pushed back, state lawmakers followed the urging of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who said changing the way teachers are evaluated would help the state win a $500 million Race to the Top grant, which Tennessee went on to receive.

TVAAS made Sanders a target for some teachers, who felt like he didn’t understand their work and created a system that was used against them unfairly. But colleagues remembered him as a teacher himself who cared about teachers and students.

“Pennsylvania has Bill to thank for changing the conversations about students — from why they can’t achieve to discussions about growing student[s] at all levels,” said Kristin Lewald, who spearheaded the TVAAS counterpart in that state.

mutual agreement

Dan McMinimee to get superintendent’s wages while serving as Jeffco board adviser

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Dan McMinimee will continue drawing the same salary he did as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools while serving in an advisory role through the end of his contract.

McMinimee stepped down from leading the state’s second largest district last week after reaching a mutual agreement with the district. He will stay on as an adviser to the board until his contract expires June 30.

In a deal approved at Thursday night’s board meeting, the board and McMinimee agreed his existing contract was modified, not terminated. If the board had decided to break the contract and ask McMinimee to leave earlier, McMinimee would have been owed a year’s worth of salary: $220,000.

McMinimee will continue to earn his regular salary and benefits but will no longer accumulate vacation time. Based on an estimate for what he would be owed in performance-based pay, the district also agreed to pay McMinimee another $27,000 when the contract ends.

The agreement does not provide new details about McMinimee’s advisory role. It states he will be available “for special projects and consideration as needed and to assist the school district with a transition to a new superintendent.”

The board approved the agreement Thursday night without discussion. Board President Ron Mitchell did note at the start of the meeting that McMinimee was not at his usual seat because “his responsibilities have changed.” He also publicly thanked McMinimee for his time leading the district.

The school board also voted Thursday to officially make Terry Elliott, Jeffco’s chief school effectiveness officer, interim superintendent. Elliott was named to serve that role at the same time McMinimee stepped down.

The district did not speak with Elliott about any salary adjustments related to his new role until Friday, said Diana Wilson, a district spokeswoman. Elliott will receive $4,000 per month from March through June in addition to his regular salary, she said.

Elliott only will hold the interim role until the end of June. He will begin a new job in July as principal of a new Brighton high school.

The firm heading up the search for a new superintendent presented findings Thursday of feedback from surveys and focus groups about what the community wants in a new superintendent.

Among the most-frequent responses were someone who can inspire trust, present a positive image of the district and “respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community.”