Race to the Top: Union opts out of Phase 2 in beef with education commissioner Dwight Jones

Update, 1:30 p.m., April 15: This blog, originally published yesterday afternoon, has been updated to reflect the comments of Education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

A union that represents 40,000 teachers in Colorado is abandoning efforts to compete for millions of federal dollars available through the Race to the Top program in response to Monday's guest commentary in the Denver Post by the state's Commissioner of Education.

Although Colorado placed fourteenth out of sixteen finalists during Race's first round earlier this year, it remains in the running for up to $175 million available to the state that wins round two. But in a letter to Commissioner Dwight Jones dated Tuesday (and on view below), Colorado Education Association executive director Tony Salazar announced that his group wouldn't participate in the pitch because the op-ed "threw teachers under the bus."

In the piece, Jones linked potential success in the Race with a current senate bill that seeks to fast-track teacher oversight -- and a representative of the teacher's group admits that the CEA's move is partly a political leverage play to defeat the legislation, which the union believes will hurt teachers.

"We were very collaborative throughout the entire Phase 1 process. We've worked closely with the department," maintains CEA spokesperson Deborah Fallin. "The commissioner's commentary in the Post is what set us off, if you will. We're saying, 'Slow down with this bill.'"

Senator Michael Johnston -- a Democrat, former principal and 2008 Westword profile subject -- is pushing the "Educator Effectiveness" bill, which seeks to strengthen evaluations of teachers, as well as help the state weed out ineffective teachers -- a concept the CEA supports, and one that scores points with federal Race to the Top judges.

But the proposed measures in the senate bill would be too much, too quickly, for Colorado's teachers, Fallin says.

"The concepts sound great, but the details of implementation sound bad," she asserts. "This strikes at the core of what we're about."

The bill is in the first stages of the legislative process, having been introduced Monday. It's set to head to the education committee for review next week. Senator Johnston was not immediately available for comment; we'll update this blog if and when he provides comment.

At the time of this original post, Mark Stevens, communications director for the state's Department of Education, said his office had not yet seen the letter from Salazar. After having read it, Jones provided comment via e-mail:

"I appreciate the Colorado Education Association's concerns about Senate Bill 10-191 but will continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with the union leadership on the development of the state's new system for measuring, supporting and improving teacher effectiveness... Professional teachers deserve a first-rate evaluation system that ensures that quality instruction is taking place in every classroom..."

In the Post commentary that sparked the union's action, Jones wrote: "I believe passing a new state law addressing teacher effectiveness might boost our chances in the second round," saying that further local efforts to ensure oversight of teachers could fare well in the competition for federal dollars.

Fallin believes the two issues -- the state bill that seeks to rapidly regulate teachers vs. the push for federal aid -- should not be intertwined. Doing so, she says, ultimately hurts teachers and students.

"It is not only detrimental to our Race to the Top effort, but for our teachers," she says. "The Johnston bill is really a knee-jerk reaction to our loss of Race to the Top. He then wants to take the definition of (teacher) effectiveness and make high stakes decisions about teacher compensation and employment."

That duty, she says, should continue to lie with the new governor's Educator Effectiveness Council, which was created in large part to give Colorado an edge in the Race to the Top.

"Teachers, we know, everybody knows, that the current evaluation system doesn't work -- it's a joke," she added. "So getting a credible objective evaluation system in place is essential."

However, the problem -- and the criteria for victory in Race to the Top -- requires more than taking on teachers, she says.

"To some degree, it has become fashionable that it's the teachers' fault, and in fact, the Race to the Top application and scoring shows that we lost points clear across the board. Senator Johnston's bill deals with one part of one section of six in the application."

Here's the CEA letter:

April 13, 2010

Commissioner Dwight Jones Colorado Department of Education 201E. Colfax Avenue Denver, CO 80203-1799

Commissioner Jones:

I was very disappointed to learn of your Denver Post guest commentary supporting Senator Michael Johnston's "Educator Effectiveness" bill. I was surprised to see how closely you linked the legislation to the pending success of Colorado's Phase 2 Race to the Top application. Your commentary seems to suggest you have given up on the strong collaboration with teachers and the Colorado Education Association that was a centerpiece in Phase 1.

The CEA has been a committed partner in Colorado's Race to the Top process and application since the beginning of the work. Colorado was one of the few states that had a union representative on a state team interviewing in Washington D.C. in mid-March. CEA's Director of Teaching and Learning Linda Barker worked tirelessly with the Colorado team to present a product that would move our public education system forward.

The CEA has been engaged in the educator effectiveness conversation for several years. We have taken leadership roles in shaping legislation to create the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the educator identifier system, the longitudinal growth model, the TELL survey, and stipends to reward teachers with National Board Certification. Most of these efforts were done in collaboration with your department. In December, we worked with Governor Ritter and your staff to create the Governor's Educator Effectiveness Council focused on creating a definition of educator effectiveness and a new educator evaluation system that will be used to make high-stakes decisions about teacher employment and compensation.

The Governor's Council was a major component of the Race to the Top Phase I application and was applauded by the USDOE reviewers. Now that the Phase 1 results have been released, it has become fashionable to label the CEA as the scapegoat for the state's 14th place finish. Your Denver Post commentary shows that you have joined Senator Johnston on the bandwagon of blaming teachers and their professional association for Colorado's Race to the Top shortfall, instead of focusing on all areas of the state application that need improvement for Phase 2.

Rumors have been circulating for several days that the state does not need our Association's support for Phase 2 success. Senator Johnston has contributed to this in comments made in the Denver Post and elsewhere. Now your column reinforces this approach, which is the antithesis to the collaboration with teachers that you have stated the importance of so many times.

The CEA stands firm in our support for the Governor's Council for Educator Effectiveness to do good work in creating a meaningful educator evaluation system that can be used to improve teacher effectiveness. Shortcutting this process with political motivations to strip teachers of their rights does nothing to help build a better education system focused on teaching and learning. It is unfortunate that you have given up on the Council so quickly, especially when staff from your own Department of Education is spearheading this important effort.

The CEA will remain engaged and committed to the Governor's Council. We believe this is where the real work will get done -- not in shortsighted, hasty legislation. As long as you are tying Colorado's Race to the Top success to Senator Johnston's legislation, we are unable to remain partners in the Phase 2 effort.

During the Phase I interview last month in Washington, you stated that you were not willing to "throw teachers under the bus." Your support of the Johnston bill and its linkage to Race to the Top does exactly that!


Tony Salazar Executive Director

Copy: Governor Bill Ritter Lt. Governor Barbara O'Brien

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