Look Before We LEAP Again

Photo adapted from  YouTube .

Photo adapted from YouTube.

Last week, the DCTA and DPS bargaining teams sat down to negotiate LEAP, the evaluation system for Denver teachers. The negotiations featured many heartfelt testimonies from teachers who have suffered under the evaluation system's inconsistencies and lack of checks and balances. Even DPS representatives couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of what Denver teachers have had to endure over the last few years. The night featured several theatrical moments, including one where virtually all teachers stood up in an informal vote of no confidence in LEAP.

Clearly, a large number of DPS teachers are fed up with LEAP, and to address these concerns, DCTA is proposing a joint task force consisting of DCTA members and DPS officials to collaborate and create a new evaluation system.

It's a solid proposal, but before we can fix or replace LEAP, we must acknowledge the role that DCTA played in creating the evaluation system and analyze why our union was unable to meaningfully challenge the District's implementation of the system once it became more punitive. If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Our Union's role in designing and piloting LEAP

At this past November's Rep Council meeting, DCTA leaders were pushing changes to our bylaws that included making our union's highest offices exclusive to non-probationary teachers. During the discussion, a member in the audience brought up concerns that this change would enable DPS to use LEAP to selectively choose who would sit across the table from them. DCTA President Henry Roman brushed aside these concerns and downplayed our union's involvement in creating LEAP.

But while it might be politically advantageous for Roman to distance himself from LEAP now, previous news coverage and signed agreements show that he, and several other DCTA leaders, were intimately involved in the creation of LEAP.

In a 2014 interview with Chalkbeat, Roman complimented DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his administration's willingness to work with DCTA on LEAP. “There are ups and downs — like any other relationship. But we’ve worked closely with DPS and the Gates Foundation with the LEAP process,” Roman said.

Roman was referring to the $10 million grant that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided Denver Public Schools to pilot and implement LEAP. The grant helped DPS fund many aspects of LEAP, including “DCTA Liaisons” to help teachers adjust to the system and ensure that DPS heard teacher voices throughout the rollout.

One of the liaisons was none other than DCTA's current Executive Director Pam Shamburg.

In a 2013 report published by the Aspen Institute, Shamburg called Roman a “genius” for his eagerness to work with DPS in creating LEAP.  She believed it was important to have teacher voices involved in the framework creation process to stop DPS from implementing draconian practices down the line.  The report also stated that she was "elbows-deep" in the framework drafting process.

DCTA leaders' signatures can be also found on the initial LEAP pilot agreement, the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) MOU, and the extensions of those agreements. Roman also signed off on an amendment to the PAR MOU this past August.

Roman even appeared with Tom Boasberg in a promotional video (see below) celebrating the collaboration between DPS and DCTA in signing the PAR MOU. It's important to include the PAR MOU in this discussion because DPS would eventually use its language to argue that teachers had limited rights to grieve their evaluations.

When Collaborartion Falls Apart

Roman's comments about working with DPS and the Gates Foundation are only proof that there was once a collaborative relationship around LEAP. It's hard to fault leadership for trying to ensure that teachers are part of the policy creation process, but the issues with LEAP go beyond the framework. The framework is not responsible for the uneven implementation of LEAP and the lack of reasonable checks and balances.

The reality is that a seat at the drafting table can never be a substitute for the power to challenge management's intentions.  As the 2013-14 school year came to a close, teachers whose end-of-year ratings fell into “decision bands” between definitive results had their effectiveness decided by their principal.  These teachers were offered a DPS-created redress process that could be used to challenge their principal's decision.  This was a non-negotiated process that completely disregarded large amounts of existing DCTA contract language.  In typical DPS fashion, there was no clear-cut criteria that could be argued to override a principal's rating (if the teacher could convince the principal to change the score, only then would the score be changed).

DPS argued that the PAR MOU, which was signed by Roman and Boasberg in the video above, contained language that waived Article 10 of the Master Agreement. Article 10 defines teacher evaluation and establishes checks and balances to ensure that all teachers are evaluated fairly and consistently. DPS argued that this supposed waiver allowed management to create their own evaluation policies – like the decision bands and redress process without working with the union. DCTA disagreed with that notion and even posted on Facebook the following fall, calling all teachers who fell into these “decision bands” to contact the union to be part of a class action grievance that would challenge the District's practices.

The union could have put forth a persuasive argument through the grievance process. Despite a plethora of existing checks and balances in Article 10, Article 2-6 is clear that non-contractual policies are not to supersede Master Agreement language. Even the aforementioned LEAP agreements suggest that both parties agreed that LEAP was to eventually be bargained into contract language.

So, was DCTA successful with the class action grievance?  Did they even follow through with it?  Like so many of our union's other initiatives, there was no further communication or explanation to members.

In the years that followed, DCTA did begin to criticize LEAP through communications, and this past spring, at a Rep Council meeting, Pam Shamburg gave a presentation on how members could grieve certain violations within LEAP. But for many, this came years too late.

In 2013, almost 250 probationary teachers lost their jobs. Last year, almost 150 teachers were non-renewed (while our school board chose not to reveal how many teachers were dismissed from innovation schools). When Senate Bill 191 allowed school districts to strip teachers of their due process rights for the first time last year, Denver had far more teachers lose non-probationary status than other districts.

LEAP was directly responsible for these outcomes, and whether or not DCTA leaders want to admit it, our union's actions and inactions played a role in allowing these harmful events to happen.

Going forward

As we go forward, we must ensure that checks and balances are in place before we begin implementing a new evaluation process.  It is encouraging to see that DCTA's proposal seeks to rebuild Article 10 even if DCTA membership ends up rejecting the new system.  Still, we must elevate member voices separate from those on the task force to ensure that DCTA remains objective and willing to criticize when issues present within the system.

We must also be aware that DPS will again try to use our involvement in the process to validate their policies as somehow being teacher-approved. It is no accident that DCTA's logo continues to be printed on the LEAP handbook every year.

We should also be wary about partnering with philanthrocapitalist organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Working with these mega-foundations can be an easy workaround for public education's funding shortfalls, but this comes at the cost of pushing aside educators' voices in favor of those who hold the purse strings.

Finally, once we collaborate to design a better system, we must ensure that our union has the power to advocate for fair, consistent evaluations. This will only happen when we build democracy and raise membership throughout our union. Otherwise, we will create a new, “collaborative” system and slowly District officials will take it over and use it to propagate their own narrative and agenda all over again.