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May 13, 2010 News » Cover Story

School house rocked 

It's May 4, and the Harrison District 2 Board of Education is having a special work session.

First on the agenda is listening to comments from teachers being recommended for "nonrenewal" — or being fired, so long as the board gives its blessing at its next formal meeting. This process takes place in every district, and it's generally lousy, a tumultuous blend of anger and sadness.

Still, some of today's stories raise eyebrows.

This school year, teachers were transitioning to "Effectiveness and Results" (E&R), Harrison's new pay-for-performance plan. Under the new system, teachers will be paid based on eight measures related to how their students perform on a variety of tests, and how their principals rate them in observations of their classrooms. Teachers who don't meet standards eventually will be dismissed.

In 2009-10, D-2 teachers had one foot in the new system and one foot in the old system. And some here today call that confusing, chaotic and unfair.

There's Rene Mundorff, the library/media specialist who says he raised circulation at the Mountain Vista K-8 School library by 88 percent, during a time period when his school saw a boost in its Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) reading scores. He says he was regularly congratulated on the great programs he designed for the children. But he was canned because he couldn't provide student achievement data proving that he's a good employee. Because, well, there isn't any.

Then comes Carrie Renaud, seventh-grade science teacher at Fox Meadow Middle School. Renaud shows graphs illustrating that her students' achievement was strong, and that her principal's evaluations had been quite positive. But last year, she was removed as department chair because of failure to turn in a paper. Upset, she commented on her Facebook page that she could use a drink. The next day, she says the principal approached her, said she had read the Facebook post, and was very upset about it.

After that, Renaud says her principal evaluations began showing dismal ratings. Her student achievement data remained high, but she says she was told she only got those high scores because her students were more gifted. Renaud taught nine students classified at "gifted." But she also taught 15 special-education children, one English Language Learner, and one child with a Severe Identified Emotional Disorder.

Next up is a first-year teacher who has brought a friend to speak on her behalf. The friend describes how the teacher, part of the distinguished Teach for America program, came to Harrison with high hopes and was, according to evaluations, meeting expectations. But in December the teacher filed a harassment complaint against her principal. Suddenly, she began being reprimanded on a regular basis.

At the end of the school year, despite receiving only one "unsatisfactory" score out of 125 on her evaluations, the teacher was labeled unsatisfactory and recommended for nonrenewal.

While the friend reads, the teacher, a petite and pretty young woman, sits with her shoulders slumped, looking wounded and embarrassed. A roomful of nonrenewed teachers and their supporters stare at the woman, then at the board.

Sensing the tension, superintendent Mike Miles, creator of Harrison's E&R plan, takes a moment to interject, addressing the board on the "misinformation" being spouted. He says he stands behind his principals' decisions, and the rules of E&R.

"You can't conclude that just because someone didn't get any unsatisfactory marks, you're satisfactory," he says.

Miles also rejects the idea that a teacher's student achievement results should balance out poor principal evaluations.

"If you are unsatisfactory in performance, you are unsatisfactory overall," he says.

A few people stare at him in bewilderment or disbelief. But he holds firm, his eyes pointed straight ahead and lips cemented in a frown.

The next teacher finally comes forward.

Courtney Cook taught ninth- and 12th-grade English at Sierra High School and coached volleyball and track. Dressed neatly in a suit, Cook says that no one trained teachers at her school on how to meet all the new expectations, though, she adds, one administrator did give her a few suggestions on how to cheat the system.

Instead, Cook says she worked hard and paid attention to her reviews. When one review gave her an "unsatisfactory" in "differentiated instruction" — making sure high-performing and low-performing kids are being challenged according to their ability — Cook took one of her personal days to attend a seminar on the topic. Then she came back and taught a class to her colleagues on everything she had learned.

She had already been selected by the class of 2011 to serve as its sponsor when she found out she was being nonrenewed.

"I feel like we've kind of been used as guinea pigs," she says, adding that she had initially been very supportive of Miles' reforms, and dismissed her colleagues' suspicions. Now, she says to the board, she sees that her co-workers were right.

"It does feel like sometimes you really have to watch your back."

Courting controversy

Since taking office four years ago, Mike Miles, 53, has becomes one of the most activist superintendents in the nation.

Even Stephen Sawchuk, a reporter for Education Week, a national publication covering education policy issues, says he was startled by the depth and breadth of Miles' reforms.

Sawchuk recently traveled from Washington, D.C., to explore Miles' plan. He was fascinated with its complexity, with the fact that it impacted base salaries and not just bonuses, and the speed with which it was implemented.

"Most districts have never even tried to overhaul the salary schedule," Sawchuk says in an interview, "and he's done it in three years."

But Miles says he didn't target the salary schedule specifically.

"We targeted the system," he says matter-of-factly. "This is a system that should be focused on achievement."

And Miles has reimagined the system completely, creating new standards of how to evaluate teachers, how to test children, how to ensure teachers communicate with one another. His aggressiveness has left other educators starstruck, and some media, too — a March profile in the Gazette painted the educator as a "warrior and poet" who somehow still "gets up in the middle of the night to let the dog out."

Many of his fans believe radical changes like these, particularly pay-for-performance, are the last great hope for the nation's failing public education system. And they've got company.

President Barack Obama is supportive of performance pay, and his $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant fund was set up to reward states for widespread reforms such as the ones Harrison has undertaken. (Colorado has yet to be awarded any of the federal grants.) Meanwhile, the Colorado Legislature has been considering Senate Bill 191, which would tie teacher evaluations to student achievement data and principal reviews, and change teacher tenure laws.

Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education member Charlie Bobbitt says he's supporting that bill, and Miles' actions. Albeit cautiously.

"I think it could be very good," he says. "But there's an awful lot of questions. I'm glad they're doing it [in D-2], and not us!"

Several Colorado school districts, and many districts across the nation, have some type of pay-for-performance plan. Denver Public Schools, for instance, has an optional program for teachers who want their pay improved based on their students' achievement.

American kids are falling behind other developed countries, and the achievement gap between white and minority students isn't going away.

Miles thinks greater "organizational efficiency" is the solution — using tools like pay-for-performance, curriculum alignment and hands-off policy governance. Others, including teachers, union leaders and one of Harrison's board members, believe those systems will fail schools by driving experienced teachers out, creating environments of fear and intimidation, and saddling teachers and kids with bureaucratic paperwork.

All the while, they say, employees will have no way to take grievances to the elected board of education members, and instead will have to deal with administration, which could breed corruption and favoritism. Recent news that Miles gave campaign contributions to board members, and accusations of election misconduct, have done little to quell those fears. (See "A rogue member of Harrison's school board lobs bombs at colleagues".)

Details, details

Today's lesson is rounding.

"Find your number, look right next door, four or less, just ignore," the children chant in unison, "five or more, add one more!"

The elementary school classroom is a whirl of activity. The teacher, an energetic woman with bouncing curls, scribbles on the overhead projector.

"So what do we need to do here?" she asks the class, pointing at the latest problem.

Immediately, the children respond, scribbling their answers on individual white boards, then hoisting the boards over their heads. The kids move their arms up or down to indicate when they're ready for the next challenge.

One little girl wanders to the front of the room. The teacher nabs a free moment to ask her what's wrong. The child has forgotten her glasses and can't read the overhead from her assigned seat. The teacher moves her to a closer chair, and the show continues.

In a corner of the room, three people in suits sit busily scribbling down notes. Everyone ignores them.

This is a typical day in D-2, and Miles explains all that's actually happening.

For starters, even as the teacher is evaluating the kids, the three suits — principal, assistant principal and Miles himself — are evaluating the teacher.

Every movement of the teacher and her students is closely scrutinized, as are classroom details. A few sentences scribbled on the blackboard describe the objective of the lesson plan, as required by the district. The children's white boards, their chanting, the way they move their arms up and down, are defined by the district as "multiple response strategies," another key to an effective classroom in the Harrison model.

At the end of class, the teacher will administer a small test, in this case a story problem that will take children two to three minutes to complete. The district calls this a "DOL" or "Demonstration of Learning," required in nearly every class, every day.

How well this teacher adheres to these set requirements will, at least partially, determine how well she's paid.

In fact, even the teacher's response to the little girl who forgot her glasses will be considered. Was she quick enough in responding to the distracted child? Did she do so without interrupting the flow of her lesson plan?

Miles also is grading the principal and the assistant principal, because in the Harrison system, administrators are only as good as the schools they lead.

And the schools, historically, have not been particularly good. D-2, which encompasses the lower-income, ethnically diverse southern and southeastern parts of the city, has never made No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress. Not only is student achievement low in Harrison, it's not improving fast enough. The Colorado Growth Model's three-year report shows that Harrison isn't growing as consistently as the state in reading or math (though it does boast above-average growth in writing skills).

While the bleak academic picture hasn't changed entirely since Miles started, the third-grade reading levels — as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program, and often considered one of the best indicators of the quality of a district — have improved. In 2005, 63 percent of Harrison third-graders were proficient or advanced in reading. In 2009, 69 percent made the grade.

Miles and his board, however, have always said Harrison kids can do better.

"We haven't been doing right by kids," Board President Deborah Hendrix says bluntly. "If kids can't read then they're certainly going to struggle in life."

In order to remedy that problem, Miles has spent much of his own time these past four years drafting reforms, with some assistance from his administrative cabinet and several committees.

The first thing Miles did was order that classroom doors in all 22 schools be open at all times — in a show of transparency.

Next, he began changing the way employees performed their jobs. Principals were sent into training meetings, and escorted by Miles into classrooms, where they were coached on how to spot good and bad teaching practices, and how to give feedback to teachers. Miles redesigned sheets used to evaluate teachers and principals.

He took charge of aligning district curriculum, narrowly defining what kids needed to learn, and when they needed to learn it. Teachers began receiving principals' feedback based on how they were teaching and how well their kids were testing. More instruction days and hours were added to the school year. Teachers began attending meetings together to look at student performance data and to give each other advice.

Oh, and kids began taking more tests. A lot more tests. Under the new system, they'll spend as many as 30 days every school year taking tests or preparing for them.

Miles sees no problem with this.

"You know, that phrase has gotten a bad rap, 'teaching to the test,'" he says. "Teaching to the test, if it a good test and a rigorous test, is not a bad thing."

And Miles, apparently, doesn't mind being tested himself.

Recently, with Miles' wholehearted support, the board adopted a new "coherent governance" model under which its only major function will be to monitor its superintendent. The board will reward him if he improves the operations of the district and students' achievement, and punish or fire him if he doesn't. Miles has to prepare booklets that are nearly two inches thick to make his case.

Most board members say the new model will allow them to focus on meeting their "vision"; others worry that Miles will control too many district functions, with little, if any, oversight.

Style points

It's April 14 and Miles is giving his final informational presentation on pay-for-performance to a few dozen people in a school auditorium. The crowd includes staff and teachers — some fans of the changes, some not — as well as representatives from other school districts who want to learn more about the plan.

After a presentation, Miles takes questions, including one from Mike Stahl, leader of the Pikes Peak Education Association, which represents more than a quarter of Harrison's teachers. Stahl says he's asking questions on behalf of teachers who are too afraid to ask Miles themselves.

Teachers, he says, are being asked to sign confidentiality pledges, agreeing not to disclose where they're placed on the pay-for-performance pay scale. Can Miles please clarify whether this is appropriate?

What follows can only be described as a showdown. Miles refuses to answer Stahl's question, saying the question should be posed to principals, not him. That's the way the chain of command works here.

But Stahl is persistent, repeatedly demanding an answer. The exchange escalates.

Another audience member chimes in, "Why don't you step up as leader of the district and answer the question?"

"Anybody who knows me knows I'm not afraid of making decisions," Miles snaps. "In fact, I get ridiculed by you for making decisions!"

But Miles still won't reply. He insists it's a question for principals.

"If you don't like the answer, too bad!" Miles says.

Stiff with anger, Stahl marches out.

Days earlier, Stahl had explained why he thinks Miles' outlook is generally unfair. He said the superintendent blames teachers for the entire decline of America's youth, a phenomenon no doubt influenced by other factors, including family relations.

Stahl says teachers work hard, often 60 hours a week, not because they want more money (studies have shown money isn't a big motivator for public employees), but because they care about kids. No one goes into teaching because they're money-hungry, he said.

He believes pay-for-performance will drive out experienced teachers, leaving "third-year teachers to mentor the first-year teachers." With so much focus on tests, he predicts that project learning, hands-on learning, research, critical thinking and field trips will disappear.

Though Miles says the use of growth models ensures kids' differences are taken into account, Stahl asserts the system is based on the premise that all children are the same.

"A child is not a widget or a piece of machinery that is produced," he said in our interview.

Stahl also believes the system will encourage principals to play favorites, and will drive out anyone who dares to show any insubordination to administration. Teachers who are fired will have a hard time finding work elsewhere. Meanwhile, teachers who want to stay in Harrison will face stacks of new paperwork, constant reminders that their livelihood depends on their ability to impress an administrator and get their kids to put down the right answer on the next test.

"When the teachers feel pressure, guess who else is going to feel pressure? The kids."

Stahl notes that E&R was never piloted in Harrison (meaning no single school tested out the system before it was implemented district-wide). And there is no definitive data showing pay-for-performance raises student achievement.

Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives has looked at merit-pay systems, a close cousin to pay-for-performance that award bonuses to teachers who raise student performance. According to the handful of small studies, there isn't much evidence that merit pay works.

Smooth sailing?

Other critics have cried foul about pay-for-performance for other reasons.

For starters, teachers won't have equal class sizes. Also, English language learners and kids with special needs won't be evenly distributed among teachers, creating bigger challenges for some. In Harrison, 14.6 percent of students are learning English, and another 11.7 percent have special needs.

Harrison school board member Victor Torres knows the strain even one special needs child can create. His 7-year-old is one of them.

"[My son] is not going to hit the benchmarks," he says. "So just imagine if you have two of my sons."

Additionally, studies show kids who aren't proficient have a harder time making steady growth in their learning than higher-performing peers. And children deficient in one subject may perform badly in another subject, no matter how effective the teacher is; for instance, a child struggling in reading may also fall short in math, because he can't read his math textbook. Finally, issues at home, from abuse to illness or death in the family, can also affect a child's performance.

On a similar note, E&R refuses to take into account a teacher's unique challenges outside the classroom. A teacher who's fighting cancer, for instance, may not be able to pump out the same results as a healthy teacher. A teacher who's friends with her principal may find that she scores more favorably on her principal evaluations — half of her overall grade — than a teacher who's recently disagreed with her boss, even legitimately.

Furthermore, teachers are not allowed to appeal their principal evaluations, except in cases where discrimination laws may have been violated.

So is this all really fair?

"Don't let perfect be the enemy of good," Miles says. "There is no perfect solution, because education is so complex. We're not going to be able to say that everybody's going to have an equal class so that it will be equally fair. You have 20 kids, I have 20 kids, but then we start looking at those 20 kids. Some have two parent families and some don't, some have parents in jail and some don't. And so what? We're going to try and make it equal?"

In a February "school climate survey," Harrison teachers and staff were asked to rate how they felt about their jobs, the district and E&R. There were a lot of positive responses. For instance, over 95 percent of 537 respondents thought their students' academic achievement would improve in the next two years.

However, when asked to rate eight factors that contributed to high morale, 331 respondents rated pay-for-performance dead last. And that hints at the difference between how E&R works for veteran teachers and new teachers.

In the first year, Harrison's new teachers will earn $35,000, quite competitive for the area. In the second year, they'll usually earn $38,000 to $44,000. By their third year, they could be earning $48,000. By comparison, under the old system a third-year teacher with a bachelor's degree could expect to earn $34,999.

Meanwhile, veteran teachers may see their salaries frozen for years on the new pay scale. If their 2009-10 salary puts them on the higher end of the scale to start, they'll be hard-pressed to be graded high enough to continue moving up. In 2008, principals recommended 112 out of the district's 685 teachers that were placed on E&R this year for higher placement. Only 72 got it. And no teachers were placed in the two highest categories.

Currently, more than 51 percent of Harrison teachers have been in the district for less than three years. Last year, D-2 had one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the state — nearly 27 percent. As of April this year, 118 teachers had resigned or been recommended for removal.

Miles says he's not concerned with the turnover rate. He notes that of the 118 exiting teachers, 82 percent were rated less than satisfactory. And the district is losing only two of the 112 teachers recommended for higher placement.

"If the poor-performing teachers leave," he says, "that's a good thing."

Out of here

It may come as no surprise that Miles is a military man. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and became an Army Ranger, but was severely injured in a plane crash that killed seven others. Miles left the military and went on to earn degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University, then launched into a career with the U.S. Department of State, serving as a diplomat in Moscow and Warsaw at the end of the Cold War.

Surprisingly, Miles says after all that adventure, he wanted to settle into the humble profession of teaching and took a job at Fountain-Fort Carson High School. But he spent only four years in the classroom before receiving a humdinger of a promotion, to principal of Fountain Middle School. From there, Miles was promoted to assistant superintendent of curriculum. In 2004, Miles also ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, but he lost his party's nomination to Ken Salazar.

A couple years later, Miles accepted Harrison's top job. It had taken him just 11 years to rise from first-year teacher to superintendent of an 11,000-student district.

Miles set up a five-year improvement plan at Harrison and began implementing it with a hands-on approach. Even now, he makes more than 140 visits to schools each year, in an effort to hold employees accountable and to ensure that his reforms are being properly installed.

He's not the only district leader who makes visits. When Torres drops in, there's something vaguely creepy about the way teachers nod knowingly when no one is looking. The winks. The smiles. The way they peep their heads out the door and look both ways before scurrying nervously into the hallways to whisper to him, their eyes constantly scanning to ensure no one is coming.

While he voted for pay-for-performance in January, along with the rest of the five-member Harrison board, Torres since has broken off philosophically from his colleagues. He's complained loudly that the board isn't being given any information about what's going on inside D-2, and that its role has become ceremonial

All of this has drawn ire from the other Harrison board members, who view him as a rabblerouser with a personal vendetta.

"Really what it boils down to is, his feelings got hurt," Hendrix says. "We apologized for that."

Teachers who oppose Miles' reforms, however, view Torres as a hero. But they're nervous about talking to him.

"How can we best support you?" one whispers.

Torres says he keeps hearing from teachers. "The staff is upset; this is in all the buildings," he says. "It's not this whole fluffy piece — I call it propaganda, because it's made to look good, but at the end of the day, it's people's lives."

The more Torres speaks out, the more citizens and teachers respond. Many residents who agree that the district is moving in the wrong direction came to an April 22 board meeting, causing a commotion.

Parent Taraya Bland called the meeting "a zoo." Bland says she's concerned that huge reforms may not be good for her two kids, and she's upset that parents weren't involved more in the changes at Harrison.

"It's not an open forum where we can ask questions," she says.

Bland confirms that some community members are even thinking of organizing a recall election for some board members. Deborah Hendrix, Richard Price and Linda Pugh were elected to four-year terms in November 2009. The other two board members, Torres and Keith Varney, are up for election in 2011.

So we'll probably be hearing a lot of news out of D-2. And given that Miles has been contacted by other school districts, eager to take the pay-for-performance plunge if it succeeds at Harrison, this Colorado Springs school district could be at the epicenter of educational discussion for much longer.

Miles says he'll be there to take the questions, the praise and the heat — for at least two years. After that, who knows?

"You know my background," he says. "I don't stay anywhere forever."

So ... where's all the money?

— J. Adrian Stanley

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