Colorado latest battleground for teacher performance

Legislation in Colorado would put teachers on probation based in part on student scores on standardized tests. It’s part of a trend around the country that teacher unions find threatening.

By , Staff writer

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    Melodie Koss teaches social studies to eight graders at Bruce Randolph School in Denver. Teachers in the Denver school system get merit pay increases based on better test scores or teaching in a difficult school.
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Colorado is the latest battleground for changing the way public school teachers are evaluated and protected in their jobs.

One provision in a controversial, fast-moving bill there: Teachers deemed ineffective for two years in a row could be put back on probation, losing the right to a hearing before being dismissed.

The bill has passed in the state Senate and will be up for a vote early next week in the House if it passes through the appropriations committee Friday. It would base part of teacher performance reviews on how well their students improve each year academically. Teachers would earn nonprobationary status by being judged effective for three years in a row.

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Colorado is vying for a share of more than $4 billion from the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition. States can earn points for meeting a range of criteria, including creating links between teacher evaluations and measurable student progress. Education experts credit the competition for accelerating statewide education reforms that could barely get a foothold a few years ago.

If the bill becomes law, “it’s going to be very significant for the Obama administration [as a] progressive change in education that’s tied directly to their Race to the Top,” says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national political action committee in New York.

In Florida, a teacher-tenure reform bill was vetoed recently by Gov. Charlie Crist after massive opposition from unions and others in the state. Lawmakers in Connecticut, which is also competing for federal funds, approved a bill this week that would tie teacher evaluations in part to student performance, along with other reforms such as raising high school graduation standards and more aggressively improving failing schools.

Critics say the rush for some of these reforms is creating a punitive, demoralizing climate for teachers.

“All of these bills contain this ludicrous proposition that the reason for low performance is the schools must have bad teachers,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” The relentless focus on teachers is a red herring, she says, when public education is challenged with everything from poverty to an influx of non-English-speaking students.

The Colorado bill represents “an erosion of due process for teachers,” Ms. Ravitch says.

The Colorado Education Association agrees.

“You are removing due process rights from someone who has earned them, and you’re throwing them back into a probationary pool where you can be let go for any reason or no reason,” says CEA spokeswoman Deborah Fallin. That’s one reason her group, representing about 40,000 educators, opposes the bill. (She notes that negotiations this weekend and possible amendments early next week could soften the union’s position.)

The American Federation of Teachers in Colorado, a much smaller union, supports the bill.

Teachers receiving unsatisfactory evaluations would in essence have three years to take advantage of professional development and improve their work before facing the possibility of losing their jobs, says president Brenda Smith. “If a teacher is unsatisfactory for three consistent years, then [there’s] a problem.”

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