An Educator Hears A Dog Whistle in the Obamamercial

Senator Obama didn’t spend a whole to of time during last Wednesday night’s infomercial on education policy, but in the few seconds he did talk about it, he managed to send a chill down the spine of at least one Denver-area teacher when he held up as an example of positive change the Mapleton School District in Thornton, Colorado.  Regrettably, Obama’s staff doesn’t seem to have done much fact-checking on this District’s recent history beyond the talking points fed to them by District officials and politically ambitious administrators.

While it is indeed a fantastic success story that all 44 of this year’s Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts’ senior class have been accepted to college, the other numbers, not to mention the seamy history of the district restructuring project itself, paint a far bleaker picture of the effectiveness of “small school reform” measures – and gives at least one voter cause for concern about the educational company Senator Obama is choosing to keep.

Full Disclosure: Much of this diary was initially published as a two-part series, Obama’s Education Policy: In Need of Change (June 1, 2008) and Obama’s Education Policy: In Need of Change, Pt. 2 (June 2, 2008), which I wrote in response to Senator Obama’s delivery of a speech at the Mapleton District’s Rosa Auditorium on May 28.

This diary is not meant to disparage anyone in the Mapleton School District – students, teachers, or parents – save those specifically called out below.  I fully understand (really, I do) what an achievement it is for one of Mapleton’s “small schools” to have an entire class of seniors admitted to post-secondary institutions, but at the risk of bursting a few bubbles, I feel it an obligation to urge the progressive community in general, and the Barack Obama campaign in particular, to use the strongest of caution when talking of school “reform” schemes – especially those implemented by Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio of the Mapleton School District.  

The recent canonization (complete with obsequious court histories)of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts (MESA) Director Michael Johnston is similarly misguided.  The fact that he has enough pull with the Obama campaign to get the Senator to visit and celebrate a “small school” which is, by nearly all measurements of the annual Colorado School Accountability Report, actually performing worse than the large, comprehensive high school it replaced, is deeply troubling.  

Mapleton’s reform initiatives have wreaked havoc upon a district which was struggling in the first place, and have sacrificed a generations’ worth of students to half-baked experimentation and to the egos and political ambitions of a handful of administrators.  Though the small victories won by the students along the way are worthy of praise and celebration, and the sacrifices of the teachers who strive for excellence under the most trying of conditions must always be honored, the kind of reform initiative foisted upon the people of Thornton, Colorado, must not be permitted to replicate – and the agents responsible for perpetrating it must not be rewarded with, say, high positions in the Department of Education, should Obama win the Presidency.

Meet Mapleton

Mapleton Public Schools (there have been many name changes in recent years; the district has also been known as Adams County #1, Mapleton, and now, Mapleton District 1) covers about 18 square miles of the northern suburbs of Denver.  Demographically, the district has shifted in the past two decades from the families of long-since-gentrified Italian farmers to more recent immigrants and blue-collar workers.  Currently Mapleton’s seven small high schools have an enrollment that is on average 50-60% Hispanic, around 40-45% white, and 5-10% black, Asian, and Native American.  40-49% qualify for free & reduced lunch – at the high school level, that number hovers just below 50%, or the point at which new teachers can become eligible for debt relief under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program.

Mapleton is a district whose 5600 or so students (the figures vary over the past eight years, with the most recent ones being the lowest) face a great many challenges, from the economics of poverty to the social disorder of broken homes.  This often translates to a tough time in the classroom: in the late 90s and early 2000s, retention rates were about 50% over the course of a four-year high school career, meaning that of a class of 400 freshmen, around 200 would actually graduate.  The reasons for this were many, and not at all as simple as “they dropped out”: some students said they were “going to live with my mom/dad in (insert state),” others that their families were moving back to Mexico, a few joined gangs, mothered children, or were lured away by the promise of a high-paying (considered to be around $15/hr in 2003) job.  A few left school due to family obligations – sometimes to care for a sick relative, sometimes to earn full-time wages to support their siblings – and for a tiny fraction, the possibility of a parentally-arranged marriage derailing a promising academic career was an ever-present Sword of Damocles.  Regardless of how or why they left school, to say nothing of the impossibility of tracking such a migrant population across state or international boundaries, all the students who left Skyview High School were lumped together, and in the numbers-oriented mind of the would-be school reformer, a figure like that screams “dropout!”  

Digging a little deeper, these modern crusaders found more ammunition in the form of low test scores: In 2001, Skyview, the district’s only high school, reported a 10th Grade Reading score of 44% (of students achieving grades of “proficient” or above on Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests; the state average that year was 64%), a 10th Grade Writing score of 25% (state 44%), and 5% (state 14%) on the10th Grade Math CSAP.  It should be noted that these particular tests are inflicted only upon 9th and 10th graders; Skyview’s freshmen scores lagged behind the state averages at about the same rate as the sophomores.  In concert, these data gave Ciancio the impetus and the numerical rationale she needed to start throwing babies out with bathwater and implementing pell-mell “change.”

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

In Colorado, CSAP scores continue to be the measure for such No Child Left Behind Act-spawned “benchmarks” as “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP),” which is defined in the Colorado School Accountability Report, or SAR:

Adequate Yearly Progress is met when all sub-groups including 30 or more students by ethnicity, economic status, disabilities and limited English proficiency meet 100% of academic targets on CSAP and CSAPA set by federal law.

Well, that sure is some fair and balanced assessment criteria.  Note that while this “benchmark” mandates schools to educate the most challenged (and highly transient) of its sub-groups to the level of affluent suburban kids of the same age throughout the state each year, it doesn’t mention anything about where the funding for this admittedly laudable goal will come from.  Schools are thus forced to absorb the costs, diverting already-scant resources to programs and classes designed specifically to raise the scores of any at-risk subgroup numbering over 30 students.  This gives a numerical advantage to the school with the smaller number of at-risk students, or a smaller pool from which to draw – especially if that school has a means (applications, etc), as MESA does, of weeding out the “difficult” cases.  Public schools like Skyview were/are required to take in all comers.

The worst thing is, it all comes at the expense of the “mainstream” students, who derive little benefit from the increased classes sizes and harried teachers that inevitably result from NCLB-mandated scheduling priorities.  It also means that schools with large populations – like Skyview, with a student body of about 1400 – will naturally have more “target” groups than a school like MESA, with a population under 400.  In 2004/05, Skyview had 29 such groups identified, and met the targets for 18, or 62%.  The following year, MESA, with more than 1000 fewer students and 11 fewer target groups, achieved a rate of 66%.  Last year, MESA met 11 of 12 targets – commendable, but it’s also worth noting that the school suffered a 12.9% dropout rate that year.  Skyview’s dropout rate was 11.3% in 2003/04 (the year Superintendent Ciancio’s “visionary” approach began to be felt), and only 3.2% and 3.0%, respectively, in the two years prior to that.

The data from CSAP testing is similarly revealing – these charts show the results of Skyview’s test scores from the 2003/04 and 2004/05 school years, and MESA’s from 2005/06 and 2006/07.  The percentage represents the number of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on the statewide tests.

Skyview 03-04 04-05 MESA 05-06 06-07
9-10 Reading 46% 38% 9-10 Reading 37% 41%
9-10 Writing 21% 23% 9-10 Writing 22% 21%
9-10 Math 11% 12% 9-10 Math 10% 8%

That precipitous drop in the 04-05 Reading scores was Skyview’s kiss of death; it got the school labeled not only “low scoring,” but also “in decline.”  That scores rose in the other two categories was immaterial – failure to meet one benchmark in CSAP-world is the same as failing to meet them all.  MESA has, by contrast, remained “low and stable,” because its declines in Writing and Math are offset by the 4% climb in Reading scores (perhaps coincidentally, this rise came after nearly 13% of the 05/06 student body left, or was purged from, the school).  The most recent data shows that MESA’s scores in Mathematics are a full 33% lower than they were in Skyview’s last reported year – and Ciancio has made some recent incisive statements about why her district’s Math numbers have been in a free fall:

Kids don’t all get teeth at the same age, said Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton school district in Adams County.

“Some kids get them when they’re 4 months old; some kids get them at 8 months. We’re cool with that when they’re little,” Ciancio said. “As soon as they get into first grade, we suddenly don’t care where they are developmentally.”

Deep changes are needed in the way schools operate for all kids to master math, Ciancio said.

Math drop a big test for schools Rocky Mountain News, 2/25/08

…including, one would hope, changes in the type of metaphor used to relate biological processes to knowledge acquisition.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that MESA’s scores on the 2008 CSAP reveal that 2007 was actually a banner year – scores plummeted almost across the board in the latest round of testing.  9th grade Reading and Writing scores both show huge jumps in the number of “Unsatisfactory” results, with corresponding drops in the number of those considered “Partially Proficient.”  There were similar trends (though the differences in numbers aren’t quite so egregious) in 10th grade Math, Science, and Writing.  In 10th grade Reading, the number of “Unsatisfactory” results rose, as did the number of “Partially Proficients,” but even this number represents movement in the wrong direction – the increase came because of a steep decline in the number of students scoring “Proficient” or “Advanced” (in 2007, 3 students were reading at an “Advanced” level; there were none in 2008).

Kobayashi Maru

Absurd assessment data like AYP and CSAP scores are used to rate schools – nowhere in a SAR pamphlet will you find information like “square footage of classroom space per student” – and to label their year-to-year “academic growth.”  Since the ratings of all schools statewide are placed on a bell curve, it is statistically requisite for a certain number of schools – inevitably those that were already behind the eight-ball when the testing regimen was imposed – to be listed as “failing” or “low-performing.”  Spend enough years at the narrow left end of that bell curve, and a school or district may find itself sanctioned by the state, since under NCLB, the most struggling schools are the ones stripped of funding.

In extreme examples, the state Department of Education actually seizes the school and hands it over to private, for-profit charter enterprises, as was the case at Cole Middle School, or it imposes reforms from the top down through agencies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, like what happened at the shuttered-and-now-reopened Manual High School, a neighbor of Skyview’s.  In both cases, the “reforms” were dismal failures and monetary sinkholes.

The federals, whose onerous data-collection requirements force schools to divert even more resources to the single task of feeding the statistical ratings beast, are no help at all:

“I’m glad that there is consternation with it,” says Sandy Cress, senior adviser to President Bush on education and a consultant with school districts on NCLB. “It means that people are wrestling with it. Like Job wrestling with the angel, there’s good at the end of it.”

How school reform is altering classrooms, The Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 2004

Mr. Cress (just speculation, but…Regent University grad?) failed to identify who was playing the role of Job, and who is Satan, in his read on the dealings between the NCLB bureaucracy and the districts and schools subjected to its torments.  There is little doubt, however, that a school official trying to deal with a mandarin like this would have to have the patience of Job.

The flaws inherent in any system that relies so heavily on high-stakes standardized testing (as well as of the tests themselves) are another matter entirely – and yet another reason why Senator Obama needs to stop talking about “fixing” NCLB and start promising to abrogate it as one of his first acts in office.  Why?  Because it leads to situations like the one with which Mapleton schoolteachers found themselves confronted a little more than 5 years ago, and (even worse) to an educational morass like that in which Mapleton students are currently mired.  Critical to the understanding of the state of the reform effort in Mapleton (and thus MESA, its flagship small school – the others are, on balance, not faring as well; one was even forced to close after a single year in operation) came to this point is not the test scores, but the history of how the changes came about – in it, we find many components that parallel other notable bad ideas of our time which have been glossed over with propaganda.

The Road to Hell is Paved…

The plot to splinter Mapleton’s “failing” school district was hatched in 2001, with the ascension to the Superintendent’s office of Charlotte Ciancio (then surnamed Scarpella), a former teacher with deep roots in both the community and its educational establishment.  Backed by a compliant school board and a central administration that had many of the qualities of a self-licking ice cream cone, Ciancio began her quest to irrevocably alter the course of education for Mapleton’s students innocuously enough: with a survey.  According to Skyview High Schools: Small by Design General Overview (from “Teacher’s Tool Kit Small Schools Backgrounder 11/03”):

As a critical first step, Mapleton Public Schools conducted a survey of voters and parents across the district.  Mapleton Public Schools worked with BK Research to design and orchestrate this valuable study.

Overall, the study found nearly 75 percent of parents and 60 percent of voters have a positive impression of Mapleton Public Schools; however, they were all open to expanding and enhancing the education environment in the district.  Specifically the survey concluded:

  • High school parents wanted smaller class sizes
  • Parents and voters wanted to add more mentors and tutors for students
  • A vast majority strongly supported the concept of having hands-on, vocational training in the high school

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that Skyview had vocational training in place already, and that it included a award-winning auto shop and photography teachers, a drafting and computer graphics program, a partnership with the Police Academy at Arapahoe Community College for college credits in Criminal Justice, and outstanding veteran teachers in catering, fashion design, business, teen parenting, and keyboarding, not to mention an incredibly dedicated, professional librarian (pdf).  It wasn’t everything that might be offered by a truly well-funded comprehensive high school, but Skyview’s vocational training programs were a bedrock of the local economy.

There are many ways that one could interpret data which states that 75% of people have a positive impression of a school district that publicly-released test scores show is a low-performer.  One conclusion would be that parents recognized teachers and staff were working hard against long odds to teach their children well – but hat’s not the one Ciancio drew.  To her, affirmative responses to a sugar-coated question from a professional research outfit – something like “How much do you support the concept of having hands-on, vocational training in the high school?” – was a mandate to burn the entire place to the ground, then rebuild it according to personal whim and whatever funding sources she could secure.

With a set of “good” statistics in one hand and a set of “bad” ones in the other, Ciancio embarked on the next phase of her “collaborative” effort to reinvent Mapleton: the gathering of research to justify her positions.  At the high school level, department chairs were offered the opportunity to provide input on how best to effect change within the building, but their suggestions – reduced class sizes, uniforms, a closed campus, expanded team-teaching, deliberate, visible efforts to change the school’s climate and culture; basically, the stuff that’s worked before to rescue troubled districts – were relegated to the circular file in favor of a series of investigative visits to different small school models around the state and country.  

Delegations of teachers, parents, and administrators were sent to Boston, Providence, New York, Chicago, San Diego, Napa Valley, and other locales while Ciancio and a tiny cabal of central administrators began attending (and later being invited to address) various conferences and working groups on the school-reform circuit.  As they observed reform efforts in action and/or hobnobbed with the money people, Mapleton fact-finders were guided by the following principles:

The criteria that the Mapleton Public School leadership team used to determine viable solutions for its students was an educational system characterized by:

  • An unyielding commitment to academic excellence
  • An enticing menu of learning opportunities that allows students to pursue their interest and gifts
  • A commitment that no obstacle shall impede a student’s success
  • An environment of integrity, encouragement and caring
  • A comprehensive community working collectively to ensure the success of each child


Divide and Conquer

Ciancio cherry-picked the voluminous reports of the school-visitation groups for vindication of the various school designs she had already determined to import – her talent lies not in innovation itself, but in channeling funding toward the various established innovative programs she invites to open schools within the district.  That the evidence she was gathering was being fixed around a conclusion already arrived at is attested to by her own hand – in this passage, she describes the genesis of her version of “open, collaborative effort at school reform:”

It was January 2002 as we came to the end of three very long days. Exhausted by the intensity and wound up by the activity, we gathered at the restaurant to debrief the events. We huddled around the table as if planning a covert operation or protecting a secret. Our mood was serious. Our expressions were intense. The hurried sounds of the restaurant were silenced by the frantic thoughts racing through my head. A wave of panic coursed through my body. What had I done? Why did I agree to do this?

Ciancio, on “Both Ways” Bob Beauprez’s Education blog, August 20, 2007

Why, indeed?  There was no public outcry  demanding change (though admittedly, there was some understandable, and correctable, dissatisfaction with the performance of most of the schools in the district), nor was there any reason other than the superintendent’s “vision thing” to go off the deep end experimenting on other people’s kids, yet that’s exactly what Ciancio did.  She justified her radical approach with a mixture of egoism, martyrdom, and self-righteousness:

“The reason we are moving as quickly as we are,” says Superintendent Charlotte Scarpella, “is that it’s unethical not to do it, if you know there’s a better way.”

Colorado Small Schools Initiative Fall Newsletter, November 17, 2004

To provide a veneer of “collaboration,” Mapleton adopted a multi-year, pre-packaged “strategic planning” regimen that split teachers into teams which met over the course of the school year to research and make recommendations for school improvement.  The diabolical brilliance of this approach – which has, regrettably, now cropped up in nearby districts – is that it results in each group making recommendations for increases in workload that are small individually (say, the “Academic Rigor” team advocating each teacher do an hour of Study Hall duty each week), but considerably more onerous when taken together.  When teachers raise concerns about the effect additional duties, mandatory meetings, etc., will have on their ability to plan and assess effective lessons, administrators have merely to point to the group of peers and say, “Hey, this recommendation comes from teachers (just like you) who spent months gathering all the latest data.  Who are you to complain about doing what needs to be done?  Do you hate kids, or something?”

The “strategic planning” farce armed Ciancio with as many “teacher recommendations” as she needed to move to the next phase of the debacle – selling the scheme to the public – but first there were a couple more potential hindrances to her “Small By Design” brand with which she would have to deal.  

One was the possibility of resistance from the teaching staff and their local NEA affiliate.  Unfortunately, Colorado is not the strongest of union states, and in 2004, the focus was on statewide elections (which went very well for us, by the way), not on restructuring efforts that would only impact a few hundred teachers in a single district.  Add to this a local president who came up through the bargaining ranks over a 20+-year career in Texas, where organized labor is dictated to by administrators as a government-backed matter of course, plus a UniServ (an NEA/state affiliate regional office usually responsible for several districts) director dealing with serious health issues, and it becomes very difficult to hold the line in bargaining sessions.

Teachers are quite susceptible to arguments that challenge their commitment to their craft and their students – a fact which is mercilessly exploited by school boards and district superintendents around the country.  It was also the tactic most favored by Ciancio and her School Board-backed negotiations team, and it was effective: after a couple of years of putting up at least a token resistance, the Mapleton Education Association eventually rolled over and accepted its lot without any strikes, job actions, or other means of expressing its displeasure – except that its members began attending job fairs and interviewing with other schools.  The full state of the emasculation of the once-strong (and award-winning, for its better-than-90% union membership rate) Mapleton Education Association can be seen in the contract language under which it is operating today:

6.8.2 Mapleton Public Schools and the Mapleton Education Association believe the teaching profession is demanding and rewarding, requiring time and commitments beyond contractual work hours. We further assert that the people involved in this profession are committed to the interests and lives of the students we serve. We

acknowledge that maintaining a balance in personal and professional lives is essential to the health and well being of all.

Mapleton Education Association/Mapleton School Board Negotiated Agreement, June 07

Yeah, you read that right: A union agreeing to give up the non-workday time of its members (one way of reading this would be that the District expects teachers to spend 12 hours a day on work-related duties) any time the Management asserts that to do otherwise would be to betray a lack of professional commitment to the job.

Follow the Money

Once it became graven in stone that district-wide change would be occurring whether the faculties of the various buildings thought the proposals were realistic or not, Charlotte Ciancio turned her attention to issues of funding and staffing.  In 2003, Mapleton partnered with the Colorado Small Schools Initiative, which dropped about $400,000 (plus $80,000 worth of consulting) of its own money into Ciancio’s vision, while arranging for another $2.7 million to be funneled from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made something of a specialty of conducting ham-handed remodelings of school districts (see Manual High School).

How’s this been working out for the Gates Foundation?  From Business Week magazine, June 26, 2006:

Six years and a steep learning curve later, the Gateses see just how intractable are the many ills plaguing America’s worst schools. It has been a difficult, even humbling experience…Visits to 22 Gates-funded schools around the country show that while the Microsoft couple indisputably merit praise for calling national attention to the dropout crisis and funding the creation of some promising schools, they deserve no better than a C when it comes to improving academic performance. Researchers paid by their foundation reported back last year that they have found only slightly improved English and reading achievement in Gates schools and substantially worse results in math. There has been more promising news on graduation rates.

So, the schools have an average GPA of 2.0, the students are showing sketchy improvement in reading and writing, are doing way worse at math, and yet the graduation rates are cause for celebration?   How could something like that transpire?  We wouldn’t be “socially promoting” anyone, would we?

Now that the checks were in the mail, Ciancio turned her attention to staffing her “vision.”  In the fall of 2004, during a welcome-back-to-school breakfast for Skyview teachers, she stated flatly that “teacher retention is not my problem,” and though most of the education professionals present chalked it up to an especially obtuse ad-lib, events later that year proved that Ciancio wasn’t lying: she really didn’t give a rat’s ass about the people who worked for her.

The much-griped-about issue of “tenure” is immaterial if one’s program – as opposed to grade level, etc. – is eliminated.  It’s a subtle distinction, but as a hiring scheme developed over the fall and winter of 2004 and spring of 2005, Ciancio and her leadership cadre exploited this loophole to devastating effect as a means of “cleaning house.”  Teachers with over twenty years of service (and presumably protected by tenure since their fourth year of teaching) found themselves fired by simple elimination of their programs – this is what happened to the award-winning auto shop teacher mentioned above.  In Ciancio-world, fixing cars doesn’t lead to college, and therefore isn’t a viable sort of education for our kids – so off with the shop teacher’s head!  Fashion design, catering, and many other successful programs and teachers were eliminated in the same manner.

Ciancio, and now the small schools “Directors” who were starting to arrive, began orchestrating their dream schools through the hiring process they structured.  The union local’s bargaining team quickly found itself arguing the minutia of implementation plans rather than the greater problem of whether or not the changes were needed in the first place, and if they were, whether they were too sweeping and coming too rapidly.  Without fanfare, the time for negotiation about the idea had passed; all that was left was to try to protect the livelihood of men and women who had invested upwards of 30 years in the Mapleton School District, and were now finding themselves kicked to the curb.  They were too expensive, you see, and way too difficult to fire, should they start complaining about the upwards of 150 hours of extra training they would have to go through in order to secure a position in a “small school.”

But…but…doesn’t the contract say you can’t do that?

The issues surrounded tenure, that boogeyman of right-wing “think”-tanks like the Independence Institute (founded 1985, currently festering in Golden, Colorado; seeks to hamper public education so as to make voucher systems look more appealing).  It turned out Ciancio had little use for equating seniority with some measure of due process rights, either, despite her having once served as a building Association Representative back in the days before her reform epiphany – she, like so many other Superintendents, now sees tenure as a loss of control, a threat to the ability to make decisions, an unnecessary hamstringing of what is, by virtue of being employed by a school board, her God-given right to hire and fire at will.  

The frequency of such petty tyrannies is exactly why tenure is such an important part of any teacher’s union’s negotiated agreements – just as the laughably alarmist screeds of the Independence Institute clearly show the need for such collective bargaining arrangements in the first place:

Mapleton, an option school run by a union-controlled collective bargaining agreement…

Mad Voter: Obama beholden to teachers’ unions

If only it were so.  The Mapleton Education Association, like so many other small locals around the country, was unprepared to deal with the ferocity of an attack backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of surveys and propaganda; the negotiating team found that virtually every objection was met with a stern, “Well, what do you suggest we do to change the system (you student-hater, you)?”  The idea of revamping the comprehensive high school had been thrown out in the early days of the debacle; this was Ciancio’s show, and it was going to be done her way.

Once those who could be excised through the “program change” loophole were gone, there were still a few other incorrigibles remaining, including myself.  The District gave the MEA little choice (as indicated above, the local NEA affiliate was always strong on membership, not so much on hell-raising) in accepting a complex, multi-phase system for interviewing and hiring in the small schools, which had the effect of making even tenured, professional teachers interview for jobs they’d held for decades.  The State of Colorado’s 2005 Teacher of the Year was treated in this manner, as was the 2005 recipient of the Colorado Education Association’s prestigious Bates Award, for work in bilingual and multiethnic education.

The Diaspora

I was a recipient of the new spirit of inclusiveness that was sweeping the district, too.  In the spring of 2005, I interviewed for a position at MESA, and was rejected on the rather amorphous claim that my class was not “rigorous” enough.  This “reason” is a relative of the mealy-mouthed “you’re just not a good fit for this school” that is often used by principals who have elected not to renew the contract of a probationary (1st three years) teacher; I knew it was complete horseshit, suspect that Director Johnston did, too.  That assessment is borne out by later events: first I was hired in my current position – an instructor in the International Baccalaureate program at one of the highest-performing schools in the state; then, two months later, I was named Skyview’s Teacher of the Year and gave an address at commencement.  After only two years in my new job at my new school, I was asked to speak before a graduating class again – go ahead and ask your teacher friends just how often that happens.

So it wasn’t a question of rigor – I taught Honors classes the whole time I was at Skyview, and it’s not a conceit to think that at least one or two of the celebrated MESA class of 2008 began their high school careers in my “traditional” 9th-grade classroom – but rather one of politics.  Okay, fair enough; politics is part of the game when people like Director Johnston are part of the hiring process, and I had happened to land on my feet anyway.  But what are the ramifications for people who aren’t as fortunate in finding new positions as I was?

Some have stayed with Mapleton – a few because they decided that drinking the Kool-Aid was preferable to entering the job market with mortgages still to pay, a handful of others because they really did believe in Ciancio’s myopic vision.  The vast bulk of the Skyview Refugees dispersed around the state, thus benefiting the faculties in which they landed – it’s not often that 20-year vets come knocking at the door, especially knowing that most districts will only give salary schedule credit for about 5 of those years of experience.  

The numbers tell the story: in Skyview’s last School Accountability Report (2004/05), 78 full-time and 2 part-time teachers averaged 8 years of teaching experience (down by one from the year before), with 75% of those educators teaching within the subject in which they received their degree.  32 of them had tenure, 48 did not.

At MESA last year, of a faculty of 37 (35 full-, 2 part-time), only 4 teachers had tenure – and even they weren’t enough to move the “average years of teaching experience” beyond 4 years.  A scant 59% were teaching in the field in which they got their degree.  While that’s better than the district average of 49%, it does seem to indicate that the “highly qualified teacher” requirements of NCLB are a little more fungible than the ones regarding labeling students, teachers, and schools as “failures” – at least when the people doing the staffing happen to be self-proclaimed experts like Michael Johnston, who wrote a book about how to staff schools after completing one year in the classroom during a two-year stint in the Teach for America program (which also represents the sum total of Johnston’s actual classroom experience).  

Teacher Training for Fun and Profit

With the staffs of the small schools in place, and the professionals of the old Skyview High School scattered to the seven winds, Ciancio could get down to the business of training all these brand-new teachers in the brand-new way of doing things.  Without a strong union presence to protect their free time, the new hires were helpless before the far-reaching demands of the various small schools’ training regimens – as the onerous Mapleton Education Association/Mapleton School Board Negotiated Agreement, June 07 attests:

For staff new to schools, a certificate of training will be given after completion of required professional development or training activities that are specific and unique to each school. Hours required for training for each certificate will be published. Each certificate will be worth a specific pre-determined compensation amount based on hours required multiplied by the rate defined in Article 10.2 in the Negotiated Agreement. Payment will be made promptly following district claim for payment procedures. Certificate requirements will be determined collaboratively by the school district and school model partners. Payment for the pre-determined certificate amount will be as follows:

1. For teachers that have taught in the district under 10 years, 20% of the total compensation amount will be paid each year for five years. If a teacher leaves the district during the five years of payment, they forfeit the balance of the compensation (i.e. A teacher leaves after working three years in the district. They would collect 60% of the compensation amount and forfeit the additional 40%).

the compensation stipulated in Article 10.2 is that of a first-year teacher meeting minimum certification requirements – in other words, the top left-hand corner of the salary schedule

That’s right: not only do teachers with ten years of experience not get paid at their regular wage for this extravagant training, but they have to wait five years to get their full compensation for it.  Makes one wonder what the district would have said, had the union offered to deliver higher test scores on an installment plan.

In case you’re wondering, Mapleton District 1 administrators are doing quite well for themselves, thank you very much.  The average admin salary in Mapleton is a whopping $91,466 – nearly $14,000 more than the state average – and doesn’t include all the perks (travel and otherwise) that attend being even a somewhat-tarnished Golden Child of school reform.  In fairness, MESA’s sole administrator makes only about twice the wage of the non-tenured educators who work for him, but regardless, admin salaries throughout the district don’t seem to be subject to the same terms (of performance or of time in service) as those they impose upon their underlings.

The root of that particular problem can be traced to the way Ciancio, and many others in the top-down school reform crowd, view teachers as a whole.  Rather than seeing educators as the point at which the proverbial rubber meets the road, they are regarded by school reformers as replaceable cogs in a vast, data-driven machine.  To them, “1.0 FTE” (“Full Time Equivalent,” the basic unit of time as it relates to teacher workload and pay) is the same, whether one is talking about a first-year rookie who needs a lot of hand-holding or a 41-year vet who has been adapting to changing educational fads since the Johnson Administration.

Disregard for experience (and yes, the stridency that sometimes comes with it) exhibited by Johnston and Ciancio is not a phenomenon exclusive to their district – around the country, teachers are leaving the profession at an astonishing and troubling rate.  An excellent article by Cynthia Kopkowski in the April, 2008 issue of neatoday magazine entitled Why they leave: lack of respect, NCLB, and underfunding–in a topsy-turvy profession, what can make today’s teachers stay? describes the “revolving door” dilemma quite simply: teacher attrition growing by 50% over the past 15 years (at a cost of $7 billion annually in recruiting and training).  The annual turnover rate is 17%, averaging even higher – 20% and up – in urban schools; one-third of new teachers leave (or are driven from) the profession prior to gaining tenure at the end of Year 3, and almost half are gone by Year 5.

Ripple of Evil

I don’t believe Charlotte Ciancio is an evil person, nor that she ever intended to harm the children of Thornton, Colorado.  She is, rather, the very definition of a zealot – someone so assured of her own correctness that it is simply impossible for her to conceive of why anyone would oppose her “vision,” and so blindingly self-righteousness that she considers all who question her mission to be traitors to the cause of education.  She’s exactly the sort of person who would find nothing incongruous in the statement, “we’re burning this village in order to save it.”

Similarly, I don’t think Michael Johnston is evil – just a practitioner of the sort of realpolitik that’s evolved on the left in recent years.  An alumnus of Vail Mountain School (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it) and Yale Law (dunno if he met Obama there, but given the numbers of personal shout-outs in the May 28 speech, it seems like the two are close), Johnston has been building the sort of resume coveted by progressive educrats – Outward Bound stuff, a few years teaching in Mississippi, now his first principalship – but if the way he’s drawn public attention to the sole diamond in a whole fairway full of rough numbers is any indication, he’s got more in mind than spending a lifetime trying to help the children of Thornton, Colorado, bridge achievement gaps.

With regards to Senator Obama’s education policies, the Mapleton School District’s implementation of restructuring plans was an exercise in autocracy, and neither it, nor the specific administrators who directed its course, should be held up as examples for others to follow.  Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio’s reckless, radical reform measures are a case study in the disenfranchisement of teachers, emasculation of unions, and seismic social upheavals that are all too common in such re-envisionings.  As noted in a post-mortem study of the Manual High School debacle:

Systems work best when power and control are spread throughout the system so multiple participants have a stake in what occurs. When authority is too centralized-in the classroom or school at-large-issues of motivation and trust can undermine the performance of that system.

Small School Reform at the Manual Educational Complex August 6, 2004 (pdf)

Their interests converge at that nexus of cash, shifting expectations, and outright snake-oil sales that is the modern “school reform” movement – an industry that wouldn’t exist without NCLB to provide the data-driven fuel for the fires of zealotry.  Toss in a few right-wing loons seeking taxpayer subsidies for their kids’ private schooling (vouchers) or “local control” fiends looking to strip teachers of their First Amendment right of free association and dictate curriculum terms to professional educators (charter schools), and you’ve got the makings of a Perfect Storm for a public education system that once won us two world wars and put men on the Moon.

They’re still at it, too – this year, the Mapleton District is asking the voters for an enormous sum of money to take care of some decidedly Orwellian-sounding capital improvements:

The bond question is based on $64 million, and will update every site to provide visual access from the offices in the buildings, sprinkler systems for fire protection, double-pane windows, and updates to some of the mechanical systems that are failing.

Mapleton Board of Education Approves Bond and Mill Levy Override for November Ballot, Mapleton School District Website

Fortunately, Ciancio, Johnston, and the rest of the Board-approved Admin Team hasn’t entirely forgotten about the teachers:

In addition, the Board is asking for a $2.97 mill levy override which would address instructional staff, do some extended year and day programming, buy additional textbooks and reinstitute field trips.


Yeah, “addressing” the instructional staff might be nice…and so would books and the occasional field trip, now that I think about it – just make sure that the cameras are installed in every classroom and monitored from every principal’s computer, first.

Teachers need help.  We need support.  We need to be treated with the respect and dignity due any professional.  We need to know that the people in charge of education in our country are not going to sell us out in favor of fads and smoke-n-mirrors bookkeeping.


If it sounds like I have inside information for my muckraking, I do – from 2000 to 2005, I taught at Skyview, for most of that time serving as a department chair, as well.  I was also a member of the MEA’s bargaining team, and held a seat on the CEA Board of Directors in 2004/05 – in other words, I saw these restructuring efforts up-close, and from a lot of different angles.  I was opposed to the way things were headed back then, and I said so, but I also resolved not to interfere in any way with what Cicancio, Johnston, and the like were doing in Mapleton after I left the district for less-turbulent pastures before the 05/06 school year.

And lest that revelation makes the dear reader begin to think that this is an exercise in sour-grapeism, I’m happy to report that I landed on my feet.  I now teach in the International Baccalaureate program in one of the highest-performing public schools in the state, plus it happens to be a full half-hour closer to my house (the commute to Thornton was an hour each way).  Though deeply troubled by what I was hearing from Mapleton students and former colleagues, I made a conscious decision not to go public with my misgivings precisely because I didn’t want to seem like a disgruntled former employee.

For me, that all changed last May, when I saw Barack Obama standing in the exact spot in Rosa Auditorium  where the former music teacher and I had once inaugurated and hosted a wildly successful “Mr. Wolverine” (the school’s mascot) competition.  It was supposed to become a tradition, but within two years, both teachers were gone, the music department was in shambles, and MESA Director Johnston was using trash cans and teacher/bouncers to partition off his school’s portion of Skyview’s carcass.  It was on that same stage that the Senator on Wednesday said,

A truly historic commitment to education – a real commitment – will require new resources and new reforms. It will require a willingness to move beyond the stale debates that have paralyzed Washington for decades – Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more accountability. It will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn a lesson from students and teachers in Thornton or Denver about what actually works. That’s the kind of President I intend to be, and that’s the kind of education plan I’ve proposed in this campaign.

There are lessons to be learned from Mapleton’s students – they sure taught me a thing or two – but the only knowledge to carry away from those of the district’s administrators who were central to the dissolution of Skyview regards what not to do when reforming a school.  They are, in a very real sense, the last people from whom Senator Obama should be taking advice – or to be patting on the back in nationally-televised infomercials.


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  1. but I hope y’all will take it in the spirit it’s offered – let’s not start throwing babies out with bathwater once the “change” starts getting implemented.

    • Robyn on November 3, 2008 at 5:32 am

    …who complained about the reading assignment.

    I got your back. 🙂

  2. I skimmed your essay, UM.  But something you wrote–maybe it was the general tenor of your writing–reminded me of my late father, who quit high school shortly before graduation.

    See, Dad was very, very shy.  And his high school required every senior to speak in the auditorium before they could graduate.

    Dad quit so he wouldn’t have to get up in front of everybody.  (He eventually got his GED and some college, btw.)

    But what I remember about Dad–even into his 80s, he would read both local papers daily, and catch all the typos and grammatical errors.  And do the crossword puzzles.

    He should have graduated from high school sometime during the Depression.  How could education have been so superior then, and so inferior now?  Even when I graduated, in the mid-1970s, it was much worse than it had been decades earlier.

    And the situation has not improved, as far as I can tell.

    Any insights?

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