ratings and consequences

Denver Public Schools set to strip nearly 50 teachers of tenure protections after poor evaluations

PHOTO: Denver Post
A teacher mentor works with another teacher during an inservice day at Valley View K-8 in 2015.

This story has been updated to reflect numbers from Douglas County.

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools has a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago.

Forty-seven Denver teachers are poised to lose non-probationary status — or tenure — after two consecutive years of being rated ineffective at their jobs, according to district officials. Those teachers represent about 2 percent of the total number of non-probationary teachers in DPS, the state’s largest school district.

A survey by Chalkbeat also found: In Douglas County, 24 non-probationary teachers are set to lose their status, which is slightly more than 1 percent of the district’s total number of tenured teachers. In Aurora, 12 teachers are set to lose their status, which is less than 1 percent of the non-probationary teachers in that district.

In the Cherry Creek School District, only one teacher is facing the same fate. And in Jefferson County, the state’s second largest district, no teachers will lose non-probationary status due to poor ratings.

Colorado’s educator effectiveness law, still widely referred to as Senate Bill 191, requires several things:

— That all teachers be evaluated every year. In the past, only non-tenured teachers were evaluated every year. Tenured teachers had to be evaluated every three years.

— That at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student academic growth, which was not the case before Senate Bill 191.

— That probationary teachers — who are most often brand-new teachers — must have three consecutive years of effective ratings to gain non-probationary status. Before the law, teachers earned non-probationary status after three years of employment.

— That non-probationary teachers who receive two consecutive years of ineffective ratings return to probationary status, a consequence that didn’t exist before Senate Bill 191. Those teachers don’t automatically lose their jobs, only their tenure.

Because of the timeline for the rollout of the law, that consequence is just going into effect now based on teacher ratings from the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

Job security is the biggest difference between probationary and non-probationary status. Probationary teachers are hired on one-year contracts. A district can get rid of a probationary teacher at the end of that contract for any reason allowed by law.

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. Those teachers can appeal a dismissal all the way up to the state Supreme Court, which can take many months.

Non-probationary teachers can also appeal a rating of ineffectiveness. Appeals processes are ongoing in several districts and could affect the final numbers of teachers who lose non-probationary status.

Because this is the first year teachers can lose that status, district officials said it’s difficult to know why the numbers differ from district to district.

Sarah Almy, the executive director of talent management for DPS, said Denver’s higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure doesn’t mean its staff isn’t up to snuff.

“I don’t think this reflects that Denver has fewer effective teachers or that our teachers and what they’re doing to advance student learning is any less powerful or effective,” she said.

While many districts use a state-developed model teacher evaluation system created in response to Senate Bill 191, Denver uses a system of its own design.

Almy said the goal of the system — called Leading Effective Academic Practice, or LEAP — is not to be punitive but to help teachers improve.

“And a really important part of that is giving honest feedback to teachers, in both what they’re doing really well and what they need to grow and develop in,” she said.

Colorado’s law is part of a bigger national trend spurred in part by the federal Race to the Top program, which offered millions of dollars in grants to states that put in place certain policies, including more stringent teacher evaluations. Most states now require student academic growth to be part of those evaluations, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

By the council’s count, tenured teachers in five other states — including Indiana and Tennessee — lose their status if they’re rated ineffective. In Michigan, teachers who are rated that way for three consecutive years are dismissed, according to the council.

But council president Kate Walsh said many states still aren’t taking teacher evaluations seriously. Previous evaluation systems were criticized for being binary and lax, she said: Teachers were rated satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and very few ended up in the latter category. Taking student test scores into account was meant to inject objectivity and rigor into the process.

However, Walsh said, “many of the first rollouts of these new evaluation systems have not been impressive in terms of distinguishing between teacher talent. Everyone is still getting great marks.” She added, “If I were a superintendent and I didn’t see a fairly good distribution curve within my district, I’d be suspicious about what was going on.”

In Denver, teachers can earn one of four ratings: distinguished, effective, approaching and not meeting. In 2015-16, 29 percent of non-probationary teachers earned distinguished, 65 percent earned effective, 6 percent earned approaching and 0.1 percent earned not meeting.

Teachers in the bottom two categories were eligible to lose tenure if it was the second year in a row they’d been rated either approaching or not meeting.

DPS did not provide a list of the schools at which the 47 teachers set to lose tenure taught. But the district did provide some information about the teachers and their students:

— Twenty-eight of the 47 teachers set to lose tenure — or 60 percent — have more than 15 years of experience. Ten of those teachers — 21 percent — have 20 years or more of experience.

Overall, about 33 percent of non-probationary DPS teachers have more than 15 years experience, and about 14 percent have more than twenty years of experience.

— The majority of the 47 teachers — 26 of them — are white. Another 14 are Latino, four are African-American, two are multi-racial and one is Asian.

About three-quarters of all DPS teachers — probationary and non-probationary — are white.

— Thirty-one of the 47 teachers set to lose tenure — or 66 percent — teach in “green” or “blue” schools, the two highest ratings on Denver’s color-coded School Performance Framework. Only three — or 6 percent — teach in “red” schools, the lowest rating.

About 60 percent of all DPS schools are “green” or “blue,” while 14 percent are “red.”

— Thirty-eight of the 47 teachers — or 81 percent — teach at schools where more than half of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

That’s the case at about 79 percent of all DPS schools.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union has long been concerned about this provision of Senate Bill 191 because teachers who are demoted to probationary status lose their due process rights.

She’s also worried it will lead to higher teacher turnover. Ten of the 47 DPS teachers set to lose non-probationary status have submitted notices of resignation or retirement, officials said, though nine of them did so before learning they would lose tenure.

“This happening to 47 teachers has a much bigger impact,” Shamburg said. “There will be hundreds of teachers who know about this. They’ll say if they can do that to (that teacher), they can do that to me.”

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”