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Teacher's Pet Peeves

Janet Draper teaches English at Manual's Arts and Cultural Studies High School.
James Bludworth

A state program that was intended to boost student achievement in low-performing schools by giving teachers extra money is instead creating confusion and dissension. And nowhere is that being felt more than in Denver, which is home to the highest number of struggling schools in Colorado.

"It was a misguided attempt to provide incentives. Legislators don't understand how education works," says Janet Draper, who teaches English to Spanish-speaking students at the Arts and Cultural Studies High School, part of the old Manual High School. "Whether the intent was to divide teachers or not, that's been the effect."

The incentive program was created in the final week of last year's legislative session as an addendum to a lengthy education-reform bill; it set aside more than $50 million over four years for schools that are rated by the state as "unsatisfactory" or "low" because of their scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

The bill, which was quickly signed into law, laid out four possible scenarios that each school district -- in conjunction with teachers' unions -- could use to spend the money: give it to outstanding teachers; use it to attract teachers who have a Masters Certificate from the Colorado Department of Education; use it to hire or retain teachers in hard-to-recruit subject areas; or, in communities without affordable housing, offer it to teachers to help them defray living expenses.

In February, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) reached an agreement specifying that DPS would spend its share -- by far the largest chunk, at $3.7 million out of the $12.6 million available this year -- to reward teachers with Masters Certificates and to hire or retain teachers in hard-to-recruit subject areas, which the state defines as math, science, special education and "linguistically diverse education."

DPS and the teachers' union defined that last subject area as Spanish instruction in the district's English Language Acquisition (ELA) program. Although the law set the minimum bonus at $1,000 and established no maximum, DPS and the DCTA capped the bonuses at $5,000 and decided to let individual schools decide exactly how much to give each teacher. Schools themselves can also choose whether to spend the money on recruitment or retention, to give it only to certain eligible teachers or to give it to teachers who have a Masters Certificate, which is different from a master's degree.

But instead of gladly accepting the extra cash, which came courtesy of Amendment 23 -- the ballot initiative voters approved in November 2000 to increase school funding -- many DPS teachers are questioning the value of those dollars. "It might make a few teachers less disgruntled, but it's not enough money to make someone leave a job in the private sector to come teach. It's a token amount," says Draper, who isn't eligible for the bonus since she teaches English, rather than Spanish, in the district's ELA program.

"I feel that if an entire school is working to bring a school out of the 'low' category, the fair way to allocate the money would be to split it among all teachers," says Robert Parker, a kindergarten teacher at Fairmont Elementary School who is taking a break from the classroom this year to supervise student teachers. "I don't have a clear understanding of why they'd choose one group of teachers over another."

Phil Wade, a seventh-grade reading teacher at Baker Middle School, doubts the money will have its desired effect. "There are so many strings attached that it's not going to do kids any good," he says. "Our school's focus is literacy, and everything on the CSAP involves reading and writing -- even the math portion. It's not fair that it's only going to certain teachers. We all have the same kids.

"I find it unconscionable that the union would go along with this," adds Wade, who belongs to the DCTA. "They should have said, 'Screw this; it's not equitable.'"

According to DPS spokesman Mark Stevens, that wasn't an option. "In order to get the money, we needed to come up with a plan. It would have been a tragedy to have money to support teachers and then not use it," he says.

"I feel it was a bad law. They made it so it was not equitable," adds DCTA president Becky Wissink, explaining that the law was especially restrictive because it applies only to licensed teachers.

She and Stevens say their hands were tied by the strict parameters of the law and that, given such limitations, they came up with the most flexible plan they could.

Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, a labor organization that represents 35,000 educators and faculty members in the state, agrees. "All of those things Denver teachers are complaining about are in the law. It's not the district's and the DCTA's fault," she says.

Rather, she blames the legislature. Because the incentive plan was developed in such haste, she believes, it wasn't well conceived. "This was pulled together in the last three days of the session, and districts didn't get anything in writing until November 14," she points out, referring to a memo the Colorado Department of Education mailed to districts explaining how the program is supposed to work. "Some districts got the check when they got the memo.

"It hasn't worked out in reality the way the legislators had hoped," she continues. "In some places it's been divisive, but I don't think the legislature intended for it to be. It just hasn't been a particularly productive thing."

Of the 176 school districts in Colorado, 86 have low-performing schools. In those districts, there are 430 schools that need to make significant improvement, according to the education department, and 95 of them are in Denver.

Based on last year's CSAP scores, DPS had 74 low-rated schools and 21 unsatisfactory schools, giving it claim to the most funding in the incentive program. Trailing Denver was Aurora Public Schools, which had 33 low or unsatisfactory schools and got $1.3 million; behind Aurora was Adams 12, with fifteen such schools and $696,000. The amount of money each school gets depends on its number of students.

Although these districts got the bulk of the money, the majority of districts with low-performing schools are small and rural, and the law created unique complications for them. In some tiny schools, teachers in one of the hard-to-recruit subject areas also frequently teach other subjects that aren't eligible for the money. And for the many schools that got only a few thousand dollars, dividing it when the state had imposed a $1,000 minimum for each teacher wasn't possible. (The law doesn't require districts to use the money this year, so some may choose not to spend it just yet, Fallin says.)

State senator Pat Pascoe, who sponsored the bill, admits that the $1,000 minimum was a mistake, and she says she's seeking to correct it in Senate Bill 80, which she introduced this session. Still, she believes the law is a good one. "I don't think you can blame the state for [school districts'] narrow interpretation of the law," she says. "There was room in the bill because there were four criteria from which to choose. They could have chosen the affordable-housing option and divided the money among all teachers. I thought it was giving them the power and flexibility to do their own thing."

Wissink says DPS and the union didn't think it was necessary to use the money for living expenses. "In general, this is not a community that lacks affordable housing," she says. They decided against awarding the money to outstanding teachers because "it sounded too much like pay-for-performance, which we already have a pilot program for."

SB 80 also strikes the restrictions on which teachers are eligible for the money, Pascoe says. "If it passes, districts will decide how to spend the money, and some districts may allow faculty to decide."

But that could create even more problems. Maxwell Elementary School principal Robert Woodson thinks the law is equitable just the way it is. His school, located in Denver's Montbello neighborhood, has a "low" rating, and he welcomes the extra money; he needs to hire two Spanish-speaking ELA teachers and believes the bonuses will help attract them. He's also grateful that the district and the union agreed to disperse the money among teachers in certain subject areas; if it had been up to him to choose which teachers would get bonuses, it would have generated ill will, he explains.

"There's not enough money for every teacher to get $1,000, so how do you divide it?" he asks. "Am I supposed to say, 'You're a good teacher, you're not'? Then they'd be mad at me."

For now, the eligible teachers at Baker Middle School are considering pooling their bonuses to buy library books or school supplies. That way, Wade says, "Maybe we can actually do something for the kids with it."


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