Denver Retracts Controversial Activist Teacher Evaluations

Published October 8, 2012

Following public outcry over requiring teachers to make students “question the dominant culture” and “work for social justice” to receive the highest rating possible on its teacher evaluations, Denver public schools has rewritten the language.

It now specifies that a “distinguished” teacher “encourages 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 “cultivates students’ ability to understand and openly discuss drivers of, and barriers to, opportunity and equity in society.”

Students in a “distinguished” teacher’s classroom should, it says, “demonstrate critical thinking, and appear comfortable questioning prevailing currents of thought and expressing dissenting and diverse viewpoints in respectful ways.

“They might eliminate terms like ‘social justice,’ but I don’t think they have any intention to eliminate the idea,” said Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s director of education studies.

The controversial language required top teachers to meet “cultural competency indicators,” including encouraging students to “take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice.” Such a teacher’s students were previously required to “appear comfortable challenging the dominant culture in respectful ways.”

“You’re going to have a contingent of teachers who don’t believe in leftist ideology who are now forced to be evaluated on something they don’t believe in and something that they oppose,” Stoops said.

Seventy-six percent of teachers disagreed with the original rubric, according to a member survey by the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, a non-union teachers association.

‘Green Light’ for Liberal Activism
A concerned teacher alerted Denver’s Independence Institute to the modified criteria.

“This is a green light for the liberal teachers in DPS to go ahead and promote their liberal views,” said Pam Benigno, the institute’s education policy director. “For the school district to promote an agenda using a teacher evaluation system is clearly an abuse of power.”

DPS refused to answer School Reform News inquiries about the origin of the new language.

“It sounds to me as though this has other come through contract negotiations from the union or it could have come from an activist board,” said Jon Fennell, director of teacher education at Hillsdale College. “The irony is unions have been almost vehemently against evaluations over the past decades.”

Preference for Subjective Evaluations
While similar activist terminology is not present in many K-12 teacher evaluations, Fennell said, similar ideology is often assigned reading in schools of education.

“There’s a lot of subjectivity involved in evaluating teachers and that’s by design, because those who don’t like these kinds of instruments will typically force states… to do teacher evaluations to have as much subjectivity as possible,” Stoops said.

Teacher preparation across the country typically includes similar progressive ideology, Fennell said.

“What [progressives] try to do, in their mind, is raise the consciousness of the teachers,” he said.

DPS Media Relations Director Kristy Armstrong highlighted that the evaluation system was a pilot program.


Image by Judy Baxter.