Shades of Jeffco: Dougco's Student Walkout

Yesterday, we covered some very interesting new research on educator evaluation reforms. While we were busy reviewing that study, our friends down in Douglas County School District were busy making news. Let’s catch up on that news today.

First up was a student walkout/protest at Ponderosa High School. Roughly 200 students paraded around with signs blasting Superintendent Liz Fagen and decrying what they see as concerning levels of teacher turnover at Ponderosa and other schools. They blame unfair teacher evaluations and pay under the district’s pay-for-performance system for this turnover. I think I’m having flashbacks to Jeffco’s misguided protests in 2014…

As usual with these things, the truth is a bit more complicated. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed teacher turnover in Douglas County. I took a detailed look at the issue back in 2014. In that post, we covered why state turnover figures (on which much of these discussions hinge) ought to be looked at with some level of skepticism. From that post:

The state’s calculations include teachers leaving after riding out their final year of employment under PERA’s 110/110 program, teachers on single-year contracts, teachers who were promoted or moved to non-teaching positions in the district, and teachers scooped up as additional losses due to differences in reporting timeframes between the district and the state. It also includes charter school teachers, the majority of whom are not affected by the district’s compensation system.

Back in 2014, the district’s own numbers painted a different story than the one being spun by opponents of the Dougco board using state data. From the same post:

Dougco’s percentages make clear that lower-rated teachers are leaving faster than higher-rated teachers. There’s nothing misleading about that. In fact, it’s a lot more honest than resting an argument on skewed overall numbers.

As for the “exodus”… well, that’s not really a thing either. Among the comparatively small percentages of effective and highly effective teachers who left the district, Dougco’s exit interview data indicate that the overwhelming majority (70%) rode off into the sunset for “uncontrollable” reasons, not pay- or district-related problems. Far from the catastrophic exodus evoked by reform opponents, it sounds an awful lot like the pay system is working as intended.

Granted, these numbers are from 2013-2014. The district’s final 2014-15 numbers probably look a bit different. With that said, it’s hard for me to imagine that the overall patterns have inverted themselves in a single year. Plus, we have good reason to believe that Dougco’s evaluation reforms and performance-pay systems are working well.

I think it’s great that students love their teachers and are willing to speak out for them. The problem is that there are powerful interests at stake here, and those interests have a very strong incentive to introduce misleading narratives into the conversation. Those narratives often intertwine themselves with the truth in such a way that we wind up with a pretty jumbled rhetorical mess. We learned that lesson during the APUSH fiasco in Jefferson County, and I worry that we’re seeing the same thing happen in Douglas County now.

Even some of the students at Ponderosa seemed to question the motivations behind the rally. From a Denver Post story on the protest:

Michaela Gilman, a Ponderosa senior, did not agree with her protesting classmates. She said students were taking the issue “a little too far” and putting too much blame on Fagen. Several popular teachers have left Ponderosa, but not all did out of dissatisfaction.

“Yes, there were teachers that disagreed (with district leadership) — but there are always teachers that disagree,” she said. “I honestly think we’re just trying to get attention.”

The cynical side of me believes that this is but the first step in the march toward a full-blown assault on Dougco’s (now one-seat) conservative majority in 2017. As I’ve mentioned before, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers seems to really, really want its union designation back. And after union achieved big successes in Jeffco, Thompson, and other districts by using tactics very similar to the ones we’re now seeing take shape in Dougco, it’s hard for me to believe that we won’t be seeing a lot more drama in the near future.

Let’s hope that voters will insist on being told the truth about the issues (and the players) this time.