examining gaps

At-risk students in some big Colorado districts have a better chance of having an effective teacher than others

PHOTO: Denver Post file

While at-risk students statewide were less likely to have teachers rated effective or higher in the 2014-15 school year, the gaps between the percentage of effective teachers in high-poverty and low-poverty and high-minority and low-minority schools varied greatly by district.

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages, according to data released this week.

Students in the second-largest district, Jefferson County, experienced the opposite: Kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools were actually more likely to have an effective teacher.

And in Douglas County, large gaps that showed poor students at a significant disadvantage in terms of teacher effectiveness were attributable in part to the fact that the wealthy district has so few high-poverty schools and so many low-poverty schools.

The data was released nearly seven years after state lawmakers adopted a landmark teacher and principal evaluation system. The 2014-15 school year was the first year it was fully in effect. Under the law, the state must look at the number of effective educators in schools that serve varying levels of low-income students, students of color and English language learners.

To calculate those gaps, the state education department ranked every school in Colorado from highest to lowest by the percentage of students in each of those three groups.

The state then broke each of those lists into four quartiles and compared the percentages of effective teachers in schools in the highest and lowest quartiles for each district.

The gaps in Denver were bigger than statewide averages.

For example, in DPS schools with high proportions of English language learners, 62 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher, the data show. In schools with low proportions of English language learners, 89 percent of teachers were effective or better.

That’s a 27 percentage-point gap. Statewide, the gap was 8 percentage points.

The numbers were almost exactly the same for DPS schools with high and low proportions of students of color: 63 percent versus 89 percent, respectively.

And in DPS schools with high proportions of students living in poverty, 64 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty schools, 84 percent were effective or better.

DPS uses its own teacher evaluation system, which meets Colorado requirements but is different than the state-developed system most school districts use. Denver also had a high percentage of teachers show up in state data as “not rated” in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons related to attrition, new hires and the large number of charter schools in DPS.

But while DPS officials said they’re still digging into whether the state’s gap analysis lines up with the district’s own number-crunching, they acknowledged that DPS is “not satisfied where we are” when it comes to teacher effectiveness gaps.

“One of the things we have been focused on is getting our strongest teachers to come to and stay in some of our highest needs schools,” said Sarah Almy, the district’s executive director of talent management. “…One of the challenges — and one of factors in that gap — is that we, as many districts do, struggle to retain teachers in our highest needs schools and consequently wind up with a greater proportion of new teachers in those schools.”

New teachers are more likely to be rated “partially effective” — as opposed to “effective” or “highly effective” — than veteran teachers, Almy said. DPS has been trying to attract more effective teachers to high-needs schools by offering them financial incentives, she said. This year, the district is also focusing on increasing teacher retention in those schools.

In neighboring Jefferson County, state data show 90 percent of teachers in schools that serve the county’s poorest students were rated effective or higher. At the same time, 82 percent of teachers in the county’s wealthiest schools earned one of the top two ratings.

Similar inverse gaps existed in schools that serve high and low proportions of English language learners and students of color.

Todd Engels, Jeffco’s executive director of educator effectiveness, said the district is studying the data but noted it could be difficult to draw any conclusions given how old it is.

“We’re thankful that we have some great teachers in those high-needs schools,” he said.

One possible reason for the reverse gap, Engels said, is that a dozen of the district’s highest poverty schools have been involved in a national pay-for-performance study known as Strat Comp to test new ways to pay teachers and identify what helps them become better instructors.

Teachers in the study were evaluated by both school administrators and trained peer evaluators that worked across multiple schools. Some teachers received bonuses up to $15,000 tied to their evaluations, while others received stipends. All teachers received a higher starting salary.

The research was funded by a $32.8 million five-year grant from the federal government. Engels said the district has not yet received the final report on the impact of the investment, but participating schools have been flushed with additional resources and training for teachers and principals.

One of the largest gaps based on poverty in the state was in wealthy, suburban Douglas County. In high-poverty Dougco schools, 42 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty Dougco schools, 79 percent were effective or higher.

But according to the way the state calculated the gaps, the district had 79 schools in the wealthiest quartile and only three in the poorest quartile. All three are run by the HOPE Online charter organization, a multi-district online school with learning centers along the Front Range.

Britt Wilkenfeld, director of research for educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said that because of the exceedingly low number of Dougco schools in the high-poverty quartile, the gap analysis there “might not be as meaningful” as in other districts.

“You’re really just looking at the gap between that school and the rest of the district,” she said.

Douglas County School District officials did not provide responses to Chalkbeat questions by the end of business Tuesday.

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.