Lori Petersen, principal of Arkansas Elementary School in Aurora, is a huge fan of teacher evaluations. But as she sees it, there are two critical problems with the state’s system that need fixing:
First, the system is cumbersome and overly time-consuming. Second, too many teachers in Aurora and across the state are earning high ratings while student test scores continue to lag.
“I was shocked,” she said, recalling a meeting where she learned that most of the suburban school district’s teachers received an “effective” rating or higher — even as Aurora faces state intervention for chronic poor performance on state tests.
This year, the state is trying out changes to the evaluation program in 40 districts, including Aurora, that would address both of Peterson’s worries. The overhaul is aimed at making evaluations easier for principals to conduct — by halving the number of practices they are supposed to observe — and harder for teachers to ace.
Most of Colorado’s 178 school districts use the state’s system. But some large districts such as Denver have developed their own and are not part of the pilot.
The changes to the state’s system come seven years after Colorado led the nation in updating its teacher evaluation system, which included the controversial move of linking teacher ratings to student performance on tests.
The new law required that all teachers be evaluated every year, a change from every three. They’d be issued a rating from “ineffective” to “highly effective” — and teachers who earned a low ratings for two straight years would lose job protections.
The effort has failed to provide backers with what they wanted: better data identifying teachers who need help. Nearly 90 percent of Colorado teachers in 2015, the most recent year available, received a rating of effective or higher. States across the nation have seen similar results from their efforts to better evaluate teachers.
Instead, teachers and principals alike often complain that the system is cumbersome and time-consuming — and far too subjective.
Now, Colorado officials hope the updated version will alleviate detested paperwork, freeing up principals and teachers to focus more on the craft of teaching.
“We want to see a reduction in time spent on checking boxes, and that time spent in a more meaningful way,” said Mary Bivens, the state education department’s director of educator development.
The biggest change to the teacher evaluation system is the number of classroom practices principals need to monitor. The list has been cut nearly in half from 336 to 181.
The reduction comes from eliminating dozens of near-duplicative strategies that were supposed to be measured in different sections of the evaluation, said John Madden, an assistant principal at Overland High School in the Cherry Creek School District who helped with the revisions.
For example, he said, multiple parts of the current rubric ask principals to look at how teachers are incorporating technology and literacy skills, and developing challenging lessons. In the pilot, each of those topics gets addressed only once or twice.
“These changes will help teachers and principals focus on the practice and not on the tool itself,” he said. “It helps clarify some of the expectation and it cuts down on the enormity of the document. It doesn’t feel so cumbersome and hard to get through.”
Petersen, the Arkansas Elementary principal, is participating in the pilot. She said she’s reviewed the new rubric and found it to be clearer. She said she plans to monitor each classroom more carefully throughout the year instead of just checking off a box if she sees a teacher use a particular strategy just once — like she used to.
“We [were] just giving instant credit,” she said. “I now have the expectation that I have to see it over time.”
The skinny version should help her complete the 24 informal visits she plans for each of her 20 teachers.
In total, Petersen estimates that she was spending upwards of 500 hours — the equivalent of three months of work — on the evaluation process each year. That includes multiple rounds of goal setting, regularly monitoring student progress and giving her staff midyear reviews.
“It’s time-consuming,” the third-year principal said. “I had never counted the hours before.”
The state will be monitoring data from informal visits that principals track in the state’s system throughout the year and it will collect anecdotes from districts piloting the rubric. What the state wants to see more than anything is principals spending more time coaching teachers.
“We’re studying that conversation,” said Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the state education department. “We’re focused on the growth of the people.”
Not all of the changes under consideration are aimed at simplifying the process for educators. Some are meant to raise the bar on what it takes for a teacher to earn a top rating.
Previously, teachers could earn the state’s highest rating if they earned roughly 68 percent of the total points from classroom observations. Under the pilot, teachers will be eligible for the highest rating only if they’ve earned about approximately 78 percent of points. But that number could change as a result of the pilot, state officials said. In both cases, students must show more than expected academic growth on state tests and other course work in order for a teacher to earn a highly effective rating.
The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a critic of using student test scores in Colorado’s evaluation system, declined to comment on the changes, saying the pilot was too new for the union to have formed an opinion.
Elizabeth Ross, managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that advocates for more stringent evaluations systems, applauded Colorado’s work to update its evaluation system.
“It’s crystal clear that the system is not working as it was supposed to in Colorado,” she said. “It’s not giving them the information to figure out where there are teachers who need more support to improve their practice.”
Photo by Nic Garcia. Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015.