When school reform harms
efenders of the status quo and those trying to empower students and parents in the K-12 system call themselves reformers. Even the doyenne of the status quo, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, claims to support education “reform.”
In Colorado, Denver-centric “reform” organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) promote centralizing decision-making power at the state level rather than in local districts. Their view of education reform is to promote one-size-fitsall solutions to the state legislature or costly ballot initiatives to benefit a few districts while treating counties like ours as expendable and our students as mini-ATMs.
In Colorado, reform used to mean empowering parents and communities by creating choice — for example, the legislation authored by then-state Sen. Bill Owens created charter schools and established open enrollment. Peter Groff also had a long history of defending charter schools when he was in the state Senate. Even initial legislation mandating statewide student assessments was a positive development. Choice requires comparison between districts and schools, which assessments were initially designed to enable.
However, for the Denver-centric “reform” crowd, “fixing” K-12 has come to mean using the state legislature as an uber statewide school board to press legislation that sounds good in press releases. A great example of this is legislation passed several years ago that, among other things, dramatically increased the hours student spend on assessments and requiring that districts evaluate individual teacher performance. Sounds good, except many of those new student assessments were deemed worthless for students, and the teacher evaluations were uncoupled from teacher compensation.
Apparently tromping on local control is fine, except when it would interfere with union wage scales. If the legislation was going to mandate teacher assessments, they should have mandated their use in individual teacher compensation.
Even more tragically comical, a portion of a teacher’s evaluation was supposed to have been tied to the new student assessments. But when those assessments were deemed to be ineffective, the legislature waived that requirement. But districts, under threat of sanction, were still required to have a minimum student participation rate for those assessments or face state sanction.
Over the past six years in Douglas County, we’ve done things differently. While we have supported well-designed and meaningful statewide assessments, we’ve also pushed back on meaningless assessments. In the last session, the legislature passed legislation addressing that problem, after howls of protest from organizations like DFER. We didn’t need the state to mandate individual teacher assessments, we just did it. Even more importantly, we made those assessments meaningful by tying them to teacher pay. As Groff noted in a recent report, by tying compensation to performance, we’ve retained 95 percent of our highly effective teachers and 90 percent of our effective teachers, while our ineffective and partially effective teachers left in droves.
Reform should mean empowering and expanding choice and local control. The one-size-fitsall reform agenda won’t work. Doug Benevento is a member of the Douglas County School Board.