As districts across Colorado roll out new state-mandated educator evaluations systems, rural districts are discovering challenges that few of their larger counterparts face.

Even in the small number of rural districts that piloted the program two years ago, administrators are still grappling with everything from how to rate teachers who teach multiple grade levels in one classroom to glitchy computer systems in districts with little tech support.

And in some rural districts with fewer than 200 students, administrative staff and teachers often play more than one role, which leads to obstacles that rural officials say weren’t accounted for when the evaluation law was written.

“When legislation comes down the pipe, schools like this don’t get thought about,” said Corey Doss, superintendent of the San Luis Valley’s Mountain Valley School District, which was one of 27 districts that began piloting the new evaluation system two years ago.

Doss wanted a head start on the program and to make sure that rural districts had a voice in providing feedback on the challenges. ”I wanted to make sure this district was on the right track,” he said.

Time burdens and technical glitches

Even in a district with two years’ practice under its belt, Doss found that the requirements of the law can overwhelm staff time.

“It’s great but it’s time-consuming,” said Doss, who oversees a staff that includes a single principal, a bookkeeper and a technology director in addition to teachers and facilities workers.

When the pilot first began, Doss split the work of evaluating teachers with his principal, Laura Kelso, but found that the load was too heavy with the rest of his responsibilities. So Kelso took on the task of evaluating the district’s teachers herself, a move that forced her last week to hire a substitute to oversee the school while she spent several days meeting with teachers.

In Mountain Valley, the evaluations have further sucked up staff time because of technical glitches in the system the district uses to manage all of the associated data and reports, BloomBoard.

Though the program has been praised by Bill Gates and other education advocates, Mountain Valley administrators say it is riddled with problems and the training they received was insufficient.

For example, teachers are supposed to score themselves using the same rubric as the evaluator. Those scores should then appear side by side in BloomBoard. But that’s not what’s happening.

“It is currently taking me two hours per teacher to do mid-term evaluation reviews because scores from me aren’t showing up,” said Kelso. The teacher should be able to look at both his or her own self-evaluation and Kelso’s side by side; instead, Kelso has to sit down with each teacher and go through the rubric score by score.

Additionally, the trainer who taught them how to use BloomBoard taught them incorrectly, so Kelso spent several hours fixing her inadvertent errors.

And Kelso says it’s not surprising that the trainer made mistakes. “It changes all the time,” she said, so new problems in the software keep arising.

Since Mountain Valley began using BloomBoard, the state has moved away from it. But that’s of little comfort to Mountain Valley officials, who already have their data loaded into it and can’t change systems.

Complexity pies

When the legislature passed the new educator effectiveness law in 2009, it laid out general requirements for what pieces must go into an evaluation, including classroom observations, proficiency and growth scores on both state and classroom tests.

Districts were then charged with working out exactly how much each element should factor in to a teacher’s evaluation. That process is happening for the first time this year, as the new system’s full rollout goes into effect.

The complex mandates of the new evaluation system are a particular challenge for small districts where the responsibility for designing and implementing the new system falls on a single person.

In Moffat Consolidated School District, like Mountain Valley, a single principal oversees a K-12 campus and doesn’t have any administrative support like she might in other districts. That means that many smaller tasks end up on her plate.

“There is no data person to pull the numbers,” said Kirk Banghart, Moffat’s superintendent.

Designing the breakdown of test scores–or “pies” as Kelso calls them — is especially difficult in places like Moffat or Mountain Valley, where a single teacher either teaches a single subject across as many six grade levels or a single grade level across a bunch of subject.

For example, Mountain Valley’s high school social studies teacher taught three grades but until this spring, none were tested. As a result, the test portion of that teacher’s evaluation came from math and literacy scores for those students.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some teachers teach multiple grades, all of them tested. Balancing exactly how much of each category of testing should go into a teacher’s evaluation is a statistical challenge for principals like Kelso.

That means Kelso and Moffat’s principal, Michelle Hashbarger, must develop individual breakdowns for what goes into the testing portion of each teacher’s evaluation. Teachers have a say, as well, and Kelso plans to sit down with each teacher to discuss what their breakdown will look like, within the constraints of the law.

Banghart also said that with small classes, just a few students can skew the results for a teacher.

“It would take four or five years to get to enough students [for statistical power]“, he said.

For Kelso, the evaluation process is uncovering philosophical differences between her and her teaching staff about how they should be rated-questions that are being raised across the state.

“Teachers are feeling it’s really unfair,” Kelso said.

For example, her music teacher will see math and literacy scores from her students in her evaluations, despite the fact that she doesn’t teach those subjects. But Kelso believes the skills students learn in music do affect her students’ math scores.

“To me, the math in her content area could play an even bigger role for students,” Kelso said. “That’s a philosophical conversation we need to have.”

Kelso agrees with her teachers that elements of the law are unfair and she hopes to come up with breakdowns that remedy some of the problems. For her brand-new fourth grade math teacher, who will see state test scores from last year’s fourth graders in her evaluation, Kelso is planning to exclude internal growth scores from last year.

Instead, more emphasis will be put on how much the teacher is able to help her current students.

The evolution of the principal

For Kelso, the experience of overseeing the entire process, from designing the pies to observing the teachers, has made her wish for a rethinking of the role of the principal.

“Honestly I think there’s going to have to be some kind of change how administrations look,” Kelso said.

Other San Luis Valley districts with more staff have parceled out the responsibility to more people.

“In one [San Luis Valley] district with a lot more resources, one person designed all the pies,” said Kelso. But here, she’s the one person responsible for coming up with a solution.

Kelso says she fears that the burden on small districts may ultimately prove to be too great.

“The only ones who are going to be successful are [districts] with assistant principals and other admins,” Kelso said. But she’s trying to figure out work arounds for her small district. One good first step, she said, was banding together with two other San Luis Valley districts to hire a consultant to train administrators on the evaluation process.

Officials in both Moffat and Mountain Valley agree that the evaluations have changed the principal’s role.

In Moffat, the law raised questions of whether the person designing how teachers are evaluated should be the one hiring and firing them as well. As a result, Banghart and Hashbarger divided responsibilities — she designs and implements the evaluations and he makes the final call on hiring and firing.

The responsibilities have also limited the time both principals are able to spend providing instructional support to teachers.

For Kelso, who only has a single elementary literacy coach, she’s had to rethink about what kind of help she can provide.

“What’s my responsibility as an administrator to get them the help they need?” Kelso said.

Right now, all she’s had the time to do is get some of her new teachers books to read and talk about.

“I’m either evaluator or coach,” said Kelso. “It’s really hard to do both.”