Future of Schools

Tennessee lawmakers want to roll back A-F school grades before they’ve been given

Just a year after deciding that every school should get a single letter grade, Tennessee lawmakers are poised to take it back.

Last year, a bill requiring all schools to get an A-F grade starting in 2018 sailed through the legislature. Supporters said parents needed an easy tool to understand how their child’s school was performing, even as critics — including many educators — argued that school quality can’t easily be summed up by a single letter grade.

But a lot can change in a year. School grading systems have fallen out of favor in many of the 18 states that have instituted A-F systems in recent years.

And Tennessee is likely to be the latest to join them, with a bill revising the grading system appearing on track for passage after sailing through a House education subcommittee last week.

The bill, drafted by the state’s superintendents group and supported by the State Department of Education, would give schools multiple letter grades — for how much students’ test scores improve, how high the scores are, and other measures “deemed appropriate” by the department.

Schools would also get one overall rating, ranging from “exemplary” to “priority,” for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

Proponents say the change is necessary to illuminate where schools are struggling and to allow their successes to shine.

“If you oversimplify with the letter grade, you prevent people from looking more deeply into what the issues might actually be,” said Wayne Miller, president of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

He compared the current grading system to giving students only a single grade on their report card, rather than separate grades for each subject. “It’s important for us to know that you struggle in language arts, but it’s not important to pull down your entire performance because of that,” Miller said.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the policy revision won’t help parents.

“We need something more descriptive that says ‘this school’s in trouble,’” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the House Administration and Planning committee. “The difference between the 6th and 10th percentile is not a lot.”

Lawmakers in the full education committee signaled Monday that they will advance the bill.  

Decision time

As Denver teachers turn out to vote on strike, superintendent defends ‘compelling’ district offer

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers enter Riverside Baptist Church Saturday to vote on whether to go on strike.

Denver teachers — some fighting back tears, others filled with energy and purpose — streamed into a rented Baptist church Saturday to cast a high-stakes vote on whether to go on strike.

If their answer is yes, it would be the first strike in Colorado’s largest school district in 25 years and affect some 71,000 students and 5,300 teachers.

The vote on Saturday and another scheduled for Tuesday evening come after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association rejected a district offer and ended negotiations late Friday night, the conclusion of months of bargaining that left the two sides still more than $8 million apart and with significant philosophical disagreements about how teachers should earn raises.

“This is about solidarity of all the workers for the district,” said Kris Valdez, who has taught physical education for 17 years at Columbian Elementary, a high-poverty school in northwest Denver. “For as long as I have been in the district, I feel like we have kind of always been taken advantage of. Now we’re coming together and seeing we have a lot of power when we unite.”

Valdez voted to strike, citing as his primary reason what he sees as a district that is too top-heavy. He, echoing other teachers, said he believes the district can invest more in teachers and paraprofessionals than in “deans of cultures, deans of this, deans of everything.”

The teachers union and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Both sides’ proposals moved Denver teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allow for reliable raises if teachers stay with the district and earn more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer demands an extra $28 million toward compensation.

On Saturday, the district sent an email to teachers making the case for its salary proposal and inviting them to use an online tool to see how much more they could be making if the union would just say yes. The email also urged teachers who aren’t union members to join and vote if they want their view to be heard.

At a press briefing Saturday, Cordova said the district had talked to teachers who would be making as much as $15,000 more.

“That’s a very compelling offer to our teachers and it recognizes the very high cost of living in Denver,” Cordova said. “It’s hard for me to understand that we would have teachers who are willing to go out on strike, who will attempt to shut down our schools, who will interrupt the education of the children of Denver because of 10 percent increases on average.”

Cordova noted that teachers in Pueblo went on strike for 2 percent raises last May, while teachers in Los Angeles are on strike for 6.5 percent raises. The district describes its offer to Denver teachers as a 10 percent average increase in base pay, a figure that includes cost-of-living raises the union and the district already agreed to in their master contract in 2017. The union’s proposal would amount to an average increase of 12.5 percent.

The actual raises that Denver teachers would see under either the union or the district proposal vary considerably depending on the current circumstances, educational level, and longevity of the teacher. Both sides have provisions that prevent teachers from losing money in the transition.

Cordova said the district is planning to cut $10 million in administrative costs, a figure that includes many central office jobs, to pay for teacher raises, as well as additional cuts to fund raises for paraprofessionals, bus drivers, food service workers, and others.

Money is not the only source of disagreement. The district feels strongly about keeping $2,500 bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, while the union wants more of that money to go into base pay and wants a salary schedule that allows early career teachers to earn raises more quickly.

Union officials were tight-lipped Saturday about how things were going during the vote at Riverside Baptist Church, home to one of the city’s largest church auditoriums. The proceedings, including three separate information sessions, were closed to the public and the press.

Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the DCTA, said the union would not be releasing any information about the number of votes cast or delve into other details until after the process concludes Tuesday, saying it’s the association’s policy to not discuss ongoing procedures.       

“We don’t want to sway the vote or in any way influence or pressure anyone,” he said of union members. “It’s their decision.”

Union officials said Friday that a strike requires a two-thirds majority of members who cast votes but did not describe details about how the voting would be conducted. A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have purview.

Denver teachers and special service providers, such as school psychologists, nurses, and speech language pathologists, must be union members to vote, but they can join at any time — including right before voting. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver teachers.

Those who attended Saturday’s information sessions described the feeling in the room as positive and low-key, in contrast to the often volatile atmosphere of the last few contract negotiation sessions with the district officials, which were open to the public and streamed live.

“I think it was optimistic, with a lot of solidarity, but it wasn’t that intense,” said Jason Clymer, a first-year English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School. Several teachers who came to the microphone expressed concern for their students, he said — including a nurse who was worried about delegating authorization to dispense drugs to her students.

Before negotiations ended on Friday, DCTA President Henry Roman said it’s important to remember that a strike vote and even a strike don’t mean the end to bargaining. Rather, those actions send “a big signal” to an employer about how seriously employees take an issue.

Similarly, Cordova said the district would keep talking and negotiating with the union.

“It is critically important that we reach an agreement,” she said.

The earliest that a strike could start is Jan. 28.

Cordova said she would ask Gov. Jared Polis to intervene if the vote is to strike. Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate an end to the last Denver teachers strike in 1994. That came after the state tried — unsuccessfully — to have a court declare the strike illegal.

Cordova said that while she disagrees with a strike she can understand why teachers would reach that decision. She said no corrective action would be taken against any teacher engaged in a legal job action.

“We will not allow for any kind of bad behavior on the part of our leadership teams,” Cordova said. “The most important thing we can do is create the right culture for our kids to learn.”

Kristin Lacario, an English as a second language teacher at McMeen Elementary School, said her decision to support a strike was challenging given the potential significant impact on families. More than eight in 10 families at the school qualify for government-subsidized lunches — a proxy for poverty — and 37 different languages are spoken there.  

But Lacario — who as a senior team lead also coaches and evaluates teachers — said she also has seen the toll the ProComp system can take on teachers. Teachers’ bonuses took a big hit last year when the school narrowly missed a higher rating in the district system, she said.

“Why were they not willing to put forth that little extra bit?” Lacario said. “To me it seems like a social justice issue, too, in the sense that the people on the ground, day after day, serving our kids in our community … why are we not being compensated in accordance with that?”

NO DEAL

Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.