DENVER—Denver Public Schools officials have agreed to tone down the revolutionary tenor of their teacher-evaluation standards after a public outcry, but critics still worry about what exactly is being taught in the state’s second-largest school district.
The district revised language in its “Framework for Effective Teaching Guide” that originally gave top marks to a teacher who “encourages students to challenge and question the dominant culture” and “encourages students to take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice.”
Teachers would also have been evaluated on whether their students “appear comfortable challenging the dominant culture in respectful ways.”
The district reworded the criteria after a spate of negative publicity, spurred by the Independence Institute’s Pam Benigno, who learned of the standards in August after being contacted by a DPS teacher.
“I feel the district was using the teacher-evaluation system to push an extreme agenda,” said Benigno. “What does this mean? Is a teacher who sends students to a Tea Party rally going to receive the highest marks?”
The district posted online its updated language two weeks ago. Under the new description, a teacher who wants to receive a “distinguished” ranking needs to encourage students “to think critically about equity and bias in society, and to understand and question historic and prevailing currents of thought as well as dissenting and diverse viewpoints.”
In addition, a top teacher “cultivates students’ ability to understand and openly discuss drivers of, and barriers to, opportunity and equity in society.”
While Benigno says the new language is better, she still has concerns about the motivations of district officials.
“I applaud the district for removing the extreme language; however, the message has already been sent,” said Benigno, who heads the institute’s Education Policy Center. “I think there’s harm that’s already been done.”
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg acknowledged that “the original wording wasn’t worded in the way that it should have been and [failed to] capture the real intent of what we want to get at, which is, we want our students to be critical thinkers.”
“If you look at people from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan, they might have come from all different parts of the political spectrum, but they all challenged many of the main tenets of prevailing thought,” said Mr. Boasberg on a Sept. 27 interview on KOA-AM’s “The Mike Rosen Show.”
Critics say the wording of the original criteria appeared to be more like a shout-out to the anarchy movement than a salute to the Founding Fathers.
“It sounded like they were expecting students to go down and march in Occupy Wall Street,” said East High School social-studies teacher John Peterson.
The criteria were enacted in response to Senate Bill 191, a 2010 law that set new assessment requirements for principals and teachers, including a mandate linking 50 percent of their evaluations to student achievement. The DPS framework for the 2012-13 academic year is a pilot program, with a final system due in the 2014-15 school year.
“I didn’t like the language and obviously the language has been changed because there’s been some pushback, but what I liked even less was the mentality that wants to turn grade-school kids into instruments of social change,” said Rosen.
Even the new language, with its emphasis on critical thinking instead of challenging the “dominant culture,” still betrays a left-leaning bias, said critics. While Boasberg said teachers would encourage “viewpoints articulated from whomever and from whichever part of the political spectrum,” Rosen said he didn’t know how district officials could ensure that.
“This is a devil’s playpen and we’ll have to see how this works out,” said Rosen. “His teaching corps is overwhelmingly made up of Democrats and liberals and union members. Even if some of them attempt to deal with controversial issues evenhandedly, their ability is limited by their own background and their own biases and their own knowledge of the other side’s argument.”
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, said the district “is in a better place now.”
“There was no ill intent in the design of that,” said Mr. Roman. “I think what’s important is what’s there now, and that we listened.”
Benigno advised parents to keep their ears open. ““I feel parents need to be on guard, talk to their children and listen to what they say,” she said. “Nationally, people need to be looking for this to happen in their schools.”