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.”

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.