job protections

Fewer teachers losing tenure in Denver, other large Colorado districts

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post
A teacher works with a ninth-grade student at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver in 2012.

Fewer teachers in Colorado’s six largest school districts are at risk of losing their job protections after back-to-back ineffective ratings, according to numbers provided by the districts.

Under a controversial state law known as Senate Bill 191, teachers who earn two consecutive ineffective ratings can lose their non-probationary status, often referred to as tenure.

Twenty-one teachers in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, received their second consecutive less-than-effective rating in 2016-17. That’s down from 47 in 2015-16, which was the first year teachers could be stripped of their job protections under the law.

In Douglas County, where 24 teachers were at risk of losing non-probationary status in 2015-16 just one teacher this year is in that position, according to a district spokesperson.

In Aurora, five teachers are set to lose their status, compared to 12 the previous year, a spokesperson said. In the Cherry Creek district, where one teacher faced losing status in 2015-16, a spokesperson said no teachers will lose it this year.

Two teachers in the Adams 12 Five Star district are set to lose non-probationary status, a spokesperson said. Last year, he said, no Adams 12 teachers did.

No Jeffco Public Schools teachers lost non-probationary status last year, either. The state’s second-largest district does not yet have numbers for the 2016-17 school year because its teacher evaluations aren’t finalized until the fall. The law, however, says teacher evaluations must be completed two weeks before the end of the school year.

Of the 21 Denver Public Schools teachers who earned their second consecutive less-than-effective rating in 2016-17, three have already have resigned, district officials said.

The other 18 are currently slated to return in the fall with probationary status, which means they’ll work under one-year contracts. Probationary teachers have less job security because a school district can decline to renew their contracts for any reason allowed by law.

The contracts of nine DPS teachers who lost non-probationary status in 2015-16 and returned for the 2016-17 school year as probationary teachers were set to be non-renewed at the end of the year, said DPS spokesman Will Jones. However, three of the nine teachers resigned, leaving just six whose contracts were formally not renewed, he said.

By contrast, non-probationary teachers can only be fired if a district can prove one of several grounds, such as that a teacher was insubordinate or immoral. Non-probationary teachers can also appeal their ratings and the loss of their status.

Last year, nine DPS teachers appealed one or both of those, Jones said. Five were successful and did not end up losing their non-probationary status, he said.

Eight teachers are pursuing appeals this year, Jones said. Five of them are still in the process of appealing their ratings; if successful, they won’t have to appeal the loss of their status, he said.

Of the 18 teachers who will return in the fall with probationary status, 12 are white, five are Hispanic and one is African-American, Jones said. Overall, 73 percent of DPS teachers in 2016-17 were white, 18 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were African-American, according to data provided to a DPS task force on African-American equity.

Six of the teachers have between 16 and 24 years of experience with DPS, Jones said. The other 12 teachers have 15 years of experience or less.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union is happy that fewer teachers are set to lose non-probationary status this year.

She sees the decrease as a sign that DPS, which uses its own teacher evaluation system rather than the state-developed model, is being more thoughtful about being fair to teachers.

“The biggest thing is to help the district work to a point where their evaluation system is realistic and authentic and not punitive,” she said. “I think they have some appetite to get there.”

Sarah Almy, executive director of talent management for DPS, said it’s not possible to draw any conclusions about why the number of teachers is down from just two years’ worth of data.

But she said the teacher evaluation system is not meant to be punitive.

“We really do want this to be a system … to support teachers in developing and growing their practice,” Almy said. “So we are hopeful that is what’s happening.”

It’s also important that teachers see the system as fair, she said. In the 2015-16 school year, Almy said DPS began using a team of highly trained peer observers to work with schools to help ensure the definition of effectiveness was consistent.

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.