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S.B. one-ninety-what?

May 4, 2010

Imagine for a moment that your state senate was in the process of passing a law. The law would require that anyone who was found to be a bad person would be put in jail indefinitely. Sounds great, right? We all want good people to be free, and bad people to be locked away where they can never physically harm us, break our hearts, or piss us off in traffic.

Let’s think about it a little more.

For starters, what does it mean to be a bad person?  Someone who seriously hurts and kills others? Most people will probably agree on that. How about someone who doesn’t directly harm others, but who indirectly causes significant harm to others? Maybe, but then how do we decide what levels of proximate harm are bad enough to justify prison? Or what kinds?

For instance, some people might think that people who consistently choose not to recycle, or conserve water, or waste gas, are irreparably damaging the planet, and that this behavior should land someone in jail. Others believe that “sinful” behaviors, like drinking or gambling or premarital sex, are both damaging to the people who participate in them and severely threatening to the society that permits it. They might be happy to throw such sinners in jail.

Which begs another question: Who gets to decide who qualifies as a “bad” person? If you’re an environmentalist, you might be ok with the first scenario; if you’re a fundamentalist Anything, you might like the second. (The overwhelming majority of everyone else might be really, and understandably, outraged.)

You could continue coming up with slippery slopes and What Ifs for years, and still not really settle this question.

Here in Colorado, our state Senate’s Education Committee recently voted to advance an “Educator Effectiveness” bill, S.B. 191. Most simply, the bill is intended to get rid of bad teachers and administrators by explicitly tying satisfactory ratings (and thus, continued employment) to demonstrated student performance. Like the “Bad Person” law, it intuitively makes sense. Of course educators’ employment should be conditioned upon their performance. Of course educators who don’t measure up should do something else for a living.

But what does it mean for an educator to be “effective”? As it happens, there is no agreement on that as of yet, and the bill itself doesn’t really define it. (It does stipulate that 50% of an educator’s evaluation be tied to student data, which is largely generated by standardized tests. That is a huge issue this one post can’t touch, but I will say that since Colorado is currently in the process of overhauling it’s whole statewide assessment program, it’s probably not a good idea to hire and fire people on these grounds.) How will we measure effectiveness once it is defined? And who will get to decide?

As in the Bad Person scenario, the more one thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes to nail down what makes a good educator (or, conversely, what makes one a bad enough educator to merit being banned from the system). Unlike the Bad Person law, however, it is probably possible to craft an educator evaluation system that can fairly reward good practitioners and eliminate those we can do without. But that process is going to take time. Given the importance of this issue, it makes sense to take that time, in order to come up with the fairest and most useful solution. Important work shouldn’t be rushed simply to fit a politically convenient timeline, especially when effective tools for improving teacher performance (like targeted, high-quality professional development, increased time for collaborative planning, mentoring for new educators, etc.) are available, and don’t require any laws.

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