Most Colorado educators would no longer receive a full, formal review every year, and student academic growth would carry less weight in those evaluations under changes being pushed by Colorado’s teachers union.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Tammy Story, an Evergreen Democrat, that will be introduced later this month would allow educators with three straight years of positive evaluations to undergo a full review only every third year — as was the case before Colorado passed a landmark teacher effectiveness law in 2010. Districts that want to keep the current system could do so.
Story and members of the teachers union are framing this proposal as a “tweak” that will reduce the administrative burden of teacher evaluations and allow schools to focus more attention on the teachers who need the most help.
“What we have seen is that it is not leading to change in the profession, and in fact, some of those educators who need the most support are not getting it because of ‘every teacher, every year,’” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “An administrator simply does not have the time to give to an educator who needs it.”
But supporters of current law see this as a major change that could undermine efforts to make sure all students have good teachers in the classroom. That’s because 94 percent of Colorado educators were rated effective or highly effective in 2016-17, the most recent year for which data is available, meaning a large number of teachers would move to every three years.
“We don’t see moving away from an annual evaluation with meaningful feedback as a minor tweak,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which supported the passage of the teacher effectiveness law. “That’s a major policy change, and that’s concerning.”
Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent for the state Education Department, said she sees real value in a full evaluation every year, even for experienced teachers who are good at their jobs.
“If you want to a be a multi-million-dollar star quarterback, you need a quarterback coach,” she said.
The bill also would reduce the portion of the evaluation tied to student growth to 30 percent, instead of half.
The bill would not touch other aspects of the law, keeping in place the rules about how teachers earn tenure or “non-probationary status,” which affords them some job protections, and the controversial provision that allows non-probationary teachers to be put on unpaid leave if they’re laid off and fail to get re-hired by a principal within a set amount of time.
Still commonly known by its bill number, Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law was a key element of statewide education reform efforts and intensely controversial. At the time, the federal government and wealthy donors whose priorities help shape education policy were pushing states to adopt rigorous evaluation systems that closely tied teacher ratings to student test scores, and Colorado was competing for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” grant money. (The state would ultimately get $17.9 million as a consolation prize in a third round of grants.)
Since then, research has found that major investments in teacher evaluation in a number of districts did not produce gains in student achievement or mean low-income students got more effective teachers; studies in other places including Chicago, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., have found more success. (There does not appear to have been a rigorous evaluation of Colorado’s system.)
Principals said the new systems fundamentally changed their jobs in good and bad ways. States across the nation — most recently New York — are backing away from tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, as in many states, the large majority of teachers continued to be rated effective or highly effective. At the same time, the percentage of Colorado teachers who are new to the classroom has grown, raising concerns that these teachers are not getting support, driving more turnover.
In an interview, Story said that she is not “upending” or undoing SB 191. Nonetheless, the bill’s reception in the legislature will serve as a test of support for a previous era’s education reform agenda within the Democratic Party. A Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, passed the original law. Now, a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor, Jared Polis, will reconsider it.
Organizations that have generally supported more rigorous test-based accountability for teachers and schools have raised concerns about the bill, while the Colorado Education Association has placed changes to teacher evaluation alongside more school funding as one of its legislative priorities. The Colorado Association of School Boards also supports districts having more flexibility in evaluation.
Story emphasized that all teachers still would be observed in their classrooms and get feedback every year.
“Teachers want feedback,” she said. “The problem this bill solves is allowing evaluators and educators to have more flexibility and more time to really focus on the elements that will help improve student achievement.”
Those include opportunities for collaboration between educators and for more veteran teachers to mentor newcomers, she said, opportunities she believes are crowded out by the requirements of SB 191.
O’Neil acknowledged there have been challenges around implementation. The first teacher evaluations were too long and too complex, and many districts struggled to come up with meaningful ways to measure student academic growth in subjects and grades that aren’t tested.
Under the new law, many veteran educators felt like the burden was on them to prove they were good at their jobs.
Before the law changed, “teachers were trusted as professionals and you really felt like you were doing a good job unless there was a problem,” said Paula Dickerson, a kindergarten teacher in Adams 12 and a 24-year educator, expressing a common sentiment. “It didn’t feel like you were being judged and it didn’t feel like you were never good enough, which is what is happening now.”
The evaluation design has since been simplified, and O’Neil said the state education department is working with districts to come up with better ways of measuring student growth. The close attention provides teachers with specifics on how to improve, and districts with better ways to approach evaluation, she said. O’Neil believes both will boost academic performance.
“Educators come to me and say, ‘I changed my practices, and I see it in my kids, and I changed because I had this person in my classroom and I knew what my targets were,’” O’Neil said. “That’s the part of the system that will move our teachers to where they want to be and our students to where they need to be.”
The question of what percent of teacher evaluation should be tied to student growth, largely determined by test scores, is one people on many sides of this issue say they are open to discussing. Researchers disagree about how much and whether it’s fair to tie teacher ratings to test scores, which are affected by many outside factors, and state officials say that 50 percent is probably too high.
But what will replace that portion of a teacher’s rating? That’s still being worked out — and could be another point of disagreement. More subjective ways of evaluating teachers often reflect the biases of evaluators, with educators teaching students of color getting lower ratings.
Many of the objections to SB 191 have to do with how districts choose to evaluate teachers, and not the law itself, O’Neil said.
“The way the statute is written has a lot of flexibility,” she said. “The districts are not using half the flexibility they have.”
That sentiment is shared by former state Sen. Mike Johnston, the author of SB 191 and now a candidate for U.S. Senate.
“We hear from teachers that they hate this or that part of the law, and I say, ‘great, your principal can change that’ or ‘your school board can change that,’” he said. “A lot of them don’t realize they have the power to create the system that they want.”
Amanda Crosby, president of the teachers union in the Littleton school district, said her union has negotiated changes in the evaluation system to enable teachers to work together and learn from each other, as well as to put more attention on beginning teachers — but some changes could not be considered due to the “guardrails” imposed by current law.
She thinks changing the law would let districts and teachers focus on what they feel is most important — to the long-term benefit of the entire system.
“With the teacher shortage and all the challenges that P-12 is facing, we can’t have a system that says, you’re not great yet, so we have to let you go,” she said. “We need to work with people who are good but not great yet and give them strategies and resources. We cannot afford to force people out who want to do this work.”
Mark Sass, Colorado policy director for Teach Plus, an organization that enlists teachers in advocating on education policy, agrees that many districts need to do a better job of supporting teachers. In a recent Teach Plus survey of 266 teachers, a majority felt that their evaluation did not do a good job showing them how to improve and said they wanted more meaningful feedback and support.
In cooperation with the Colorado Children’s Campaign and the Public Education and Business Coalition, with financial support from Rose Community Foundation, Teach Plus recently convened 27 teachers to brainstorm an ideal teacher evaluation system and design pilots in their districts. (The Rose Community Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Sass said he wishes the legislature would wait until this project is complete and incorporate its findings into any changes to SB 191.
“Never once did we hear the teachers say, ‘oh, we can’t do that because of 191,’ that there were restrictions,” he said of those discussions.
A supporter of the law, Sass said his own evaluations became much more thorough and meaningful under it.
Story said she doesn’t see any reason to wait for what she sees as a modest change.
“There is no indication that this particular evaluation system that is currently in place is in fact improving student achievement, and I believe that was a goal when initiating this to begin with,” Story said. “If this process is not achieving that goal, I think it’s really time to look at other strategies that will provide more opportunities.”