Denver Teacher Evaluations Promote Student Activism

Published September 19, 2012

Denver teachers will have to push students to “question the dominant culture” and “work for social justice” to receive a “distinguished” rating on the district’s new teacher evaluations this year.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association worked together to create the pilot system, according to DPS. It has been widely publicized as a national model of a teachers union supporting merit-based reforms.

An evaluation design team requested teacher feedback from 2011-2012 to help with revisions, adding the controversial language just before the 2012 school year. DPS teachers and principals comprise the design teams, and DPS administrators and DCTA members comprise an overseeing steering committee.

Now, to earn a “distinguished” rating, a teacher must meet a set of “cultural competency indicators,” including encouraging students to “challenge and question the dominant culture” and “take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice.” To receive the highest rating, a teacher’s students must “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,” said Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s director of education studies.

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

‘Green Light’ for Liberal Teachers
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 and those who are trying to do teacher evaluations to have as much subjectivity as possible,” Stoops said.

But using such explicit terms, rather than alluding to leftist ideology, is surprising, Stoops said.

“This goes back to the ethos of progressive education: using the education system to indoctrinate children,” 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.

Pilot to Permanent
DPS is currently reviewing the language after an outburst of controversy regarding the criteria, said Kristy Armstrong, DPS director of media relations. She highlighted that the evaluation system was a pilot program.

“Final language will be developed and reviewed collaboratively among DPS leadership and our teachers,” Armstrong said.

If the current evaluation becomes official, it’s not likely that the state will strike it out, said Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness for the Colorado Department of Education.

“Districts get to decide how they make evaluations,” Anthes said. “In the future the state is required…to make sure that every district has an evaluation system and make sure that the system meets the basic tenets of the law…The law does not go into the detail that this current story is about.”

The evaluation’s current politicization “suggests that it could go all the way” in the future, Fennell said.

“I think [the objectionable language] will be weakened but not eliminated,” Stoops said. “You will have the controversy, so they might eliminate terms like ‘social justice,’ but I don’t think they have any intention to eliminate the idea.”

Image by Judy Baxter.