Colorado: “We’ve got to look at things differently.”
Linda Barker is the director of Teaching and Learning for the Colorado Education Association. A National Board certified teacher and former Montana Teacher of the Year, her work involves developing policies, partnerships, services, and information that support personal and professional growth for over 40,000 members of CEA. She also serves as the association’s liaison to the State Board of Education, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Staff Development Council, the Colorado Department of Education, and the Colorado Association of School Boards. Below are excerpts of an interview with Linda conducted Oct. 26 in Pueblo, CO.
School Improvement; Building a Cooperative Culture
Most districts identified their schools very late in the year so most districts made some drastic changes almost at the end of (last school) year. There wasn’t a lot of time to plan, to develop a serious turnaround or transformation process, time to look at external providers. Everyone looked at it as a huge mountain to climb and then how do we put everything in place that we need to do for kids and teachers and the community in the schools that were identified as targets in the School Improvement Grant process.
Now the opportunities are also a benefit, because now schools, teachers and the community are trying to pull together to really look at, ‘so what do we really need; how do we look at student achievement and growth differently than we have in the past.’ So I think the climate and culture in Colorado have shifted from okay you’ve been identified, you have a label, now it’s shifted to now ‘how do we approach this together.’ I think the other thing I’ve seen across the state is all of the education organizations working together so it’s not just a district and school, it’s all together. So there’s been more of a cooperative culture in the state, really focused on the needs of our priority schools.
Colorado has I think its own unique context that it’s a choice state so individual districts, students and parents can choice in and out of schools within a district and there’s even movement in between districts. So especially districts that are very close together, students move in and out of those. On top of that we have a very open charter law and we have an increase in the number of charter and choice applications.
Also though, it depends on the individual district. Some districts are more rigorous in their charter applications and other districts like Denver are very open, so the growth in Denver, especially in looking at the turnaround and transformation are strongly suggested that they turn into charter schools rather than in other districts that we looked at in Pueblo and in Center and in Sheridan where they’re really putting all their efforts into making the traditional school successful rather than turning it into another model.. That’s a huge political issue in Colorado. Our state board is very charter friendly (and) several superintendents.
So it really does depend on the individual districts. Some of our turnaround and transformation schools are rural based, so that limits them in the models that they pick and the resources that they have to really concentrate on those schools. But that also brings them a real sense of community and a real sense of focus on a smaller level.
Some of our rural schools have their systems aligned quicker because there’s fewer hands in the pot and less bureaucracy. So the context across the state is very different. It depends on the district, it depends on the leadership in the district and it really depends on the size of the district and have they really focused on the school improvement model.
MSLA’s Teacher Leadership Model
We’ve created our own school called the Math and Science Leadership Academy that really came up with the belief system that it wasn’t the contract that was in the way or that it really wasn’t the district curriculum mandates – it was to give teachers the freedom to do what’s right for the kids. The school’s in its second year, adds a grade each year, now it’s a K-3 and so far it has validated the value systems that the contract hasn’t been in the way. They have a flexible day, an extended day, so they’re still maintaining the contract but they’re using some flexibility ion what that looks like …we’ll know this year because this s the first time these students are taking the std test statewide, but they’re feeling very strong about it.
What’s interesting about that school is it’s the culture when you open the door, you go into a school that is very strong focus n academics and math and science, but there’s ownership at the kid level at the parent level and at the teacher level. So it’s a different culture – somebody from the outside hasn’t come in and imposed some constraints.
The Perfect Storm: Mixed Messages and Stress
Our challenge for the Colorado Education Association is how do we have the conversations about what’s in the contract that’s a barrier for student achievement and what’s not…
Colorado passed a bill this year Senate Bill 191 that I think put a lot of concern and fear that it’s going to impact our contracts because it really removes the due process law and it requires a lot of accountability based on a definition of teacher and principal effect without those systems in place. So the political context in Colorado is around high accountability and if (teachers) are not performing they need to be removed from schools. What’s missing is a clear delineation of what that system looks like.
So we have a lot of mixed messages in this state as far as schools that are identified as turnaround or transformation; we have a new accountability system that will label districts more rigorously than they’ve ever been labeled before so that puts added pressure and then with Senate Bill 191 that’s going to hold teachers and principals to a higher degree of accountability around effectiveness and at the same time cutting the education funding to a drastic extent. We have kind of a perfect storm of all of these political and financial requirements going on at the same time.
The stress and morale of teachers is a critical factor that we have to take into consideration; how do we as an association and as members and as people who live in Colorado support our schools and our teachers and our students at a time when we’re cutting funding yet requiring a lot more accountability. So out members are getting confusing and mixed messages. It’s an interesting time.
More to Come on Teacher Evaluation
Senate Bill 191 requires a council that the governor appointed that will look at a recommended model across the state, building an evaluation system that’s directly linked to teacher and principal effectiveness…They are required to define what those quality measures are that teachers will be held accountable to and then assessed.
So then evaluation is very seriously on the mind of teachers. But what they really asked for was a system that’s open and fair because currently in Colorado we have 178 school districts and 178 different models of evaluation. So some teachers have very rigorous models and some have one or two pieces of paper.
The teachers are saying if you really want to hold us accountable and we really want to focus on student achievement then let’s develop a system so we know where we heading and what I’m going to be held accountable for. So we welcome that conversation. And then if you build the system, then how do we offer mentoring and professional development that goes with that system, not just jump to the end and hold me accountable without having the supports all the way through the system.
So I think it’s been a very serious conversation across the state. We wish it probably wouldn’t have some of the direct impact at the end as far as due process, because at the end if you are deemed ineffective for two years, then you go back to being a probationary teacher and lose your due process rights. So that’s a real concern of ours… We want a system that is very open and honest and that will really improve instruction and right now our evaluation system haven’t been built on growth or improvement, more so on compliance.
On Staying Optimistic
I have to be optimistic, just because our schools are in such a precarious position right now, really changing the model of what we know as schooling – the hours are different, the kids’ needs are different; we’ve got to do things differently – that’s a tough conversation for us. But if we don’t have that conversation, then we’re not part of that School Improvement Grant.
My optimism comes from being a strong voice in Colorado through the Colorado Education Association working with our partners in the state department and given a real realistic view of what the challenges and opportunities are for our children and for our teachers.
We have to be optimistic because not being optimistic means that we’ve given up and that’s not an alternative – we’ve got to look at things differently.