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We May Disagree about Senate Bill 191, But There’s No Need to Rewrite History

Nobody in the education world is talking about anything else, so why not just make it official and call this “Race to the Top week”? The fallout continues. In an exclusive interview on Tuesday, State Board of Education member Marcia Neal told my Education Policy Center friends that we might see an effort to slow down or roll back Senate Bill 191: Colorado’s landmark teacher tenure and evaluation reform.

I’m not sure if she was thinking it would happen this week, but open up the opinion section of today’s Denver Post, and you’ll see a guest column written by Cherry Creek educator Brian Kurz titled “Go back and fix SB 191.” My modest suggestion would be for the author to go back and check some of his facts and assumptions. First:

[Bill sponsor] Michael Johnston authored SB 191 and pushed its passage as a way to better position Colorado for Race to the Top money. Johnston knew first-hand the obvious flaws with both the language of [sic] bill and the ambiguity of how to achieve its goals. Despite the lack of specifics, the bill was Colorado’s chance at a $175 million lottery.

While Johnston certainly expressed hopes of winning Race to the Top, I don’t know how many times he scrupulously stated that SB 191 was the right thing to do regardless of Race to the Top — something he expressed in public legislative meetings and on widely-heard radio interviews. By the same token, I can’t say we’ve heard Johnston expound on the “obvious flaws” and “ambiguities” in SB 191, but Mr. Kurz seems to know the bill sponsor’s mind.

What “obvious flaws” and “ambiguities”? Check out this rhetorical sleight of hand:

During debate about the bill, the Colorado Education Association and other concerned opponents brought up several problems with the language in the legislation. No definitions for “growth” or “effective education” were provided. No consideration was given to teachers of students with extreme truancy issues. No latitude was provided for students whose home lives made performance at school a challenging endeavor. Instead, Colorado’s teachers, families and students were told that a blue ribbon panel would decide what growth and effective teaching meant after the passage of the bill….

Where do I begin? First, who were the “other concerned opponents”? That’s right. CEA was pretty much all alone in opposing this commonsense legislation.

Second, the bill was clearly amended to give consideration to several mitigating factors (“EXPECTATIONS OF STUDENT ACADEMIC GROWTH SHALL TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION DIVERSE FACTORS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO SPECIAL EDUCATION, STUDENT MOBILITY, AND CLASSROOMS WITH A STUDENT POPULATION IN WHICH NINETY-FIVE PERCENT MEET THE DEFINITION OF HIGH-RISK STUDENT…”). Maybe not enough latitude was given for the columnist’s taste, but that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t addressed here.

Third, the term “effective education” isn’t included anywhere in SB 191 (a quick word search on the PDF would show that). But if he’s talking about “educator effectiveness,” check out the next point.

Fourth, the “blue ribbon panel” (aka the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness) was created by executive order months before SB 191 was introduced. Governor Ritter already had tasked the group — including several representatives chosen by the Colorado Education Association — with creating statewide definitions of “teacher effectiveness” and “principal effectiveness” long before Johnston introduced his bill. SB 191 focused the Council’s work on creating definitions of, and quality standards for, effectiveness that are based at least 50 percent in student academic growth (using multiple measures).

That brings me to the fifth and final point — which is the column’s complete omission of the barest hint that SB 191 (widely touted as the “Great Teachers and Leaders” bill) places virtually identical responsibility on school principals to be evaluated significantly on the basis of student academic growth.

The bill isn’t just picking on teachers. Anyone who questions the construct of “teacher effectiveness” such as Mr. Kurz argues against also should grapple with the argument that the legislation builds incentives for school leaders to be quality evaluators and to invest personally in the effectiveness of their teaching workforce. Maybe the author doesn’t want to fix that part of the legislation?

Now I don’t mean to imply that Mr. Kurz meant to distort the truth when he sat down to write his piece railing against SB 191. But he could have been more careful in making sure not to be misinformed. Whatever the cause, it seems some people are taking all the wrong lessons from Colorado’s unexpected RTTT loss. Which is their prerogative. Just don’t re-write history.