06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2011

Colorado Should Follow D.C. On Effective Teachers

Last week the Washington D.C. Teachers' Union and School Chancellor Michele Rhee took a collective step towards improving education for public school children in the nation's capital. This week the Colorado Education Association and state leaders have the opportunity to follow suit.

The tentative agreement reached by Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker and Chancellor Rhee protects teachers against instant or arbitrary dismissal, but takes major steps towards granting principals the authority they need over school personnel. It creates systems that evaluate teachers like professionals, and begins paying them like professionals too.

The agreement ends the practice of forced teacher placement -- a practice that places teachers into schools where they do not want to teach -- and replaces it with hiring systems based off mutual consent. When enrollment drops or budget cuts are made, teachers left jobless are provided the safeguards they deserve: a $25,000 buyout, early retirement or up to two full hiring cycles to find a job.

Here in Colorado, State Senator Michael Johnston has just introduced the Educator Effectiveness Bill, a package of legislation that is markedly similar to the D.C. teachers' contract.

The bill consists of four major components that aim to:
•End forced teacher placement and replace it with hiring based off mutual consent.
•Evaluate teachers and principals based partly on multiple measure of student growth.
•Ensure that tenure is gained based on demonstrated performance and remove teachers only when such performance is not seen over a number of years.
•Identify effective teachers, pay them more and provide them the professional career ladders they deserve.

This bill isn't radical. It brings data into the evaluative process, but doesn't pretend a teacher's effectiveness can be judged on a single state test. It balances the rights of teachers with the personnel freedom administrators need. It also acknowledges that not all kids are the same and not all students are as easily taught.

As a teacher myself I know certain groups of student pose a larger challenge than others. I know a single observation or a lone set of test scores isn't representative of my teaching as a whole or my students' collective growth. This legislation does not propose that teachers be fired based on a sole class's scores on one high stakes test. Nor should a teacher be fired after one rogue administrator's ten-minute evaluation. Such arguments don't provide teachers the professional respect we deserve.

But what the legislation does say is that habitual poor performance is unacceptable. Lack of student academic growth as seen through a variety of measures over a number of academic years simply shouldn't be tolerated.

In D.C. all parties have agreed that abject failure is unacceptable. Even Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the D.C. contract. Weingarten has historically been a steadfast opponent to even mild tenure reform, sheepishly arguing that incompetent teachers are virtually non-existent -- a preposterous claim. But Weingarten's views seem to have evolved. In a joint statement Parker, Rhee and Weingarten all praised the D.C. agreement saying it will "help improve teaching and learning in D.C.'s public schools."

Here in Colorado the jury is still out. Michael Merrifield, a former music teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, appears opposed to reform, as is the Colorado Education Association. But CEA president Bev Ingle's opposition seems to lie in process and not content, arguing that Johnston's bill interferes with the Governor's Council on Educator Effectiveness. I hope Ingle will reconsider. The support of the CEA wouldn't only guarantee the passage of Johnston's bill, but could be Colorado's ticket to millions in federal funding through a successful second round Race to the Top bid.

I'd encourage Ingle to pick up the phone and talk with Parker and Weingarten about why they decided to support the D.C. agreement. Something led D.C.'s leaders to the realization that reform really is what's best for teachers, and more importantly what's best for kids.