First Person

Voices: Social justice in teacher evals crosses line

Editor’s note: Since this opinion piece was published, DPS has changed its teacher evaluation language. For a distinguished teacher,  he/she must encourage “students to think critically about equity and bias in society, and to understand and question historic and prevailing currents of thought as well as dissenting and diverse viewpoints” and cultivate “students’ ability to understand and openly discuss drivers of, and barriers to, opportunity and equity in society.” As for the student behavior criteria in the teacher evaluation, it now reads, “Students demonstrate critical thinking, and appear comfortable questioning prevailing currents of thought and expressing dissenting and diverse viewpoints in respectful ways…”

John Peterson, an economics and U.S. history teacher at Denver’s East High School, says “social justice” is too subjective to be used as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Many public school parents would be upset to see their child’s liberal teacher rewarding students for participating in an Occupy Denver encampment. Others would be incensed to see a conservative teacher push student involvement in a Tea Party rally.

Denver Public Schools students at a recent rally
Denver Public Schools students participate in a rally in this 2011 <em>EdNews</em> photo.

Neither type of activism would be appropriate. Yet Denver Public Schools has added vague and political language to promote such expectations in its teacher evaluation framework. That language goes too far.

According to the new DPS evaluation, which will also be tied to mine and other teachers’ compensation, a teacher can only attain the highest level of proficiency if they “encourage students to challenge and question the dominant culture” and “work for social justice.”

This is troubling to say the least.

What does the term dominant culture even mean? If my students were to challenge the dominant culture of the urban high school, for example, they would fight against the political correctness and left-leaning ideologies that dominate in urban schools. This term could mean something else entirely in a different school setting or to a different teacher.

It is bad enough this rubric will be used to evaluate high school teachers like me. But trying to apply this standard to a first-grade classroom creates additional problems. An elementary teacher who encourages students to challenge the dominant culture likely would be asking students to challenge what they learn from parents at home. That is not the role of a teacher.

As a Denver history and economics teacher, I am very familiar with the names and stories of those throughout our history who challenged the status quo and made the world a better place. They possessed qualities that set them apart from others and made them unique. A new teacher evaluation system being implemented in DPS seems aimed at instilling these qualities in students, but the vague and blatantly political language that is used crosses the line.

Encouraging students to work for “social justice,” the second requirement, is filled with its own political implications that go beyond a teacher’s role.

“Social justice” is a loaded term

Anyone familiar with political history, however, can tell you that “social justice” is a loaded term used to advance left-wing ideologies like income equality and redistribution of wealth. So, to be proficient on this portion of the evaluation, are we supposed to try to turn our students into Occupy Wall Street protesters?

My professional association, the non-union and non-political Professional Association of Colorado Educators or PACE, recently conducted a survey of their members and found that 76 percent of teachers disagree with being evaluated based on this criteria.

In order for our students to become great, they need to be able to synthesize information and think critically. We should applaud them for formulating their own informed thoughts and opinions.

Teachers have the responsibility of providing students with the tools they need, like the ability to read, write and compute arithmetic. Once students effectively have been taught to think, they can decide for themselves if the dominant culture is worth challenging or if they want to promote social justice.

Urging teachers to encourage students to challenge the dominant culture or work for social justice essentially asks teachers to think for students.

I work hard to give my students the skills they need to be great, but these requirements cross the line. I hope the district recognizes the overreach and takes the steps to correct it.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.