When school re­form harms

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Doug Ben­evento

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.

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