Stuck in the Middle

As students begin their adolescent years, middle school can be a time of monumental change. Yet, too often, these schools seem to fail their pupils. Here, we spotlight the local middle schools that are making the grade, and examine why others are not.

August 2012

Forced Resignation

Two years into a promising new era in teacher accountability, some educators aren’t so sure it’s an improvement.

why has colorado become such a bellwether state for educational reform? It arguably started with SB-191. The 2010 law tied teacher effectiveness to how well they helped their students advance academically. Because few observers regretted the demise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—the Bush-era program that critics called too narrow and rigid—SB-191 was a welcome alternative for almost everyone.

Two years later, SB-191 is so entrenched that it’s being observed and copied by numerous states. Although anyone might be wary of a legally mandated increase in workplace scrutiny, some teachers echo the misgivings they had about NCLB. “It’s made a lot more work for me, but I don’t think it’s benefited my teaching,” says Emily Vilkus, a math teacher at Denver’s East High School with 27 years’ experience. About 10 days per year out of her school year’s 170 are devoted to some flavor of mandated math testing. “Every day we assess is a day I can’t instruct them,” she says. “There’s almost too much data on kids now, certainly more than is manageable.”

The new evaluations also have a more difficult time measuring subjects such as social studies or art. Even so, many have applauded the evaluation of educators annually instead of every three years, which was the case before SB-191. “It just gives you this accountability that didn’t exist before,” says Reilly Pharo, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

SB-191 evaluations are based on only a few randomly selected, 45-minute periods of classroom observation per year, so they could be affected by a teacher—or the students—simply having a bad day at the wrong time. “I don’t know of another profession where someone would walk in unannounced to observe you for 45 minutes once per year and base your professional assessment on that,” says DPS teacher Sara Singh.

Given the national scrutiny SB-191 has received and the widespread appetite for educational innovation, teachers have little choice but to adapt. “I’m afraid it’s here to stay, because the whole industry is built around lots of people whose jobs depend on writing and scoring the tests and getting the data back to the schools,” Vilkus says. “It’s become a huge industry that someone’s making money off of, and it’s not teachers.”