By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
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Cohn says she can't discuss Pishney because of personnel confidentiality issues (neither can union officials or DPS administrators). But Cohn can talk about her goals for Bromwell. "We have so many gifted and talented students that we look at everything through a gifted and talented lens," Cohn explains. About 20 percent of Bromwell's students are considered gifted by district standards, and the school is home to one of DPS's twenty full-time GT teachers, whose job is to adapt lessons for those students. "We want to deepen their knowledge, not just push them to the next grade level," Cohn says.
Doing so with math has been especially tricky, she notes. That's why she pushed a handful of strategies, including pre-testing students and then only teaching concepts that the majority don't know. "Our first-graders may come out of kindergarten testing at a first-grade level," Cohn says. "To take them through the first-grade curriculum when they've already mastered it would not be in their best interest."
Bromwell also offered math projects and computer programs aimed at increasing math skills this year, and focused on teaching strategies to solve more complicated word problems. For some teachers, modifying lessons for students at different levels comes easily, Cohn says; others need a little help, which can be provided through professional development programs. "As long as you can see people moving in the right direction, that's an effective teacher," she says.
The problem comes when teachers refuse to move. "When I talk to teachers about concerns, it deserves attention," Cohn notes. "If my collaboration is not reciprocated but is invalidated and rejected, I'm very direct in calling teachers' attention to that behavior and lack of professionalism."
But a bad evaluation isn't necessarily a career-killer. "You can't just evaluate a teacher and say goodbye," Cohn points out. "There's a series of steps."
More DPS teachers are going through those steps than ever before. In the 2005-2006 school year, seven teachers were put on remediation plans. In 2007-2008, that number jumped to eighteen. This past year, seventy of the DPS's 4,555 teachers were subject to remediation plans, twelve of them holdovers from the previous year.
"They really have been ramping it up this year — some would call it cleaning house," says Houser, the lawyer for the CEA, the umbrella organization for the DPS classroom teachers' union. "Denver seems to operate in more of a business-model mode. It's like a big corporation. Their employees are more like numbers than employees."
But seventy teachers is still a "tiny fraction" of the district's workforce, superintendent Boasberg points out, adding that the increase in negative evaluations is due to a district-wide — as well as statewide and nationwide — recognition that fostering good teachers is essential to boosting student growth. "There is a focus top-to-bottom in the district on doing all that we can do to have the most effective teachers in the classroom," he says.
That focus isn't new. As proof, Boasberg cites the Denver Plan, a blueprint the district first adopted in 2005 and whose most recent iteration emphasizes teacher and principal effectiveness. There's also ProComp, the district's five-year-old merit-pay system, which rewards teachers for taking classes, teaching hard-to-serve students and earning satisfactory evaluations.
Theresa Peña, who has served on the DPS school board since 2003 and was twice elected its president, agrees that teacher effectiveness is key. "The superintendent and the board have been very clear that the status quo of student achievement is unacceptable," she says, especially given that only half of DPS third-graders are reading at grade level and only half of the district's students graduate high school.
Parents aren't the best gauge of good teachers, Peña says: "They love their first-grade teacher, but that doesn't mean they're an effective teacher." If a teacher isn't up to snuff, she says, "we have to help them move on to another profession."
But Jeannie Kaplan, who's served on the board since 2005, is confused by the increase in negative evaluations. "It bothers me that we're going ahead with so many more of these kinds of things when we're really close to having a good system in place," she says.
DPS has been working on revamping its teacher evaluation system since January, when it received a $10 million grant to do so from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest grant in the district's history. Administrators applied for that grant after reading a report by the New Teacher Project, which looked at DPS's system for training teachers, as well as a few others. The report found that between 2005 and 2008, 99 percent of DPS teachers passed their evaluations — but 70 percent of the principals reported that there were teachers at their schools who should be fired for poor performance. When asked why they weren't, principals said firing teachers took too much time and effort. The report also found that only one-third of DPS teachers thought their evaluations were helpful and accurate assessments of their abilities.
"I think the system has been a very troubled and inefficient system that has done poorly by kids," Boasberg says. "There are no positive consequences for being a strong performer, in terms of additional career ladders, leadership roles and compensation. Likewise, you have an extraordinarily cumbersome and time-consuming process in the very few cases where a teacher has an unsatisfactory rating."