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School Boards Push Teacher Accountability

Union leaders are actively challenging school principals’ newfound authority to keep the worst teachers out of their classrooms. The state legislative majority has shrunk from the chance to reward the best teachers. But some local school boards have begun to take the reins of reform.

Research shows teachers who get the most out of students can be consistently distinguished from those who get the least. Colorado has made progress in recognizing educators as diverse, skilled professionals and not interchangeable widgets. Yet most districts continue to pay teachers as if seniority and credentials are all that matters.

The 2010 Educator Effectiveness Act — originally known as Senate Bill 191 — has led to the creation of more meaningful evaluation systems. Starting next year, teachers will need three years of “effective” ratings to gain tenure, which can be kept as long as they avoid back-to-back “ineffective” evaluations.

The unfolding law not only provides a way to dismiss poor-performing instructors, but also identifies certain teachers as more than just “effective.” A few school districts have awarded extra pay to these “highly effective” performers. But most of the state’s educators who earn a top-tier evaluation are not eligible for an incentive.

The Colorado Education Association at first fought SB 191, using taxpayer dollars to give teachers a day off at the Capitol to lobby legislators. Having watered down the legislation and later how the law was implemented, union leaders finally have taken the gloves off.

On Jan. 29, the CEA unveiled a two-pronged attack that seeks to undo “mutual consent,” a linchpin of the reform. The union’s lawsuit and House Bill 1268 both seek to strengthen veteran teachers’ property rights to their jobs. If either attack is successful, principals once again could be forced to accept less capable teachers into their schools.

Not surprisingly, Coloradans strongly believe students should take precedence over ineffective instructors. An overwhelming 94 percent of recently surveyed adults agree principals “should never be forced to hire a teacher they don’t think is a good fit.”

The CEA-backed HB 1268 awaits its first committee hearing. The attempt to roll back common-sense improvements seems likely to fail. Legislators on both sides of the aisle who have stood behind SB 191 should see through empty and unpopular union arguments. If principals don’t have to give consent to incoming teachers, a system of meaningful evaluation ratings is almost worthless.

However, reform backers may be unsettled by the plight of HB 1262, which would have given highly effective teachers large bonuses to transfer to low-performing schools. In offering up a new, four-year state grant program, the bill’s bipartisan sponsors sought to send a signal. Colorado should encourage the best and brightest to reach the students who most need their talents.

HB 1262 was inspired by a national study that found similar initiatives in other states yielded real improvements in students’ math and reading achievement. Yet CEA asserted that nearly four years has not given schools enough time to properly identify “highly effective” teachers. On Monday, House Education Committee Democrats bowed to the union’s opposition, killing the bill with a party-line vote.

State lawmakers passed up an opportunity to lead the way in rewarding top-flight teachers. But following in the footsteps of Colorado school district performance pay pioneers, action is brewing at the local level.

A new conservative board majority in Jefferson County has affirmed that building performance into teacher pay remains a high priority. Another large, suburban district, Adams 12, is in the preliminary stages of updating the compensation model.

Meanwhile, the Western Slope’s Mesa 51 Board of Education has undertaken serious conversations about moving from the traditional salary scheme to a strategic compensation system.

Parents and other citizens should encourage all of these school boards to take bold and thoughtful steps in pursuing the challenge.

As 2010’s critical reform law survives union pushback, it will continue to show we can distinguish teachers enough to make important decisions about tenure and school assignments. Now more local leaders may act to pay teachers for great work, too.

Ben DeGrow (ben@i2i.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on February 27, 2014.