Local: I fear for the future of education in Colorado 1

SB10-191 (“Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness”) has passed the Colorado state senate and moved on to the House education committee.

This is another bill in the tradition of “blame the teachers if students fail.” I realize that mediocre and downright bad teachers exist. We’ve all had them in the past and can remember them well, no doubt. However, I think it’s pretty unfair to teachers in general to pretend that outside factors don’t have a profound effect on a kid’s ability to make it to school and learn. Does the kid have supportive parents? Are they from an abusive family? Did they go to pre-school? Do they have a learning disability that no one has the funding to address? And so on.

Admittedly, I didn’t think of a lot of these things myself until my best friend started teaching at a high poverty school, and I visited her class to meet some of the kids. There were a lot of great, wonderful little human beings, and I think most of them were really doing their best to learn – they sure asked a lot of questions when I talked a little bit about rocks in Colorado. But looking back at my own childhood, I can also see that no matter how bright and attentive a child might be at school, they may not be able to provide the test scores you think they should if, for example, they don’t get meals outside of school lunches and breakfasts because their family is that desperately poor. Or if they go home and get beaten half to death by their father, or mother, or older sibling. Or. Or.

The proposed law would impose yet another round of standardized tests on children that already spend a shocking amount of time practicing for and doing tests as mandated by No Child Left Behind. And then the results would make up half of a teacher’s “effectiveness” rating, which could potentially cause the teacher to lose their non-probationary status, which is Colorado-speak for losing tenure. Oh yes, and there’s no funding in it for developing the new assessment tests either, which seems like a bad idea since the state funding for schools has already taken a big hit this year.

I see a lot of unintended consequences coming from linking a teacher’s career so tightly to standardized tests in the name of accountability. I can foresee some teachers being worried enough about the testing that emphasis will shift even more toward teaching to the test, which doesn’t do the students a whole lot of good in the long run. And I see this as a means to “scare” teachers away from wanting to work in high-poverty schools, because classically children in those environments test fairly poorly. High poverty schools have enough problems1 without adding “destroyer of careers” to their repertoires. Unfortunately, I think this bill was largely created without considering those implications, because the plight of students at high poverty schools – and the extra disadvantages many of the kids have – is largely invisible to those not directly involved.

I certainly understand the desire to hold teachers accountable; no one likes the thought that an awful teacher is soaking up public money while not doing their job. But I really, really, really don’t think this is the solution, and frankly, I think the “awful teacher” has become a boogeyman that’s distracting policymakers from attempting to address the very real problems in public education. When the state budget for education has been slashed, it’s a lot easier to concentrate on “awful teachers” ruining students than address the effect that drop in funding will have on necessary programs, or admit that just maybe, we need to pitch in a little more on taxes so we don’t shortchange the intellectual future of our state. When low wages and an ailing economy a preventing parents from being involved in the education of their children because they’re trying to make ends meet on multiple low-wage part-time jobs, it’s a lot easier to blame “awful teachers” than to try to figure out how to enable the parents so that they can help their children excel.

I’m proud to say that my state senator, Evie Hudak was one of the 14 “no” votes on the bill in the senate. I’ve e-mailed my representative to let her know what I think. Ms. Hudak had a lot to say about why she voted no, and if you don’t buy my less-than-expert arguments, hers are much more worthwhile:
Senate Bill 191, Principal and Teacher Effectiveness
Why I Voted NO on SB 191

1 – Like not being able to afford, I don’t know, paper.

One comment on “Local: I fear for the future of education in Colorado

  1. Reply dynamint May 6,2010 09:30

    In Japan, they have a very different system for hiring teachers. Prospective teachers, after getting their license, much pass several tests and interviews. At that point, a decision is made as to whether they will be full-time teachers, contract teachers, or not hired at all.

    The contract teachers are hired for a year (at a time), at which point they can take the test for full-time employment again.

    The full-time teachers are basically hired for life. Tenure-on-arrival. They are also provided with a ton of training. In my prefecture, at least, first year teachers have training at the board of education once a week, and the training continues every few years until they’ve been teaching for 10 years. At any point, if their performance starts slipping, they will get extra training. They can be fired for breaking the law or being horrible employees, and these days their bonus is tied to performance, but they are not threatened with being fired if their students don’t perform. And oh, they change schools throughout their career, so one teacher won’t teach only at low-poverty or low-level schools for life (i.e. and burn out).

    It’s not a perfect system, and I doubt it would work in America if applied as is, but I think there are some aspects that we could learn from. Like giving teachers lots of training and expecting them to stick around.

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