East Grand at cutting edge of Colorado education reform | SkyHiNews.com

East Grand at cutting edge of Colorado education reform

Tonya Bina
Grand County, CO Colorado
District Court Judge Mary Hoak, left, swears in new East Grand School Board members Taunia Shipman, Donald Scott and Chip Besse during Tuesday's board meeting in Granby. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News | Sky-Hi News

East Grand School District has become one of five Colorado districts blazing the trail toward education reform.

With the Governor’s signing of Senate Bill 10-191 last May, a new law in Colorado seeks to measure and quantify teacher performance.

The law also addresses policies such as teacher tenure, forced-placement, and seniority-based layoffs.

“We now know clearly, the two most important variables in a good education are the effectiveness of teachers and the effectiveness of principals,” said the bill’s prime sponsor State Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, a former teacher and principal.

With this in mind, the law aims to establish guidelines about what “effective” teaching looks like, and give a uniform expectation for teacher performance, with all schools adopting the new standards by the 2014-2015 school year.

And for the first time in Colorado, the law establishes a system to address teachers who are not performing up to standard, including a way to release ineffective teachers who have tenure.

A rural model

The East Grand School District volunteered as the only West Slope school system to put the law into practice, building policies and practices.

As the state establishes its definition of effective teaching, the East Grand School District has already started to craft an evaluation system within the state’s proposed guidelines.

“We felt it was important for the West Slope to have a voice,” said East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas.

The district will be the first rural Colorado school to implement the new law, paving the way for similar schools.

According to Johnston, versions of this ground-breaking Colorado law are being introduced in 14 other states.

“It’s become a real national model for education reform,” he said.

But such reform is not without its challenges.

“It was the most controversial education bill in the last 50 years,” Johnston said.

The union view

The Colorado Education Association teachers union hotly opposed the bill for its “vague” language that leaves too much up to interpretation, according to Mike Wetzel of the Association.

Although the Association has long recognized the need for a statewide system that addresses teacher effectiveness and evaluations, Wetzel said, the employment language of the bill covering “hiring, firing and transferring” is vaguely defined.

“In one way, you can see it as a ‘support teachers bill;’ another way you could see it as a ‘fire-for-no-good-reason bill’,” he said.

“The great majority of great teachers see this as support,” Johnston said.

And Wetzel voiced concern for the impact it could have on school districts when times are tight.

“It’s very hard to implement any type of reform when (the state) is constantly cutting millions of dollars from education programs every year,” he said.

In spite of its opposition during passage of the bill, the Association has since set its views on the shelf to assist the State Board of Education in crafting effective teacher standards, which the General Assembly is required to review during the 2012 session.

The law’s main thrust, according to Heather Fox of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, is to form an “evaluation system that grows what’s good.”

For example, one component of the law, “career ladders,” attempts to create a reward system for strong performers, such as a way for talented teachers to receive compensation for mentoring other teachers.

“We don’t believe the way to get to where we need to be is by labeling, sorting, hiring and firing teachers,” Fox said. “Instead, we believe in growing what’s good and giving teachers the support they need to do their job.”

But the law does outline a process for dismissing low-performing teachers. If a teacher with tenure does not meet the standards for teacher effectiveness over two consecutive years and fails to respond to remediation, the administration of the school would have the option to dismiss that person, and the teacher would lose his or her tenure.

“It helps administrators in selecting high-quality staff,” said East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas, passing more “accountability” on to teachers.

In the current system, tenured teachers could not be dismissed for reasons of doing their job poorly, only for criminal, immoral or unethical behavior.

This can cause situations that are “extremely frustrating,” Karas said, for the time and resources a district spends on “trying to figure out how to manage (a low-performing teacher) in a district.”

Portable tenure

But the superintendent lacks confidence in other parts of the law, such as one change that allows teachers to take their tenure with them when switching school districts.

Under the current system, a teacher has a three year probationary period before achieving tenure when hired by a certain district. If it turns out that teacher is not a good fit, the district may let that teacher go within the probationary period.

If the teacher receives tenure after three years, the teacher may switch schools within the district without losing tenure; but if that teacher switches districts, the teacher loses tenure.

Under the new law, a teacher’s tenure is portable from district to district, which Karas said eliminates the probationary status for some, creating a new risk in hiring teachers from out-of-district.

But supporters of the law point out that the tenured teacher will have to meet evaluation standards, and if one doesn’t over a two-year period, the process can be set in motion to dismiss that teacher.

And dismissing teachers is always at the full discretion of the administration, Johnston said, not forced by the law.

The law, he said, serves to establish job protections based on performance, not tenure, something that has long been accepted in the business and sports world, and should also be in education.

Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603

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