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Tom Coyne Smart Jeffco Whistle Bomb

Every now and then, an op-ed drops from the sky like one of those whistle bombs in the movies. The resulting explosion gets folks all riled up, and usually leads to some highly entertaining (though not terribly productive) conversations. Today is one of those days, with a Denver Post op-ed that sees Jeffco’s Tom Coyne outlining one of Colorado education’s biggest issues: The difficulty of removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.

Coyne smartly argues that despite spending enormous amounts of money, Colorado districts haven’t been able to achieve their academic goals. Coyne quantifies these shortcomings in Jeffco at some length using some pretty convincing data. As he puts it:

As taxpayers, we spend an enormous amount of money each year to achieve these goals. For example, based on the most recent Colorado Department of Education data, in the 2012-13 school year, total revenue per student in Jeffco was $10,420, or over $260,000 for every classroom of 25 students. In aggregate, total revenue in Denver’s most affluent suburban school districts (Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Jefferson County, and Littleton) was about $2.5 billion in 2012-13.

Despite this spending, we aren’t coming close to reaching our student achievement goals.

That’s a lot of mula. Of course, many will argue that it isn’t enough. To them, the answer is to simply pump more money into a system that isn’t doing what we’d like it to, despite the fact that even establishment-oriented groups have found that throwing untold billions at American education hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing more than very small changes. And, of course, no one is ever able to tell us exactly how much will be needed to correct our course.

So what if it’s something else? What if there’s something more structural in the way? Coyne’s review of Colorado districts’ Unified Improvement Plans leads him to believe that it is adult behavior that’s getting in the way of meaningful change. His verdict:

By allowing teachers to make their professional association the bargaining unit for their employment contract with a school district, we have significantly reduced the authority of principals, superintendents and school boards, and created a critical obstacle to the implementation of changes that could improve our children’s academic achievement.

The essence of this obstacle is painfully clear to anyone whose child has spent a year with an ineffective teacher: Under the current contract structure, it is far too hard to remove these teachers from the classroom. And if we can’t do that, is it any surprise that some teachers’ behavior has been so resistant to change?

Yes, most teachers do a fine job. And yes, this is a touchy subject. Still, this issue needs to be discussed. And without question, union-driven “due process” requirements can make it very, very difficult to remove ineffective teachers when the need arises.

So what’s the solution? Well, the first step is to start tying tenure to teacher performance instead of simply years on the job. And as it turns out, Colorado’s yet-to-be-fully-implemented SB 191 aims to do just that. As Mr. Coyne points out, the other step is to return teachers unions to the more appropriate role of providing professional development and, when necessary, advocacy services instead of allowing them to be involved in employment contracts between teachers and the district.

It’s hard to ignore Mr. Coyne’s point, though I should also mention that removing structural obstacles alone will not be enough to drive improvement. Smart reforms have to follow, and those reforms will require smart conversations.

Sadly, there are few smart conversations to be found in the article’s comments section, which has blown up with a plethora of accusations against my friends at the Independence Institute. Oh, and the Koch brothers. Because what don’t they control? But maybe instead of slinging mud and unfounded accusations, we ought to have a serious, thoughtful discussion about the points Coyne raises. That’s not too much to ask, is it?