Editor’s note: Amy Slothower is executive director of Get Smart Schools, a charter school development and management non-profit.
I’ve been working in education reform for 10 years now, and I’ve come to accept that this business is full of frustrations and battles over divergent interests and an achingly slow pace of change. However, the A-Plus Denver committee meeting I attended this morning has me so aggravated that I am moved to do something I’ve never done before: blog about it!
A-Plus Denver is a group of concerned citizens working to push Denver Public Schools to pursue school reform that benefits all students. The topic of this morning’s meeting was the Educator Performance Assessment System that is being collaboratively developed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and DPS.
Basically, they are trying to come up with a system of evaluating teachers that everyone will sign-off on. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded this project and apparently work has been underway for at least 10 months now. I say apparently because there is little evidence that any progress at all has been made during that time.
And, as A-Plus committee member Bennie Milliner, a former DPS board member who now works for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, pointed out, this work has actually been under way in one form or another for more than 12 years with no measurable results.
Add to that Pro Comp, which passed five years ago and is costing Denver taxpayers $25 million, also with no clear impact, and the new CDE Colorado Educator Effectiveness Project, which is going to cost $1 million, and its hard to even fathom the energy and money that has gone into circling around and around this critical issue.
The presenter this morning was Henry Roman, president of the DCTA. He was asked to speak about the progress that the joint DCTA/DPS committee has made to date, but instead he essentially talked for the full 90 minutes about all the “challenges” of creating an effective teacher evaluation system. I’m sure a lot of those challenges are real, and I personally have no expertise in teacher evaluations, so my exasperation is not about the details of the work that is or is not happening.
I am annoyed with the attitude! I was reminded of a favorite African proverb: “A leopard is chasing us, and you are asking me, is it a male or a female?”
The bureaucratic headwinds that are bogging down this particular process are just one example of why I am such an ardent believer in autonomous schools. While 900 Grant Street is spending years upon years and millions upon millions of dollars trying to decide on minutiae like, “do classroom assignments have to be randomized for evaluations to be legitimate?” autonomous schools are actually getting the work done.
Granted, some are having much better success than others, but at least they are trying. They are using multiple measures for teacher evaluations, they are giving teachers more meaningful ratings than “satisfactory or unsatisfactory,” and they provide teachers with regular feedback from multiple sources – all of the things that the DCTA/DPS committee says it wants to achieve. Perhaps even more importantly, they are actually using this information to decide who gets to keep their job.
When I posed the question this morning, “has anyone on the Educator Performance Assessment System committee looked at what is happening around teacher evaluation at, say, West Denver Prep,” the answer I got was yet another list of “challenges” in comparing what a highly effectively school like WDP is doing to what happens in traditional schools. Well, isn’t that the point? Wouldn’t we like to take some of the lessons learned in great schools and apply them in the rest of our schools? Apparently, that is just too “challenging!”
I would rather see 100 creative new approaches to teacher evaluation being tested, even if some of them fail, than sit through one more meeting listening to what cannot be done. I have the privilege of working day-in and day-out with talented, passionate educational entrepreneurs who are starting new autonomous schools. These are people who dream big and who act boldly. And yes, they sometimes fail.
I have had some epic failures in my own efforts to start new schools including the far-from-successful Denver Venture School. But at least I, and others like me, take action. We understand that doing nothing is a guarantee that nothing will change.
I predict that if the DCTA and DPS don’t start to act more nimbly and don’t understand the urgency that the community feels about the sorry state of our public schools, two things will happen. First, autonomous schools will continue to gain momentum and the most talented teachers and leaders will flock to these environments where they have the freedom to take whatever aggressive action is needed to meet the needs of their students.
And second, the state will create more and more mandates like SB10-191 that will dictate how things get done rather than allowing local districts to languish for years mired in academic debates about how to move forward. Either way, the union and the district will have lost out on the chance to set their own direction.
And at least I won’t have to sit through any more meetings like the one this morning.
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