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DENVER – When John Peterson teaches U.S. History at East High School, he wants his students to be critical thinkers. But, he says the new standards in Denver Public Schools are crossing the line.
“I really don’t think it’s the right place for the school district to expect teachers to push students to become activists,” Peterson said.
DPS is developing a new teacher evaluation system called LEAP, Leading Effective Academic Practice. It’s based on the passage of Senate Bill 191 in 2010.
Within one of the evaluation guidelines is a section which says teacher must do the following to obtain a “distinguished” rating:
*Encourages students to challenge and question the dominant culture
*Encourages students to take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice
*Visuals and artifacts represent various cultures/world groups
Peterson has an issue with the word “encourages”.
“The phrasing could easily be interpreted that we would be expected to encourage students and students would demonstrate that they would, for example, be Occupy Wall Street,” Peterson said.
Pam Benigno is the Director of Education Policy for the Independence Institute, a conservative think-tank located in Denver. Benigno worries that there are politics at play here.
“I see it as really an abuse of power to think that a school district would use an evaluation system to promote an extreme political agenda,” Benigno said.
But, throughout history there are names like King, Gandhi, and Parks who challenged the dominant culture. Debbie Hearty is the executive director of the Office of Teacher Learning and Leadership within DPS.
She says the district wants kids to be like the great names in history.
“Education that causes action is really important,” Hearty said. “It’s what our kids do with what they learn and apply in the real world. That’s what gets them college and career ready.”
Hearty says the LEAP program is still a pilot and subject to change, and the district welcome’s concerns from teachers and others about the new evaluation system.
“This is the first time this was in the program,” Peterson said. “I hope it’s seen by the district as an overreach or an error.”
Benigno worries that this could be confusing for students in younger grades. She wonders how the district will evaluate this for music teachers, math teachers, etc.
“Half of the kids in DPS aren’t even reading at grade level, yet the school district wants to make them into little social activists,” Benigno said.
Hearty says the expectation is that many teachers should just aim for this “distinguished” definition as theoretical goal. But, for other teachers where it is measurable, Hearty believes it is a strong metric for teachers.
“Making a claim and seeking evidence against that claim and then acting on it is something we want to have happen in classrooms,” Hearty said. “Does that translate into expecting kids to go out and protest? No, not necessarily.”
Peterson says it is not his job to encourage civil disobedience.