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Reform Impact on Teacher Turnover Debated

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Jane Reuter, Douglas County News-Press

Education reform may be accelerating the pace of teacher turnover not just in Douglas County but throughout Colorado, some experts say.

And while some say changes can be made to soften the impact and slow turnover, others maintain it is part of the process involved in reshaping American education.

Colorado and most other states adopted the Common Core initiative — a national effort to improve education standards that specify the skills and knowledge students must learn at each level. The state integrated the Common Core with its Colorado Academic Standards, and began implementing the changes with the 2013-14 academic year. The Douglas County School District designed and introduced its own version of the standards, called the Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, in 2012.

Teacher turnover is up for both entities, though the rate at which they are leaving rose more sharply in DCSD than at the state level. Colorado teacher turnover for 2013-14 was 16.65 percent, and in DCSD it was 17.28 percent.

From 2012 to 2013, the pace at which teachers left their posts statewide rose 13 percent. In DCSD, it increased by 30 percent.

Those numbers, compiled by the Colorado Department of Education, do not include employees who left after Dec. 1, 2013, in-district transfers or in-district promotions.

The changes and added job duties the new standards entail, combined with the impact of a now-fading recession that contributed to pay freezes for many teachers, are feeding those increases, one state education official believes. Under the reforms, teachers are faced with changing curriculum, new planning methods, increased testing and self-evaluations.

“It’s already a complex job,” said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “If you lay in a combination of no raises and significantly changing demands, I think it’s taking a toll.

“I do think educators are typically optimistic people who want to do the work and have a heart for it. But their burden is increasing, there’s no question.”

Education reform is happening rapidly in Douglas County, which describes itself as a leader in the “transformation of K-12 education.” The first Colorado school district to authorize a charter school, and the first K-12 district to introduce a market-based pay system and district-managed voucher program, it also introduced its teacher evaluation system a year ahead of most other Colorado school districts.

Since the original, reform-dedicated school board was first elected in 2009 and Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen was hired in 2010, teacher turnover has crept steadily up. It rose from just over 10 percent in 2009-10 to 17.3 percent in 2013-14, an increase in the rate at which teachers are leaving of 70 percent.

During those same years, the state’s teacher turnover also increased, but at a much slower rate, rising 27.2 percent.

The debate about turnover

The debate locally is whether the turnover is necessary, and what the numbers really mean.

DCSD spokeswoman Paula Hans points out its current teacher turnover rate is about the same as the state’s. But teachers’ union president Courtney Smith said that isn’t a pace the district has seen in the past or one it should aspire to.

“Douglas County used to be the destination district of the state, and that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “It’s unproven, unresearched reform they’re implementing from the top down that’s chasing teachers out of this district.”

Slowing the pace of change and collaborating on it with teachers likely would also slow the pace of turnover, Smith said.

Hans said attrition in the wake of great change is not unexpected.

“We are creating a model for the future of American public education,” Hans wrote in an emailed statement. “As part of this process, we are raising expectations and turnover is to be expected.”

National reform advocates, who are keeping a close eye on Douglas County, believe its reforms are a draw for many employees.

“You’re attracting new people to Douglas County who want to be in the classroom and work under those conditions,” said Kara Kerwin, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform. “People are excited about the prospect of being able to receive raises and bonuses based on their effectiveness. So while there may be turnover, you have to think about the people who want to get into the system because they like the reforms.

“That’s one of the goals of teacher reform — you really want people who want to be there. I think this is an example of that working.”

DCSD leaders said it’s important to look past the numbers. Their focus is on retaining, as well as attracting, the best teachers, an effort they say is working.

Under its new rating system, implemented in 2012, DCSD said 91 percent of the district’s teachers garnered good ratings — and most of them are reporting back for the 2014-15 school year.

“We are pleased that we have retained an outstanding 93 percent of `highly effective’ and `effective’ DCSD teachers,” reads an emailed statement attributed to school board president Kevin Larsen.

Teachers speak

Not everyone agrees that reforms are working, however. Current and former DCSD teachers see problems with the district’s efforts.

“In theory, pay for performance is a great idea, but (teachers) aren’t in sales,” Chaparral High School teacher Steve Block said. “The reality is, teaching is an art. It’s hard to quantify who’s good and who’s bad. How do you measure the love of geography I’ve instilled in a student?”

Block said new demands aren’t the issue. Rather, most teachers he knows believe DCSD’s primary focus is politics.

“Teachers are great with dealing with change,” he said. “What I’m not great with is dealing with bad change — reform for the sake of reform.

“The current direction of the district is forcing great teachers out. There are great teachers leaving the district. Parents need to know that.”

Former longtime Chaparral High School teacher Ed Anderson left his 14-year post in frustration for a teaching job in Adams 12 after the 2012-13 school year.

“I loved teaching in Douglas County, and if things were the way they were when I first got there — and were really for the first 10 years — I would have retired in Douglas County,” he said. “But I was disappointed in our school district. The reality is, if your employees are happy, they produce a better product. The way it is now, it’s just not a good work environment.”

Like Block, he pointed to pay-for-performance as an area of concern, as well as market-based pay and a lack of input from teachers in changes affecting their jobs.
Caughey sees significant challenges in the current educational environment, but predicts better days are coming.

“Asking education leaders to perform without providing the necessary tools and resources they need to do the job creates a less-than-desirable work environment,” he said. “I think we’ll get to a new normal where things will stabilize and it’ll feel more like the new expectations are a little bit more embedded in the daily work. But right now, it’s a matter of very rapid change.”

Kerwin also has heard repeated concerns said the pace of the reforms’ implementation.

“A lot of people have said, we should reserve a grace period,” she said. “That’s an echo we are hearing across the country.”

But, she said, the need for change in the United States is clear.

“We are lagging behind. We need to raise the bar, and we know when we raise the bar on our students, they will meet it,” she said. “We just need the right kinds of people in our schools to do it.”

DCSD, meanwhile, said it continues to provide not only a quality education for students, but is doing so with top-notch educators.

“The most important thing is doing what is best for DCSD students — having quality teachers in every classroom,” Hans wrote in an emailed response. “Not only are we finding the best teachers and administrators, but we are keeping them right where they should be — in front of our students, who deserve to learn from the best.”