We've been reporting about teacher sickouts and student walkouts at Jefferson County schools -- a reaction to complaints over moves by the conservative Jefferson County School Board, including a proposed history curriculum committee charged with encouraging patriotism and downplaying civil disorder and a new compensation package to which teachers object.
The history component is among the items on the agenda at a meeting scheduled to get underway this evening at the Jefferson County Education Center, 1829 Denver West Drive in Golden; a 5:30 p.m. study session will be followed by a 6:30 p.m. public gathering that's expected to be packed, with numerous groups planning protests in advance. As for the payment plan, which the board has already approved, it's a complicated issue that's not even well understood by Jefferson County Education Association president John Ford, the union head who's among its most vocal critics.
The compensation package has been shorthanded by 7News like so:
• Increasing the minimum pay for a Jeffco teacher to $38,000.
• A teacher with an ineffective rating or a partially effective rating with a non-probationary contract won't get a raise.
• There will be pay increases for all teachers rated effective or highly effective during the 2013-14 school year.
• A teacher with an effective rating will get a raise of 2.43 percent.
• A teacher with a highly effective rating will get almost double -- a 4.25 percent raise.
However, Westword has received several letters from critics of the plan, who argue that the method by which effectiveness will be determined -- primarily student-test results -- is patently unfair to a large number of teachers. Here's an excerpt from one of the most eloquent of these communiques:
Imagine you are a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL). By definition, none of your students are fluent in English. However, they are required by law to take the same standardized tests as every native English-speaking student. Your students may be good readers and writers in their native language, and their math skills may be equally impressive -- but those skills will not show up on the English-only test. Their scores will be low -- as would yours, if you were to move to China tomorrow, and take an academic test in Chinese any time in the next 5 to 7 years.
Your results on that Chinese test, like your ESL students' results on the TCAP, don't reveal much about academic proficiency, because the real content being assessed is language proficiency. So do your ESL students' low scores mean that you are an ineffective teacher? If that's the case, then you may as well have been labeled 'ineffective' before they ever took the test, because we already know that they aren't fluent in English. So are all ESL teachers ineffective by default?
What about Special Education teachers? What about teachers who work in schools where the students come from poor backgrounds, or where they speak non-standard dialects of English? By simple virtue of who they are, these students will earn low scores, and their teachers will be judged to be ineffective. It almost seems like the only way to be judged an 'effective' teacher is to work in an affluent school where the students already speak standard American English -- and yet many of the best teachers I've ever known are those who work in struggling schools, with linguistically and culturally diverse students, who will never escape the 'ineffective' label as long as it is wielded so stupidly as Jeffco's School Board does.
We sent Ford a copy of this letter and asked him several times, in several different ways, if these assertions were accurate -- and in the end, he admitted that "we don't know how they're going to implement this plan."
Moreover, he went on, "I don't think the district itself knows how they're going to implement this plan, either."
In answering that question, Ford offers some context.
"Let's go back over the past ten months," he says. "I think this whole situation is a bunch of issues that are coming together -- compensation just being one of them. We're recently heard from our superintendent, Dan McMinimee, that he was trying to reach out and work collaboratively on the problems that are going on. And our frustration is that for the last ten months, the Jefferson County Education Association has been reaching out and trying to do collaborative work with this school board majority."
Such collaboration hasn't happened, he continues, "and it involves more than our organization. It's the community as a whole. We've had people going to these school board meeting, thousands of letters and pieces of correspondence written to this board majority about concerns, and they were silent. And now, after a crisis starts, the superintendent wants to reach out and do collaborative work."
Ford stresses that the JCEA's devotion to collaboration is longstanding. "Over the last four years, the Jefferson County Education Association, along with the school district under Cindy Stevenson [McMinimee's predecessor as Jeffco superintendent], were working collaboratively on a compensation model. We were looking at merit pay when the new school board majority took over -- and that's when those plans and all the work that was done with this ended."
The same goes for recommendations from fact finders that "we should stay on the same salary schedule this year and pursue a new model next year, which we were in favor of," Ford allows. "Instead of rushing things, we wanted to be a little more patient: plan things out and make sure what we were doing doing was improving teachers and making sure there was a quality teacher in every classroom.... But the board refused to listen to those recommendations. Instead, they put in a new salary schedule that looked like it was created by the three members of the board majority" -- presumably Julie Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt, elected as a team this past November -- "in some kind of backroom deal.
"For 45 years, this school district has worked collaboratively with the teachers association. But this decision was made unilaterally, and it's being imposed on the teachers of this school district. There's been no collaboration, no conversation with teachers about this salary schedule.... And in the last conversation about the salary piece, this school board -- not just the board majority -- looked confused about the plan. I'm not really sure they even know what it looks like. There are so many questions they can't answer and red flags all over the place."
Granted, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement isn't something the school board cooked up independently. Rather, it's a part of Senate Bill 191, signed into law by Governor Bill Ritter. But Ford maintains that because the system was being rolled out for the first time, the most recent school year was designated as "held harmless" -- meaning that scores weren't supposed to be used for evaluation purposes. Nonetheless, he says the school board ignored that proviso, and as a result, "we now have effective teachers who could have been rated highly effective teachers who are left out of the loop. That's another one of our concerns."
Given that the compensation package has been approved, the clock would seem to have run out on the JCEA. But Ford says, "We're looking at all our options. Even though we don't have a real defined way of knowing what teachers are going to be paid, there is a legal process and other things we're going to do, too."
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Could fresh negotiations with the school board be among those possibilities? He doesn't sound confident. Superintendent McMinimee may have said he'd like to work collaboratively with the teachers, but Ford notes that "we haven't heard that the board majority wants to work with us at all."
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.