Liddick: Colorado’s flawed education bill
Colorado’s General Assembly is about to make a costly mistake. In an absolute lather to win a very modest amount of money at stake in the Federal Government’s “Race to the Top” competition, our legislators have ginned-up an ill-considered bill, “Concerning Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness” (SB-191), which has sailed through the Senate and is currently under consideration in the House.
This avalanche of flaccid language, produced by legislators who evidently think they are paid by the pound of paper consumed, is a perfect example of a problem masquerading as a solution. It was designed to address a deficiency in Colorado’s application for the first tranche of Federal “Race to the Top funds: the absence of any measurement of teacher effectiveness. But if one hacks through the thicket of verbiage – the latter third of the bill consists of measures which are either “enacted” or “repealed” based on a variety of benchmarks elsewhere in the legislation – one comes out with only a few things in hand.
The first is touted in the bill’s title: “Educator Effectiveness,” and who isn’t for that? But as is usual for legislation of this type, the devil is in the details. How is effectiveness to be gauged? One of the bill’s concrete proposals is the creation of a committee within the Department of Education, to establish standards and measures for evaluation. According to section 22-2-105.5, half of a teacher’s evaluation rests on “… measures of student longitudinal academic growth.” That means passing tests, folks.
“So what’s wrong?” I hear a number of you mumbling. “Why shouldn’t teachers be evaluated on student progress?” And I agree. But as proposed, the bill assigns responsibility to teachers, without giving them authority – a recipe for disaster, as any student of organizational dynamics will tell you. A more effective step would be to tie student advancement to achievement on the same tests used to measure teacher effectiveness. This would not only give both sides of the educational equation “skin in the game,” it might also address the disparity in many Colorado school districts between test performance and progress through the grades.
But wait. A bit further on, the bill states that evaluation should also consider “… multiple additional quality standards, in addition to student academic growth …” What these might be are not spelled out. Clear so far?
There is also the problem of the other 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation coming from a single individual – the principal. Although the bill has wisely been amended to include the possibility of appealing a negative evaluation, the effects of personal animus, individual quirks or just plain poor writing skills should still be a worry. And there’s still the mystery of those “additional quality standards.”
Another concern is the section that deals with teacher assignment. The bill calls for an agreement from schools to accept each teacher dispatched there. In the words of the bill, this is to ensure that the teacher is a “… fit with the school’s culture and mission …” Again, an unexceptionable goal, virtually required by the current practice of assigning a disproportionate number of teachers of questionable ability to Title One schools. But it is a good intention fraught with the possibility of mischief.
To see why, here’s a thought experiment: Suppose I am an excellent teacher who happens to believe that Arizona’s anti-illegal immigrant law is entirely reasonable, given their circumstances. Judging from the recent petulant reaction to the law by the leaders of the Denver Public School system, I would not be a fit with their “culture.” Do we really want to ease the way for the further Balkanization of Colorado’s public schools based on politics? What’s next, economics? Dress? Skin color? Sex?
This is another example of what results when the loose language of diversity is applied to an area in which precision and clarity are called for. But clarity, too, would create problems since it would require a definition of the meaning of “culture” in the school setting. And some might find that definition … disquieting. So instead, we have a potential Trial Lawyers’ Perpetual Full Employment Act.
None of this is to say that the bill’s goals are bad. They aren’t. And they can be achieved, with a minimum of dislocation. But some additional tuning is required to avoid a cure that’s worse than the illness. So call our very own Rep. Christine Scanlan, who is one of the bill’s sponsors, and urge her to take another swing at getting it right. (303) 866-2952.
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