DENVER — Students in the Denver Public Schools need to know reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but what about the fourth “r” — revolution?
District officials have scrambled to respond to a public outcry over language in the new teacher-assessment criteria that describes a “distinguished” teacher as one who “encourages students to challenge and question the dominant culture” and “take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice.”
The district’s “Framework for Effective Teaching” also said teachers would be scored on whether “[s]tudents appear comfortable challenging the dominant culture in respectful ways.”
John Peterson, an East High School social studies teacher, said he didn’t think spurring students to buck power fell under his job description.
“I think our job is not to challenge the dominant culture, but to prepare students for college or the military or the workforce, and be productive citizens,” Mr. Peterson said. “‘Working toward social justice’ typically comes as code words from the far left for big government programs and a redistributionist philosophy.”
After critics challenged the language, calling it more suitable to an Occupy Wall Street manifesto than a public-schools document, the district revised the standards by eliminating references to the “dominant culture” and “social change.”
The updated language says a top 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.”
Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said “the original wording wasn’t worded in the way that it should have been and [failed to] capture the real intent of what we want to get at, which is, we want our students to be critical thinkers.”
“If you look at people from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan, they might have come from all different parts of the political spectrum, but they all challenged many of the main tenets of prevailing thought,” Mr. Boasberg said during a Sept. 27 interview on KOA-AM’s “The Mike Rosen Show.”
The shoutout to three Republican presidents notwithstanding, critics argued that the district’s intent with the original criteria wasn’t to re-create the Reagan revolution but rather to push a left-wing political agenda in the classroom.
Pam Benigno, director of the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center in Denver, said a slew of questions remains. She is uneasy about the emphasis on “equity and bias in society” as well as the district’s refusal to say who put the original language into the document.
“Let’s face it, in DPS, roughly 50 percent of the children across the board can’t even read at grade level. In math it’s the same, sometimes worse,” Ms. Benigno said. “And yet they’re going to spend time and have teachers being concerned about these types of issues.”
Another concern is that the district was moving forward with the standards until Ms. Benigno, alerted to the wording by a teacher who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted a Denver television station.
“I applaud the district for removing the extreme language; however, I think the message has already been sent and there’s harm already done,” Ms. Begnino said.
The kerfuffle over teacher standards in Denver erupted amid a national push for performance-based teacher assessment, a process often resulting in friction among state legislators, school districts and teachers unions. A major driver of the Chicago teachers strike was a proposed evaluation system backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that gave greater weight to student test scores in judging teacher performance.
Denver school officials drew up the assessment framework in response to Colorado Senate Bill 191, legislation enacted in 2010 that requires the state’s 178 districts to implement new requirements for evaluating teachers and principals. The law requires all districts to have pilot programs in place by the 2012-13 school year and a finalized system enacted for the 2014-15 academic year.
The law requires at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on the academic growth of students, an increasingly popular reform promoted in schools nationwide.
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a teachers union, said the original document “wasn’t, as Mitt Romney said, stated elegantly,” but that “like President Obama said, we have to move forward.”
“There was no ill intent in the design of that,” said Mr. Roman. “I think what’s important is what’s there now and that we listened.”
Mr. Roman’s bipartisan assurances aside, Ms. Benigno advised parents to keep their ears open.
“I feel parents need to be on guard, talk to their children and listen to what they say,” said Ms. Benigno. “Nationally, people need to be looking for this to happen in their schools.