Education officials continue to plot reform despite missteps in Race to the Top contest

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado’s failed attempt this week to net a major federal education grant won’t stop a new teacher evaluation system from unfolding — at least that’s the hope of state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, one of the chief architects of the school reform bill that was passed in the last legislative session.

On Wednesday Johnston participated in an education forum to discuss the implementation of Senate Bill 191. The event at the Auraria campus in Denver had been organized a few months ago by Reeves Whalen, an attorney at the local law firm of Burg Simpson and a Denver Democratic house district finance chairman.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, left, and attorney Reeves Whalen lead the Senate Bill 191 forum at Auraria last Wednesday.

Just a day before, Colorado was notified by the Department of Education that it had failed to win a $175 million grant from the Race to the Top federal program. It was the second blow for education and government officials in the state who had been turned down in the first round several months ago. Colorado had applied to receive a portion of the $3.4 billion in the second round, but found out this week that it placed close to the bottom of the heap — 17th out of 19th — and lost out to nine other states and the District of Columbia in nabbing a portion of the $3.4 billion in grant money.

SB 191, which will institute a new teacher and principal evaluation system based on student growth on multiple assessments by 2013, was the main component of the application package put together by Colorado officials to help sway the five judges from the Department of Education. The controversial legislation, which was narrowly approved by state lawmakers during the waning days of the session despite intense opposition from the Colorado Education Association, had been hailed nationally as a major step in reforming schools. Proponents expected the legislation to boost Colorado’s chances in securing the coveted grant money.

Johnson tried to make the disappointing news more palatable during the panel on Wednesday.

“The purpose of this bill was never to win Race to the Top. That was not the reason why it was offered and that’s not the reason it matters now,” Johnston said. “What critically matters is what we do to transform results so we know that all kids have a good chance of going to college or having a career.”

The panel included a host of SB 191 supporters and one staunch critic. Johnston was joined by supporters Mary Seawell, at-large member of the Denver School Board, Elaine Gantz Berman, a school board member from district 1, Rich Wenning, associate commissioner of the state Department of Education, Tracy Dorland, executive director of teacher effectiveness for Denver Public Schools, and Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association who opposed SB 191. Forty to 50 people attended the event.

Moderator Whalen opened the discussion by asking panelists, “How can we, as Coloradans, derive encouragement from this bill especially now that we have failed to acquire Race to the Top funding?”

Seawell, like most of the panelists, remains optimistic about the new law.

“This is the opportunity to create something that’s dynamic and that isn’t just about keeping, retaining and letting go teachers, but actually performing better instruction and how we can bring something in to improve things,” Seawell said.

Johnston, still serving his first term in the state senate, said despite losing Race to the Top there is enough money in a reserve fund to cover the $245,000 fiscal note to get the evaluation system off the ground. However, Johnston admitted several programs mandated in the bill would have to wait for additional funding to materialize.

One such program would have developed career ladders for successful teachers and mentoring for struggling teachers. Colorado also allocated $5 million of its Race to the Top proposal “towards accelerating its efforts to reduce high school dropout rates statewide,” according to its application.

“Those are the kinds of things that are not essential to get the system up and built, but would be great benefits for us to have in really recognizing and supporting educators,” Johnston said. “One of the real opportunities with Race to the Top was to build a much better tool box than what we have and that’s a real loss for us.”

Colorado is seeking another large Race to the Top grant to supplement improvements to the state assessment program, which are mandated by the 2008 CAP4K legislation. Johnston said Colorado will most likely win that grant and is poised to earn additional grants in the future.

“We’ve sort of hedged our bets. I think it’s hard not to win on that one,” he said.

Roman, president of the Denver Teachers Classroom Association, criticized SB 191 Wednesday for lacking structural substance.

“When we think about SB 191, I tend to think not so much about reform, but more about simple public policy and the unintended consequences of this public policy,” Roman said.

Roman testified against the bill as it made its way through the legislature. He was joined by the CEA, which campaigned heavily against the bill.

Race to the Top judges docked Colorado points for lacking support of the unions. CEA represents over 40,000 teachers in the state.

Gov. Bill Ritter questioned the objectivity of the judges who snubbed Colorado’s application.

“I was disappointed,” Ritter said at a press conference Tuesday. “If you look at three of the judges and average their scores we’re actually in the money.”

CEA initially supported Colorado’s first round bid in March for the federal grant but the state finished 11th in a losing effort. Only two states were awarded grants back then. Following the introduction of SB 191, CEA withdrew its support for the second round of the competition.

“They clearly in Washington have a tin ear about how we do things in the West,” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien in public remarks Tuesday. “They were very confused about how you let autonomy function in local school districts and still have common state roles that you work toward together.

“The western way of doing things just doesn’t seem to be understandable by people who have an east coast perspective,” O’Brien said.

A majority of Democrats in the state House opposed the bill and nearly derailed it with a brief filibuster on the final day of the session in May. The bill ultimately passed with unanimous Republican support.

Roman and Dorland worked in compliance on building a new teacher evaluation system for DPS that will be implemented district-wide next year. Roman said while Denver’s system focused on building a “foundation and structure that really impacts what happens in the classrooms,” SB 191 merely creates a series of “moving parts.”

“We’re significantly different because we’re dealing with the structures of support that SB 191 doesn’t talk about, which I think are the really true issues,” Roman said.

Panel member Berman addressed Roman’s comments, reminding him that DPS is far ahead of the state in its plan.

“DPS is probably one of the most progressive school districts in the state. But a lot of districts... aren’t quite where DPS is and need more assistance with educator evaluation,” she said.

Berman and the state school board are awaiting recommendations from the Council for Educator Effectiveness, which is charged with creating effective educator definitions by March. The board will then vote to accept or deny the definitions, setting in motion the formation of criteria for how teachers will be evaluated.

A prickly provision in the bill is how teacher tenure will be affected by the evaluations. When the evaluation is beta tested during the 2013 school year, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student growth on an assortment of assessments including the CSAPs. Teachers will be evaluated every year and must earn “effective” ratings in three consecutive years to earn non-probationary status, popularly known as tenure. Two consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings will propel the teacher to probationary status. The teacher will then have one year to improve.

Principals will similarly be evaluated, with 50 percent of their performance based on teacher effectiveness and student performance.

Dorland, who is also a member of the Educator Effectiveness Council, said there’s “still a lot of work to do” before recommendations are made in March. She said that the council is planning a multiple day retreat this fall to complete a large chunk of the work. So far the council has been meeting every other week for five hours she said.

Dorland said the council has discussed how to strike a balance between accountability measures for poor teacher evaluations and support programs to improve teacher performance.

“I can’t tell you how many times on the state council we’ve had the conversation about support and accountability being critical to the success of whatever we do, at whatever level we’re talking about — whether it be at the state level or the local level,” Dorland told the audience. “It is critical that we get the supports right in addition to being critical of getting the accountability right.”

Wenning said stakeholders across Colorado are working on a broad set of reform proposals, such as recommending ways to improve state assessments. He said SB 191 joins the grand process of delineating what the statute actually calls for in implementing new rules.

“Statutes don’t provide all the details. The goal is that we align all of this work to focus everyone that’s involved in education in Colorado — from the commissioner and state board, to every teacher — on maximizing every child’s progress to becoming college and career ready by the time they graduate. That’s the big idea here,” Wenning said.

Whalen later opened the panel discussion to questions and comments from the audience. Thad Tecza, a part-time University of Colorado at Denver professor, saw that as an opportunity to challenge a fundamental premise Johnston has used to sell his bill. Johnston said studies have shown that up to 70 percent of a student’s growth in the classroom can be attributed to teachers. Tecza called that a trivial finding.

“This is another example of teachers being scapegoated for variables that are largely outside the control of teachers,” Tecza said.

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com