07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Interview With Beverly Ingle of the Colorado Education Association

I got the chance to interview Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association today. The interview occurred because of SB-191 but actually discussed a lot more. She is a really nice person and was very gracious with her time. And so on to the interview.

My first question was sum up in one sentence what the CEA's goal is. Beverly had an immediate answer - "Great public schools for every child." This was something that came from NEA and she said it immediately resonated with everyone. She then went on to describe that a great school encompasses the community, the children, the teachers, the system - everything.

My next question was how do we think our K-12 system serves our poor children. She started off saying that she isn't going to assign a number because it depends on the school. She first talked about some schools that do a superb job, and added to that that those environments tend to burn out teachers over time because it is such a hard job.

She then talked about schools that do poorly. Her points on this were that there is a lot of moving people around (children, teachers, schools) when instead they needed a more constant environment. And that grading schools had a negative impact because people would look at the grades rather than the progress the school had made.

My $0.02: Beverly raises legit points here, but I wish she had been willing to speak more specifically to this question. (Or maybe I should have pushed harder.)

I next brought up the question of what most impacts how a child does in school, laying out the conventional wisdom that the mother's educational level and the child's teacher are the major items. Beverly first said that she had also heard the child family's income level was major. She then discussed the system/culture in place in the school. How the community is brought in to are the kids fed well to how the school operates.

I asked from her statements on this if "the environment for the teacher is every bit as important as the environment for the child because that's what lets the teacher do her job the best." Beverly's reply was "absolutely." She then discussed how the classroom environment, and the teacher knowing how best to get kids to engage, is critical to a good classroom.

Beverly then went in to discuss how the state has a requirement for a mentoring system where each new teacher is assigned a mentor who is an experienced teacher at that school. The idea is this gives the new teacher help on how to best reach the kids in that community and make best use of the system within that school. And she then added - some of the new teachers met with their mentor once. Once! She added that Cherry Creek does run this program well.

She then went in to teachers having to figure out what to do. Finding out what programs, lesson plans, projects, etc will work best for the children in their class, taking in to account the way the school works, etc. And to most effectively teach in a classroom this needs to be done, on top of everything else the teacher needs to do over the course of the day. Having a strong mentoring program, both in the field being taught and in the school and type of students in the class is gigantic for helping teachers accomplish this.

My $0.02: This is censored ridiculous. There is no benefit to pretending to have a mentoring program. There is gigantic benefit to having one. School districts that fall down on this, principals who fall down on this, teachers who are assigned as mentors and blow it off - do your job. Not doing this well is inexcusable. In addition, while every class is unique, there are probably a few basic approaches where the teacher can start with one of those and tweak it a bit. But that requires schools & districts make this info available. (Hint, there's this thing called the Internet...)

I next asked her about Senator Evie Hudak's plea on her amendment that if they removed the "back to probationary" part if the bill, then it would be ok. Beverly replied that the existing system is to "protect competent teachers from incompetent principals." And the bill does not give teachers a way to challenge results and show that they are competent. She then talked about the existing due process system to have a poor teacher removed and how she thinks it is reasonable, walking me through it.

We then returned to my question about removing that one part and Beverly said "that is our major concern." She also raised three secondary concerns: 1) that they will teach to the new standards but be judged by the old standards, ... and she then changed the subject to, and was quite emphatic about this, that they do think the evaluation system needs to be improved. That they have been on board with previous initiatives to improve evaluation. She also mentioned that in all this evaluation, there never seems to be any actual evaluation of administrators. She finished with "we believe in evaluation." (I just realized now I never got the other two secondary points - so we both forgot about that during the interview.)

My next question was if we do have a good evaluation system, how will administrators find the time to properly evaluate the teachers. Evaluating people, working through what they need to improve on, following up on that, etc takes time. How can this be done? Beverly feels this is very doable as long as the principal makes this a priority. She worked at a school where the principal did this and she says it made a gigantic difference in how well the school runs. In addition she says this attention (or lack thereof) sends a clear signal to the teachers as to their importance.

I asked next about how many non-probationary (don't call them tenured) teachers there are in the state. What was really interesting is Beverly didn't know. There are about 47,000 teachers in the state, and she says we have a high turnover in the state (that may be higher than average) and so we have a lot that are on probationary status. Some schools have a 50% turnover rate every 2 years. She then talked about the need to reduce this turnover rate because a lower turnover rate leads to better results.

Beverly then brought up a question that she says they are generally not supposed to ask, but she thinks is key - "what accountability goes on the student and what accountability goes on the parent?" She then talked about how students are smart - if they realize that if they do nothing they'll still be moved on from grade to grade, then they'll coast. She then went in to a very good discussion about how to do this - based on this I think she was excellent in her classroom.

My $0.02: Ok, this gets us into an incredibly frustrating part of our public education system. There are very clear straightforward things we can do to improve schools today. Some schools in poor districts reduce turnover - why isn't that being replicated. Some schools demand accountability of students (ask Southern Hills in Boulder about ZAP) - why isn't that being replicated? It's like the public school system is a place where good ideas go to die. These are spot-on points Beverly is making, and the schools should be doing this.

I then asked her if there are any non-probationary teachers that should be fired. Beverly replied "as I talk to my members that they can come up with one or two they may know of..." She then talked about how the administrators are not getting in there to get that teacher removed.

I next asked about the value of the ongoing evaluation helping teachers improve the job they are doing. Beverly replied that the turnaround on CSAP is so slow that it's too late to be of use (true). And the state has reduced funding for testing. She then discussed how there is this computer system that tracks student progress so that a student moving from one district to another can have their info move to the new district - and how they can't get to the system (shades of CBMS). She talked about all these various things the state is supposed to be doing, that it is required by law to do - but is not happening.

The bottom line, between all of her words, is she doesn't see the state as being capable of providing quality evaluation and definitely not capable of turning it around quickly.

She then talked about how teachers are micro-managed in how they are supposed to teach (every 9th grade history class is teaching the same lesson plan this Tuesday). She discussed how this stifles the teachers because they have no control over what they do. And it stifles learning because it's same approach applied to all classes. Beverly views this as the teachers are made accountable for the results in the classroom, but do not have the authority to take the approach they think will work best in their class.

My $0.02: My direct experience is the three schools my kids went to in Boulder, and the teachers there clearly did have the authority (for better in some cases, for worse in others) to customize their lesson plans. But for districts/schools where this is not true, lack of authority in a job is incredible debilitating and short-sighted.

I next asked, if this bill passes and the worst happens, will it cost any union positions? In other words does firing non-probationary teachers, mean a position is eliminated or does it just change who is in it. She was not sure if it would have any impact, but that the revolving door that could occur would be bad.

I next asked if we should have a longer school year. Beverly's initial answer was budget constraints make this impossible. I asked her to take the budget constraints out of the question - to assume that the legislature told her that prove the benefit of a longer day and they will fund it. She lost it laughing at that point (very fair response). So we're talking a very theoretical question. She thinks some students definitely need this, but it has to be done in a way that is not viewed by the students as punitive.

But she then brought up the very good question - what are the priorities of the American people. She mentioned Wisconsin where they passed a law of no school memorial day to labor day, because the tourism industry needed the seasonal labor. (Gee, that's an interesting set of priorities.)

I then asked if the kids should have the son of CSAP grade matter for them so they have an incentive to do well on the test. She does support the basic idea, but she says it needs to be done in a way that works well for teachers and students. And she says she does not have a good detailed answer yet. She then brought up the very good idea of using those results to determine who needs summer school to bring them up to speed.

I then brought up the question of what happens to students where the teacher sucks and all the students then flunk the evaluation test and have to retake the class. Beverly agreed that this is a problem for a first year teacher. But for any other case, the administrators should be on top of this and address any teacher doing a poor job before it becomes really bad.

This led to the question of does a teacher whose performance is declining see it decline rapidly, or slowly over time. Beverly said that there are medical issues that can lead to a rapid decline. But for other cases "it does not happen overnight."

Beverly then brought up the need for kids to learn the soft skills - showing up for work on time, doing a good job, etc. And that this also is an important thing to teach in class. She then discussed how the evaluation system needs to cover all of this, and gets in to a range of how it's being handled. She also believes that having a robust discussion about how the evaluation system is designed will lead to a better system. (Very good point.)

At this point we hit was the most interesting part of the conversation. I brought up their "not so fast" slogan (which is clever - that's why the Republicans use it in D.C.) and asked was it really that this was going too fast - or was their core concern that the state would do an incompetent job of designing and running the evaluation system, that principals and administrators would do an incompetent job of implementing it, and was that the root concern.

Beverly answered by first listing out the efforts that the union has supported, including some that made their members uncomfortable. And she wants to get the evaluation system built that they are presently working on. She then discussed how the state "needs to build trust" with the new efforts presently going. She then talked about teachers who have story after story of administrators who have treated teachers unfairly. (Note: Just like every parent has stories of incompetent teachers, every teacher has stories of incompetent administrators. Part of this is the human condition, but I think part of it also is a sign of a very dysfunctional system.)

She then said that there are districts that do this [evaluation] well and ones that don't do this well. And for districts that don't do it well, they need a way of putting it back on that district and superintendent. She also added that we don't have 30 years to get this right, that we need to improve things quickly.

My $0.02: Based on Beverly's answer, clearly a large part, and possibly the main reason the CEA opposes this bill is they don't think the state and the districts can be trusted to implement this effectively and comprehensively. And the thing is, that's a very reasonable attitude. They've seen the state do a lousy or incomplete job on educational issues. They've seen incompetence, bureaucracy, and laziness from principals, administrators, districts, & the state.

I next asked why all four living governors support the bill. Beverly, said she doesn't know, but thinks it could be that they don't fully understand the bill. It also could be that they take a simplistic look and don't understand the actual system (see point above).

I closed by asking her if there was anything she wanted to add. Beverly immediately talked about the frustration about how everyone calls the CEA "the blocker" and how that is very frustrating because they have supported initiative after initiative. And also how the teachers bear the brunt of the system bouncing from "the next best thing" to the next "next best thing." A very passionate listing of the various initiatives they have supported.

This led into my commenting that the major political problem they face is that every parent can point to several teachers and say "why on earth is that person in a classroom." Beverly replied that in that case the principal should be taking action to remove that teacher. And she asks if all teachers should suffer for those bad teachers. And she suggested various changes that could make the removal process cheaper.

We then closed with both of us agreeing that if a teacher is doing a good job we want them in that classroom able to do their job. And if they are incompetent we want them out (Beverly was nicer in how she phrased this part - but she did agree).

My $0.02: Beverly makes the existing system sound fair and easy to use. From what I have seen as a parent I know in practice it's not. But she faces a very legitimate fear of the evaluation system being misused or incompetently administered, and her members paying the price for that. What's also key here is that she does want good teachers secure in their job, and bad teachers out.

The Bill

Ok, this interview surprised me. In these interviews I try to do as fair a job as possible, and the goal is to present the person, not make it an opinion piece. But there's also the opinionated Dave in the background - and I expected to have to tamp down the "union fighting for ironclad job security - BAD!" Instead this was a really interesting and eye opening discussion.

First off, the CEA has a very legitimate concern. That the big worry is incompetent, misguided, and/or lazy implementation and execution of an evaluation system. They should be concerned. Even more important, all of us should share this concern. First off, as Beverly said, we don't have time to do this wrong. Second, a system that randomly fires people will be de-motivating to our teachers, and drive many out. And it will not improve our schools.

On the flip side, we must have a strong effective evaluation system if we are going to fix our schools. That must include robust ongoing thorough of student growth in each classroom. That must include teacher retention being determined by effectiveness. This must include principal and superintendent retention also being determined by effectiveness. We cannot fix our schools without these fundamental changes.

This can be done. Beverly never disagreed with the goals desired by those backing SB-191. Her concerns are with competence. I think we can all agree that SB-191, competently administered, should lead to substantial improvement. I think it's also fair to say that without SB-191 (competently administered), we will be lacking some critical tools to improve our schools. In other words, we need SB-191, and we need it implemented well.

I ask Governor Ritter and the legislature to step up and provide reasonable assurance that this will be properly administered. Keep in mind that I'm representative of a key demographic for support of this bill, a Boulder liberal who supports this bill. And I share the CEA's fear that the state will fuck this up. (I am somewhat familiar with two state departments - one is incompetent and one does nothing. That does not give me warm fuzzies about how well this will be implemented.)

So I still support SB-191. But I would feel a million times better if I had some assurance. And I think the teachers would too. Governor Ritter?

Podcast at Beverly Ingle (Colorado Education Association) Interview