Two Takes on Teacher Evaluations in Colorado
April 21, 2017

As Colorado approaches the seven-year anniversary of the passage of its landmark teacher evaluation framework, two PIE Network advocates—Van Schoales of A+ Colorado and Scott Laband of Colorado Succeeds—reflect on the progress and future of this effort to ensure great teachers for every student. Their principled exchange of diverse viewpoints embodies the Network’s commitment to exploring multiple perspectives and approaches to find better solutions for kids.

How We Get Colorado’s Teacher-Evaluation Reform Wrong

By Van Schoales, CEO, A+ Colorado

Back in May 2010, hundreds of the nation’s education foundation, policy, and practice elites were gathered for the NewSchools Venture Fund meeting in Washington to celebrate and learn from the most recent education reform policy victories in my home state of Colorado and across the country.

The opening speeches highlighted the recent passage of Colorado Senate Bill 10-191—a dramatic law which required that 50 percent of a teacher evaluation be based upon student academic growth. This offered a bold new vision for how teachers would be evaluated and whether they would gain or lose tenure based on the merits of their impact on student achievement.

Colorado would be one of several “ground zeros” for reforming teacher evaluation in the country. Many, including myself, thought these new state policies would allow our best teachers to shine. They would finally have useful feedback, be differentiated on an objective scale of effectiveness, and lose tenure if they weren’t performing. Teachers would be treated like other professionals and less like interchangeable widgets.

Colorado’s law and similar ones in other states appeared to be sound, research-backed policy formulated by education reform’s own “whiz kids.” We could point to Ivy League research that made a clear case for dramatic changes to the current system. There were large federal incentives, in addition to private philanthropy fueled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, encouraging such changes. And to pass these teacher-evaluation laws, we built a coalition of reform-minded Democrats and Republicans that also included the American Federation of Teachers. Reformers were confident we had a clear mandate.

And yet. Implementation did not live up to the promises.

Colorado Department of Education data released in February show that the distribution of teacher effectiveness in the state looks much as it did before passage of the bill. Eighty-eight percent of Colorado teachers were rated effective or highly effective, 4 percent were partially effective, 7.8 percent of teachers were not rated, and less than 1 percent were deemed ineffective. In other words, we leveraged everything we could and not only didn’t advance teacher effectiveness, we created a massive bureaucracy and alienated many in the field.

What happened?

First, the data. We built a policy on growth data that only partially existed. The majority of teachers teach in states’ untested subject areas. This meant processes for measuring student growth outside of literacy or math were often thoughtlessly slapped together to meet the new evaluation law. For example, some elementary school art-teacher evaluations were linked to student performance on multiple-choice district art tests, while Spanish-teacher evaluations were tied to how the school did on the state’s math and literacy tests. Even for those who teach the grades and subjects with state tests, some debate remains on how much growth should be weighted for high-stakes decisions on teacher ratings. And we knew that few teachers accepted having their evaluations heavily weighted on student growth.

Second, there has been little embrace of the state’s new teacher-evaluation system even from administrators frustrated with the former system. There were exceptions, namely the districts of Denver and Harrison, which had far fewer highly effective teachers than elsewhere in the state. Both districts invested time and resources in the development of a system that more accurately reflects a teacher’s impact on student learning. Yet most Colorado districts were forced to create new evaluation systems in alignment with the new law or adopt the state system, and most did the latter. This meant that these districts focused on compliance (and checking off evaluation boxes), rather than using the law to support teacher improvement.

Third, we continue to have a leadership problem. Research shows that teacher evaluators are still not likely to give direct and honest feedback to teachers. A Brown University study on teacher evaluators in these new systems shows that the evaluators are three times more likely to rate teachers higher than they should be rated. This is a problem of school and district culture, not a fault with the evaluation rubric.

Fourth, all of Colorado’s 238 charter schools waived out of the system.

We wanted a new system to help professionalize teaching and address the real disparities in teacher quality. Instead, we got an 18-page state rubric and 345-page user guide for teacher evaluation.

We didn’t understand how most school systems would respond to these teacher-evaluation laws. We failed to track implementation and didn’t check our assumptions along the way.

The new teacher-evaluation laws in Colorado and now 40 other states seem a classic example of putting policy ahead of practice.

Great in theory, but unrealistic when it comes to implementation. The laws were constructed around a particular set of assumptions about school district capacity and commitment. We underestimated the propensity of districts to morph “innovations” into existing practice and treat the new evaluation laws as just one more compliance requirement. We also failed to understand the political and district costs of tying such laws to federal incentives, particularly given a strong ethos of local control in many school districts, like most of those in Colorado.

As a longtime educator and education advocate, I got caught up in the hubris. I helped construct and strongly supported the teacher-evaluation law but didn’t anticipate how the state education department and school districts would turn the law into practice. I figured it would be difficult to end up with something any worse than what was practice in 2009.

I believe the intention was right, but it was wrong to force everyone in a state to have one “best” evaluation system.

Going forward will be a challenge. Most teachers’ unions have not supported these new evaluation laws and will look for any excuse to gut them and go back to the world where there were no objective measures of teacher effectiveness.

But we need to dig into what has happened—to understand what worked, what did not, and why. It’s not too late to acknowledge our mistakes and switch course. Instead of doubling down on ineffective policies, we must confront the quagmire and work toward a better solution. We should work back from the practice in our best schools and districts. Improving education requires that push forward, and it won’t happen overnight.

In Defense of Teacher-Evaluation Reform

By Scott Laband, President, Colorado Succeeds

When Gov. Bill Ritter signed Colorado’s teacher-evaluation framework into law in 2010, he set in motion a powerful transformation of the state’s education system. By passing Senate Bill 10-191 with bipartisan support, the state led the nation in forging a new path forward for tenure and evaluation reform.

As is the case with all revolutions, we understand it will take time to sort out the full impact. But we also know that Colorado’s law immediately wiped out an arcane and ineffective evaluation and tenure system, which has governed most of the nation’s schools for more than 50 years.

The 2010 law requires districts to reimagine their talent-management and educator-support systems by requiring annual performance evaluations, ensuring tenure is earned and not the guarantee of lifetime employment, and ending both seniority-based layoffs and the forced placement of teachers into schools where they neither want to be nor fit well. This has prompted profound change in districts and schools across the state and provides a useful model for states across the country that are also in the early phases of implementing similar policies.

From the beginning, the main objective of teacher-quality laws was to open a policy window around evaluation and tenure to promote local innovation and improve human-capital practices. In response, we are seeing tremendous examples of local ownership and buy-in, as leaders adapt and modify their evaluation systems to suit local needs.

Look no further than Durango, a small, rural district of roughly 4,700 students on Colorado’s Western Slope, for an example. It is committed to thoughtful implementation of these new talent-management practices and is one of the state’s fastest-improving school districts, with some of the state’s highest student-growth scores.

“Our evaluation system is generating far deeper conversations with teachers than we ever had before. We are evolving the role of principal from building manager to instructional leader,” Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger recently shared with me. “This is a shift that takes time, support, and training so that we customize professional development and feedback to ensure that improvement is not only possible but likely.”

Critics will point out that relatively few teachers have been rated ineffective under new evaluation systems. However, focusing solely on this fact and declaring the whole enterprise a failed experiment is a classic case of losing sight of the forest by getting lost in the trees. Any endeavor as complex as transforming the talent-management system is going to encounter bumps in the road.

We shouldn’t overlook the significant, positive changes that evaluation laws across the country have created.

Talk to teachers, principals, and superintendents across Colorado and you’ll hear that educators now feel they’re receiving frequent, meaningful feedback about their performance. The kind of feedback they can use to retool their practice and get better. Linda Barker, the former director of the Colorado Education Association’s Center for Advocacy and Professional Practice, agrees the system for evaluating educators has changed for the better: “Now it’s really about teaching and learning systems that support continuous improvement, both for teachers and principals, but also for the profession.”

Contrast that with the old system, under which tenured teachers were rarely evaluated, and when they were, it was often in a superficial, drive-by manner. Yet the traditional opponents to these types of common-sense reforms haven’t stopped fighting against the policy.

It’s also critical to remember that the full implementation of evaluation laws across the nation has been slowed by a number of external factors. Since most bills were signed into law, there have been well-funded legal attacks and multiple changes to state assessment systems.

Many states are just now entering their third year of administering PARCC or Smarter Balanced exams, so reliable student-growth data from the new tests-a key component of the new evaluation systems-are just beginning to roll out. And locally developed assessment systems and other measures are still being validated. These delays aren’t failures of new evaluation laws; rather, they are the result of a need to make sure the academic-growth data educators are held accountable to are fair, reliable, and measure student learning.

As business leaders who have managed large-scale change efforts, our members know that urgency is important, but impatience can lead to bad decisions. Those of us who worked on getting teacher-evaluation laws passed or have worked on supporting their implementation never harbored illusions that this was going to be an easy lift.

Transformational change takes time and requires our continued focus.

Think back to the late 1990s, when public charter schools were a new phenomenon in many parts of the country. They weren’t spreading as quickly or having the immediate impact that advocates had hoped. Did those advocates declare the experiment a failure and raise the white flag? Of course not. Today, many states have a thriving charter school sector that is making a real difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children and in many cases outperforming traditional neighborhood schools.

Like those charter advocates, we must acknowledge that improvements are needed, that support remains necessary, and that our work isn’t finished simply by passing policy. It’s important for advocates and critics alike to understand what pieces of the new evaluation laws are and aren’t working and why. More research is needed to understand the variances in district implementation across the state and how we might see more improvement with even greater buy-in.

Most importantly, though, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that teacher-evaluation and tenure-reform laws have sparked significant change and improvement to states’ evaluation and talent-management systems.

I’m confident that, through continued work together, we can make sure these systems only get better.

And that serves all children well.


Eric Eagon

Eric is PIE Network's Senior Director, Educator Voice and Policy


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