Column Title: ChalkTalk
By Dan Dougherty, Director of Communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools.
Comments and feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
With Thanksgiving in sight, I want to encourage the community to be thankful for the many great teachers and support staff members serving its children. When my extended family gathers around holidays, I’m always asked why America’s public schools can’t be like Finland or Singapore – the world’s top performing school systems. There are many reasons why we can’t be exactly like them, but there are also many things we can, and do, model after them. Having universally high, internationally benchmarked standards of learning come from these systems, for example. One key practice we need to improve on, however, is something only the community can do: hold educators in high esteem.
To be a 21st Century school district, we must return to having a high level of respect for teachers. In top performing schools the world over, teaching is considered a high-esteem profession. Teacher preparation programs at Universities have very high admission standards and attract the brightest students. Teacher pay is on par with other professionals like engineers, architects, and attorneys. The esteem, competitive pay, and tough entry standards result in a collective pool of top notch teachers. As professionals, they self-police their ranks to keep their quality high.
Recently, the American system of education has been so hyper-focused on accountability and testing that we’ve lost sight of the human condition at the heart of education: compassionate adults preparing children for adulthood. The focus has been on data: why our data doesn’t match or beat the data of other countries; whose fault it is; what magic bullet can fix it fastest. America has never been great on standardized assessments. The first international tests were done in 1964; we were 12 out of 12 – dead last. America had and still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. We teach things more important than test scores – creativity, innovation, imagination, and how to think differently.
We used to be a society that respected and honored teachers and support staff for their noble endeavor. But, decades of harsh political winds have beaten back some of this respect. Since the 1950s, politicians have slammed public education, and most recently tried to lay the blame on teachers. Why? Bad news about public education creates the sense of crisis key to BOTH parties. A sense of crisis fuels liberal demands for more money AND conservative demands for more vouchers and other approaches. Legislators have also continuously encroached into the classroom, creating an overladen bureaucratic mess that they lay at the feet of educators.
Meanwhile - and like Finland and Singapore - American universities have increased the entry standards for their teacher preparatory programs. Many now require a full year of student teaching before licensure is possible. American universities still struggle to attract the brightest students, because they often choose higher paying career paths like computer science. In turn, this reduces the total pool of teachers and increases competition for those entering the field. Districts must now compete actively through compensation packages and community amenities to attract and retain great teachers. Each year, we lose great teachers and staff to higher paying districts, then have a hard time attracting new staff.
As we address the other issues, let’s return esteem to the profession. Teachers are self-motivated to help children learn, grow, and make positive decisions. They see fireworks in a student’s eyes when he or she really gets a new concept. They take children of all walks of life, with wide ranges of abilities, and help them navigate a dense forest of information and social scenarios so students can enjoy a happy and successful life. They ignite curiosity, open eyes, fuel confidence, protect innocence, create joy, feed intelligence, soften sadness, stimulate creativity, and celebrate successes. And, they do so bravely in the face of daunting challenges: hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, illness, meanness, and mountains of regulations. It’s nothing short of miracle work.
These professionals earn our respect every day, and we encourage the community to join us in holding our teachers in high esteem. There are challenges in public education, but most are system issues, not teacher issues. Let’s strengthen our unity as teachers, parents, and community members to address the system issues together. And, while we’re working on the system-level issues, let’s be sure to continue to meet the needs of today’s students.
Education is a noble and challenging pursuit; please join us in giving thanks to teachers and support staff.
GJHS process of evaluating teacher was flawed
The teachers association actively works to ensure that every student in District 51 is taught by an effective teacher. Reaching the status of “effective educator” is difficult to achieve, and those who cannot reach this status are rightfully coached out of the school district on a regular basis with the support of the Mesa Valley Education Association.
For the sake of every student and teacher in our district, it is critical that we have a best-practice evaluation process to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. Teachers, administrators and our local school board partnered from 2005 to 2010 to develop and adopt a cutting-edge evaluation process, which has been used with great success to both sort and support our teachers. When used with fidelity, there is never a question of whether a teacher is effective or ineffective.
It is exceedingly rare for the teachers association to challenge a teacher’s dismissal. In fact, in the past 10 years it has only happened twice, which speaks to the integrity of the D51 administration and the success of our evaluation process. However, in our recent challenge, we strongly believe that the evaluation process was not adhered to, and that was substantiated by the judge’s findings which stated, “In reality, the administration only paid lip service to the formats of the evaluation process and did not carry it out in substance.” Because the evaluation process wasn’t followed, it would be impossible to make a determination about the teacher’s performance.
Parents, students, teachers and the community at large all have an interest in D51 administrators demonstrating fidelity to our best-practice evaluation process. It is at the very heart of our schools’ ability to effectively educate the future leaders in our community.
This letter is on behalf of the executive council of the Mesa Valley Education Association.
DARREN A. COOK,
Mesa Valley Education Association
Teachers spend most of their careers motivating students.Really, when you get down to it, that’s the main job.We motivate them to
study, to improve, and to become self-sufficient.We spend considerable effort mastering efficient ways to motivate, and the hallmark of the best teachers is their ability to build a fire within their students. What we don’t spend much time doing is motivating teachers.This
strikes me as a particularly important problem because there is so much in teaching that is demotivating: large class size, public disparagement of education, reduced funding, loss of independence, reduced voice, and a host of others (listen to a gripe session in the teachers’ lounge if you’d like a longer list of demotivating conditions).
Unfortunately, many of the demotivators are intractable.We can’t do anything about them.What we need is to figure out what we can do that is helpful.
It turns out that researchers who are not in education have spent a lot of time exploring what motivates workers in industry.One of the
surprises from this research is that offering more money for increased performance does not motivate people in jobs that require any cognitive skills.For purely mechanical work, like ditch digging, a monetary award for more production works, but for people whose job involves making decisions and being creative, more money for better results doesn’t improve their performance.
Weird, huh?It makes the entire discussion of merit pay suspect.
As Dan Pink said in his RSA talk, Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, “Fact: money is a motivator at work but in a slightly strange way. If you don't pay people enough they won't be motivated. What's curious about this is there's another paradox here which is that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work.”
What he says motivates employees more than money in a job like teaching is “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
I’m most interested in the “autonomy” component for this article, but the “mastery and purpose” arguments are compelling too.
As Pink points out, “Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives.”Certainly much of what we are doing now in education is a step back from autonomy.The unified curriculum, common core standards, common assessments, and standardized tests foster an environment where teachers have less control over what happens in their classrooms, not more.
Realistically, teachers can’t do much about the loss of autonomy.We live in a culture that has compelling reasons to limit
teacher autonomy (particularly for the people who believe that the system is being dragged down by teachers who aren’t doing a good job—a very debatable premise), so teachers losing some independence has become a part of our working environment.
What can we do?We are losing autonomy, but we know that autonomy motivates teachers.
Here’s my suggestion.It’s a part of my wish list of moves we could make to improve education.Pink related the practice of a
software company to give their employees one day a quarter to work on anything they want.They have no guidelines, no benchmarks, no limits.They can work on any project and take any approach.He said that the company discovered the one day where they
didn’t tell the employees what to do produced numerous fixes for problems they had with their software.
Unfettered employees, trusted by their company, given an opportunity, accomplished work on their undirected day that they couldn’t accomplish on ordinary days.That’s cool!
Autonomy in an educational setting would look different from a software company, of course.My idea for teachers to have a shot at this kind of motivating autonomy, that would be both good for them and good for kids, is to take one week of the semester where the teacher is let loose in their classroom to teach a passion project.During that week, the teacher can innovate, invent and teach what they think would best support the rest of the curriculum, but do it their own way.
The point of the week would to not be standardized.Every class in the district doing their own thing during that week, led by a trusted,
passionate professional who would bring personal enthusiasm, expertise and excitement to lessons that she/he created on his/her own.
Umm!Sounds yummy to me.And my guess is, that when alumni got together at reunions, years after, the lessons that stuck with them
would be the ones that were taught on that one week a semester that their teachers were let loose.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, don’t you think?
You can see his RSA talk or read the article.
by Jim Van Pelt
I am the principal at an elementary school in Grand Junction. I have been reading, with great interest and much frustration, articles around the school district administration and board members’ visit to the Douglas County School District, the upcoming board election and, most recently, Tuesday’s Sentinel article titled, “Leany: Union contract has ‘got to go’”.
To hear that our district administrators and board members traveled to Douglas County to visit schools saddened me. I have been the principal in this school for four years (the current year being my fifth) and I have never had the pleasure of having a board member come to my school to see what innovative, exciting things we are doing here. If those individuals would like to see staff, students and families working hard toward achieving excellence, I say they could easily have stayed closer to home and looked within. The schools in the Grand Valley are focused, student-centered and constantly evaluating to meet the needs of both the student body as a whole, and the individual needs of every child, while consistently meeting the ever-changing demands of local, state and national law makers. We are unified in our goal to provide the best possible education to every student.
Tuesday’s article said that Mr. Leany “has spent his time on the board learning about the district and researching reforms at other school districts to glean ideas for District 51.” I believe that he has been researching reforms at other school districts. I’m unsure as to how well he has learned about our district. Three weeks ago Mr. Leany came to this school to meet with teachers. I was confused because I wasn’t aware of the plan for any such meeting. As we talked it came to light that Mr. Leany was, in fact, at the wrong school. If he doesn’t know the most basic of information about our district – which building is which – just how well does he know District 51?
Further, Tuesday’s article quotes Mr. Leany as saying “teacher unions are ‘terrified’ of potential changes in tenure and compensation.” Union is a political buzz word that politicians use to incite voters. If the people of the Grand Valley would consider who our teachers’ union is, they would realize that “the teacher’s union” is truly those individuals completing the hard work of educating our children. They are the nine hundred plus teachers who work tirelessly to plan, implement, evaluate and adjust so that every child’s needs are met. They are the ones who work before and after contract hours, evenings, weekends, holidays and summers. They are the teachers who purchase, out of their own pockets, supplies, materials and resources when families can’t afford them and the school has no more money to spend. They are the people who pay tuition to colleges and universities (again, out of their own pocket) in order to continue their education, keep current with research-based strategies as well as to meet the requirements for state licensure. The teachers are NOT terrified of potential changes – to anything. Change is an integral part of the education system. They do, however, want change to be thoughtful, systemic, researched and, most important, be in the best interest of students.
When considering the election, as an educator who is part of the system, I say the system is not broken. We don’t need complete reform. We need to continue to move forward, constantly evaluating what we do in our schools, always being open to new ideas but also making sure that we are identifying what we are doing right, what is working and recognize the unique needs of our student population. The bottom line is that our number one priority must be students and what is best for them. Politics and personal agendas do not belong on the Board of Education. Our schools can continue on the path of excellence in education if the right people are leading us. My vote goes to the candidates who recognize that District 51 has many celebrations but understand that we also need to continue to grow and improve; Tom Parrish, Greg Mikolai and John Williams.
Monday, October 14, 2013DCSD School Board: It Should Be About The Students
Note: While the following is certainly education-related, it departs from my usual topics into areas that you may not be interested in. I sent this to both the Denver Post and all four of the community papers in Douglas County two-and-a-half weeks ago as a "guest column" (too long for a letter to the editor), but it appears as though they aren't planning on publishing it, so I thought I'd share it here.
The Douglas County School Board election is not about the union. Many of the articles you’ll read will say it is, but it’s not. It never was.
The problem in Douglas County Schools is not unions. Some folks clearly want to make the election about unions, but it is a minor issue at best. I’m not sure whether they see political value in making it an issue, or if they truly believe it is a major issue, but they are mistaken. There are even some folks on the union “side” who want to make it an issue, they are mistaken as well. The whole idea of “sides” is a big part of the problem. The issue is our students, and their learning, and whether we are providing the right leadership to meet their needs in a rapidly changing world. There is only one “side” to this issue - we should all be on the side of our students.
Whenever I hear the word “union” used in conjunction with Douglas County Schools, I simply substitute the names of my daughter’s teachers in every time someone refers to the union and see if what they are saying matches up with my experience. So when someone says “union” I hear Jill Buckland, Georgie Washington, Marci Murray, Elisha Giger, Hanni Gilbert, Bill Brown, Pam Cogburn, Karissa Swanson, Doug Baker, Dorothy Treat, Stephen Schmitz, Cameron Randolph, Debbie Rabideau, Pam Hunter, Dave Calloway, Carolyn Weinberg, Tom Grace, Maclain Looper, Lori King, Kay Kaul, Tim Rickman, Scott Melanson, Susie Ritter, Kim McNulty, Kelly Corr, Heather Haney, Judi Holst, Heather Igel, Holly Spurlin, Rose Dominguez-Haak, and a few others that I’ve inadvertently left out.
I want to be very clear, I do not know if all the teachers I just mentioned are union members. I suspect some probably are and some probably are not. And that’s the point: I don’t know which are which. Some of them were great for my daughter, others were just okay (not every teacher is going to be “great” for every student), but whether they are union members or not had no bearing on how good a teacher they were/are. So I’d ask every parent in Douglas County to do the same thing. When someone attacks the “union” as being the cause of the current discontent in Douglas County, I’d ask you to remember that it’s a union ofteachers, and to substitute the names of your child(ren)’s teachers in for the word “union” and see how well their arguments match up with your own experience.
I’m not going to tell you how to vote - that would be silly, I don’t know you or what you believe. (If you ask I'll happily discuss who I'm voting for and why and see what you think.) But I am going to ask you to do two things to become a more informed Douglas County voter. First, learn a bit about the candidates. Visit their websites, attend a Candidate Forum and, if possible, talk to people who both agree and disagree with them to hear their reasoning to try to get a better idea of what the candidates believe, what they will do, and what effect that will have on our students.
Second, and this is crucial, talk to some Douglas County educators. Talk to teachers and educational assistants, the people we trust our children with each and every day, and see what they think. How do they think it’s going, what do they think would be best for our students, and why? If possible, also try to talk to one of the more than one thousand teachers that have left the district in the last few years. Many of those folks left for reasons completely unrelated to the district, but some of them left because of what’s going on in the district. Ask them why they left, compare that to what you hear from folks who stayed, and then judge for yourself.
This election shouldn’t be about the adults’ agendas, it should be about the students’ learning. Become an informed voter so that you can make the best decision possible for our students. They deserve at least that much from you.
Full Disclosure: The author is a twenty-two year resident of Douglas County, a parent of a Douglas County student who has served on the School Accountability Committee at three Douglas County schools, the spouse of a Douglas County teacher, a teacher in Littleton Public Schools, and a concerned citizen who wishes we would talk more about students and learning and less about adults and agendas.
I write concerning the desire of school board members Jeff Leany and Ann Tisue to bash and smash the Mesa Valley Education Association — as well as those overpaid, under-performing, non-right-thinking teachers — with the aid of our Mesa County Republican Party’s triad of school-board designees.
Together they hope to substitute only those teachers whom this reconstituted, politicized board may approve.
Just a few years ago, teaching was lauded as a noble profession, requiring greater remuneration and respect, one to which our children should aspire. Most recently, our Supreme Court ruled in the Lobato school finance case that Colorado had no obligation to alter its funding system.
Despite the current hype that “not one more cent” need go to education because “they” already receive too much, Google “Colorado school funding rank” to obtain actual data and the national consensus: Colorado has been in the bottom of the barrel for years. That is what Amendment 66 is about.
Now, regarding Leany & Company’s promise to unleash the same divisiveness recently demonstrated nationwide by ideological excesses, if unfettered in our community, they may cause the shuttering of our schools and sufficient acrimony to last us all for years.
And where are our children in all of this? When you attack the teachers’ union, you are de facto attacking those very children. The teachers just want representation at the table, in a collaborative effort with the board, to better our schools.
Please support Tom Parrish, John Williams and Greg Mikolai for our school board and vote “Yes” on Amendment 66. This may require you to do your own research. When you do, thank your teachers for having this ability. They are anything but your enemy.
ROY K. FARBER
Political agendas should not drive our children’s education
Aa a retired teacher, with two adult children who attended District 51 and received a good-enough education to graduate from respected universities, I am still an educator and care very much about our schools.
After reading the recent front-page article bashing teachers and the Mesa Valley Education Association by school board member Jeff Leany, and then seeing the political ad from one of the “reform” candidates referring to “Union Control” and its responsibility for“30 years of educational failure“, I am deeply concerned. It seems obvious to me that some radical wannabe politicians, in the guise of reform, are attempting to control our children’s education, with the guidance and support of the radical right.
First, some facts: MVEA is not a union. Teachers may choose to join the association, or not. As a college student working summers in a steel mill, I had no choice but to join the union. A union implies uniformity (“the state of being one, a complex whole, a systematic totality“).
While MVEA does represent all teachers in master contract and salary negotiations, (someone has to), there is no uniformity among our teachers. Many teachers, for whatever reasons, do not join MVEA or pay MVEA dues, but still benefit from the efforts of MVEA members negotiating on their behalf. Contrary to Leany’s narrow views, MVEA does a lot more for District 51 than just negotiate contracts and support teachers.
Second, I have some questions for Leany:
Why does he think that paying higher salaries for hard to fill positions will lead to better student achievement? Just because someone is certified to teach physics, does that necessarily mean he or she is a competent teacher and deserves a higher salary? And, are we talking $2,000 more or $20,000 more?
Has he looked at the salaries of the “high demand” teachers on the Front Range? Does he think they would come running to a school district that has historically low wages, and has a school board that wants to micro-manage the curriculum?
What about the proven master teachers in “high supply” fields such as elementary classroom, music and language arts, many of whom have earned National Board Certification? Do we put them on a lower pay scale to pay for the “high demand” areas? The money has to come from somewhere, and since Leany and the three Republican candidates do not support a modest raise in state income tax earmarked to improve education, will they cut programs such as art, music and other subjects that are not on the almighty test?
Lastly, is Leany aware that tenure and the master contract, in their traditional roles, simply grant teachers due process if certain workplace situations arise? Many of these situations involve conflicts with principals. The same principals that are given three years to evaluate new teachers and release any incompetent ones without any due process or reason given. Some principals make the tough decisions, and some do not. This is not an MVEA issue; it is an administrative one.
School board members should generate policy and hire central administrators, letting professional educators deliver instruction, choose materials and develop curriculum.
The agendas of Leany and his followers go much farther than the scope of an effective school board. Blaming teachers for our schools’ problems, without looking at the bigger picture, and attempting to bully MVEA will only create havoc in our schools and drive good teachers away. Our children’s education is too important to have a political agenda interfere with it.
Candidates need reality check on what occurs in classrooms
In all of the literature about the current and potential school board candidates, there is never a mention of how much, if any, time each has spent in a classroom as a volunteer, aide or observer. If they did spend a prolonged period in a classroom, they might be more aware of what actually occurs.
Maybe they would get an opportunity to find out some of the problems a student brings to school, which create a distraction to concentration on the lessons. Examples: no food in the home, job loss, homeless, poor home environment, and many more.
They might find that some parents do not send their children to school with specific instructions to pay attention, listen to the teacher, follow directions and have respect for everyone. By volunteering in the classroom, one can learn that some parents do not provide their child with help to improve in subjects the child is finding difficult. Some individuals can’t handle one child but expect a teacher to handle 20-30 in a classroom.
Thus, my recommendation: All candidates for the school board should be required to spend at least a year volunteering in classrooms across the district. Maybe then they would be better able to decide what is best for the students and if they would do the teacher’s job for the same amount of money the teacher is being paid.
NANCY H. MILLER
McVaney uses his wealth for megalomaniacal vision
Andrew Carnegie was one of the greediest, most aggressive people ever to get filthy rich on the backs of the American people. Master of the con game, he and his “robber baron” buddies took advantage of the Civil War and westward expansion to plunder government coffers, exploiting every loophole to amass personal wealth.
But as death approached, Carnegie sought penance through philanthropy. His avenue to righteousness and heaven was, he believed, a better-educated America. So, he built about 1,600 libraries across the country.
Carnegie created an enduring public institution, which consists of greedy, aggressive people amassing personal wealth and subsequently engaging in acts of what they perceive to be soul-saving philanthropy.
The divided soul of Carnegie lives today in this guy, C. Edward McVaney, who is trying to influence our school board election. He amassed a fortune on the backs of the American people and is now throwing money at what he opines to be a philanthropic cause.
McVaney, however, has not been guided by angels to do anything nearly as cool as building libraries. Instead, he puts his money behind self-serving, highly politicized changes to the education system that conform to his narrow, megalomaniacal vision.
If he really wants to improve education, he should spearhead the building of technologically advanced schools that could have positive impacts for a century and more.
Mikolai puts student needs first in decision-making
Having worked very closely with Greg Mikolai over the past four years, I believe he is clearly the best candidate for the seat of School Board in District E.
There has been much written about the Mesa Valley Education Association supporting candidates in order to influence decisions about spending of the District 51 budget. With Mikolai, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mikolai is not influenced in District 51 decisions except by the students. He is very thorough in gathering information from all sources before making decisions, and he believes that all students can learn with the appropriate teachers, support staff, administrators and parental support. He listens to them all and makes educated decisions based on facts, not party affiliations.
Party affiliation and “reform” are a top priority for some, but Mikolai believes members of his staff are working their tails off with fewer resources than before and student growth reflects his belief. Over the past four years, Mikolai has overseen a 20 percent reduction in the district budget and worked tirelessly to see that the cuts stayed as far away from student learning as possible.
When confronted by the MVEA on salaries, Mikolai worked with the teachers to a consensus resolution of cutting days off the teachers’ contracts and freezing salaries. That’s not being “bought” by the MVEA, as some imply; it’s simply working with the teachers on what is best for their students.
I urge you to think logically about your vote for District E and not what your political affiliation directs you to do. Mikolai stands for students and deserves your vote.