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Slow and steady best on revamped evaluations

Kristin Klopfenstein is the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.

I’m often struck by the potential for progress – and for detriment – in the national movement to tie educator evaluations to student performance data. Evaluations should be the impetus for ongoing conversations and activities that lead teachers and principals to improve. Instead, unfortunately, they often become mechanical compliance exercises that can easily become punitive.

Anyone who advocates basing some portion of a teacher’s job evaluations on student performance is bound to have been sobered by early reports from some cities and states that are well along in the process of designing and rolling out such approaches. Several recent news stories from places like Chicago, Tennessee and New York reveal myriad concerns, ranging from worries by teachers about fair application of the new criteria to frustrations by principals about inadequate training, lack of confidence in the reliability of test scores and cascades of rules that reduce them to process-driven grinds.

Another theme in these stories is that some jurisdictions apparently rushed to put these complex, radically different evaluation systems in place without testing them adequately or making sure that people who would be most affected understood the new criteria. All of these factors decrease the likelihood that student growth-based evaluation systems will, in practice, empower educators or improve student achievement.

Working in concert with teachers is the best approach

Resistance to change isn’t surprising. Major change is scary, and these changes could force educators to rethink expectations about their livelihoods and professional identities. History also explains some of the reactions. Too often, accountability and other reforms have been done to teachers instead of in concert with them in a shared effort to improve instruction and learning.

One thing that struck me about these stories was that principals were often as outspoken as teachers, which is unusual. “Principals don’t revolt,” says one principal quoted in a New York Times story about opposition to the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.

Against this backdrop, the Colorado Legacy Foundation has produced some documents and guides to help districts that are ready to start building evaluation models for SB 10-191, Colorado’s educator effectiveness bill, avoid some major landmines.

What I like best about these guides is that they are based on the experiences of three districts – Brighton, Eagle, and Harrison – that overhauled their evaluation systems before 191 was on the books. The guides and case studies aren’t blueprints; superintendents and boards will have to go to the districts to get enough detail to understand how the systems work.

But they do offer solid advice born from experience that could raise the odds for buy-in. Nor do the guides answer some basic questions such as whether and how much the three districts will have to adapt their hard-won programs to work with 191. What they do offer is reassurance that peers have jumped off this ledge and survived. The three systems differ from one another, giving readers a range of options to consider. But in all three it is clear that evaluations became a more central and more frequent activity for both teachers and principals.

Learning from early adopters’ mistakes

One appealing aspect of these documents is that they are fairly candid about mistakes districts made. For example, Eagle heavily revised its system after educators complained that the model didn’t work well for teachers whose subjects weren’t covered by standardized tests and that the algorithms driving the plan were not explained clearly.

The documents offer several take-away lessons such as the importance of involving stakeholders early and often, making sure teachers understand how the program works, and building systems that not only evaluate performance but support teachers while they work to improve.

Any complex new approach to something as closely tied to people’s sense of self-worth as a job evaluation demands careful, thoughtful, collaborative planning and testing. Along these lines, we must ensure that the intent of SB-191 — to facilitate the conversations and collaboration among teachers and administrators that lead to improved student achievement — survives whatever happens next.

If SB-191 becomes more about compliance and paper shuffling than about teacher and leader development, the experiment will have failed in Colorado. At this point, the legislation and rules for SB-191 are only words. It is now up to the state and the districts to put meat on the bones of 191 as a system that helps schools create a collaborative professional climate and not just another top-down compliance checklist.

Too much focus on process runs the risk of letting people avoid digging into difficult tasks, such as thoughtful, well-informed conversations about ways to keep growing and improving – conversations that even the most accomplished professionals need.

On the other hand, full implementation may be slowed while everyone waits for the final appellate ruling on the Lobato case , and that may buy more time for careful preparation.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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