It wasn’t as if teachers and principals around Colorado were holding their collective breath, awaiting the release of the report from the state Council on Educator Effectiveness with its recommendations on how they ought to be evaluated in their jobs.
No, it was more like, “Reform proposals? Take a number and get in line.”
“With educators, there’s always a bit of ‘Is this just the latest thing to come down the pike?’ ” said Stephanie Rossi, a veteran teacher at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County who has seen the report but, like several educators interviewed, hasn’t spent a lot of time weighing what it might mean for her and her colleagues.
“So many reforms are thrown at educators, a survival instinct kicks in,” she said. “Which will stick and which will move along? If you’re newer to the profession, you may not have that but those who’ve been around awhile do.”
Plan grew out of 2010 legislation
The council presented the report – 169 pages long – to the State Board of Education on April 13. It will be up to the board to implement a new educator evaluation system for Colorado, as called for in Senate Bill 10-191, which state lawmakers passed last year with much controversy. That bill requires that at least 50 percent of annual teacher and principal evaluations be based on student growth.
“In the inner city, sometimes I’m my students’ daddy, their counselor, their social worker. There are a lot of factors that are nowhere in ‘effectiveness’ but are nevertheless important to kids.”
– Mark Thiel, DPS teacherSB 10-191 left it to state education officials to determine just what else goes into the making of an effective teacher or principal, and how to evaluate educators whose students don’t take the state’s annual CSAP exams.
The effectiveness council devised a list of six standards by which teachers might properly be measured, and seven for principals. For teachers, proposed standards include content knowledge, creation of respectful environments for all students, facilitation of learning, leadership, taking responsibility for student growth and professional development. For principals, it’s leadership in strategic thinking, instruction, school culture, human resources, management, external relations and student growth.
Rossi, for one, likes the proposed standards.
“To me, it reflects this collaborative effort administrators and teachers will have to come to,” she said. “It already exists in many settings but now we’ll have a very formalized process, and it offers an opportunity to have incredible conversations with colleagues to develop best practices.”
Then she paused.
“I hope the implied message isn’t that we weren’t doing that before,” she said. “We’ve actually done this for years but it’s been informal and anecdotal.”
Urban teachers mistrust link to student growth
But others aren’t so sure how benign the proposed standards will be or whether tying teacher evaluations – and thus, job security – so closely to test results won’t have harmful unintended consequences.
“Inner-city kids in low socioeconomic conditions already come in with a deficit,” said Chip Wiman, a pre-school teacher at Denver’s Harrington Elementary School. “If 50 percent of our evaluation is going to be based on measurable tests, and if our kids come in with a deficit and don’t get measurable growth, I think you’ll see a lot of turnover in inner-city schools.
“If those kids don’t show miraculous growth, their teachers will be put on a remediation plan, and if there’s no growth by the second year, they’re removed from teaching. You’ll get a revolving door of teachers. Who will want to work in those tougher schools?”
Wiman’s colleague at Harrington, technology teacher Mark Thiel, fears that many of the things teachers do are not measurable while no teacher can excel in all the things that are to be measured. Harrington is currently piloting an evaluation system that next year will be piloted in all DPS schools. Thiel says he believes most teachers oppose this system, dubbed LEAP for Leading Effective Academic Practice.
“In the inner city, sometimes I’m my students’ daddy, their counselor, their social worker. There are a lot of factors that are nowhere in ‘effectiveness’ but are nevertheless important to kids,” Thiel said. “Nowhere are we evaluated on that. You’re not evaluated if you’re a caring person that helps these kids develop empathy. And if it is included, it’s not weighted very much compared to the 50 percent for test scores.”
Alternatives to CSAP scores available
But Sally Edwards, longtime principal at Harrington, said she’s comfortable with the emphasis on measurable student growth included in both the LEAP system and the recommendations in the Educator Effectiveness Council’s report, which have many similarities.
“Teachers recognize that in this state, we’ve had 178 different ways of evaluation, and we’ve not had a common definition of what an effective teacher is. Now we have a clear definition and what the expectations for performance are.”
– Kerrie Dallman, Jeffco teacher“Do I consider the need for every student to grow to be essential? Absolutely,” she said. “Many of our students are behind when they arrive, but our job is to take them where they are and help them grow.”
Edwards said her school uses a multitude of assessments beyond CSAP to test student growth, including online assessments in reading and math that are given periodically throughout the year, unlike CSAP, which is given once a year. She believes that’s a fairer way to measure student growth.
Edwards also appreciates the addition of a fourth category, “partially effective,” in addition to the existing categories of “highly effective,” “effective” and “ineffective,” into which teachers may be placed.
“It’s important to understand that something cannot be effective but close, and with a little tweaking or adjustment, it could be effective,” she said. “For our own growth as educators, I think that’s helpful, to know when we’re close but maybe not quite there.”
Questions remain about funding
Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association and a member of the Educator Effectiveness Council, fully endorses the recommendations – despite twice testifying against SB 10-191.
“I was concerned about the time frames and the lack of funding, and I still remain concerned about how districts can fund this work,” she said.
“You can come up with two or three paragraphs about what an effective teacher looks like. But the real question is how will we get people to do that job, and how will we prepare them and keep them and support them? We’re creating a job description that’s going to be impossible.”
– Greg Ahrnsbrak, DPS teacher“But the product that came out of this council was very high quality. If districts can implement it with fidelity, can really invest in training principals and training teachers on what the expectations are, then we’ll see great improvements in terms of overall teaching quality and student achievement.”
Dallman said she met with about 150 Jeffco teachers last month to talk to them about the proposed quality standards. While there is widespread concern about how student growth will be measured, she believes teachers will eventually embrace a new evaluation system.
“Teachers recognize that in this state, we’ve had 178 different ways of evaluation, and we’ve not had a common definition of what an effective teacher is,” she said. “Now we have a clear definition and what the expectations for performance are. If we go back to the way things were before SB 191, where every district interprets things their own way, we’ll end up in a place where nobody has much confidence in the evaluation system.
“We want to trust that when a teacher moves to a new building, or moves between districts, we have confidence in those evaluations, that when a teacher comes with an evaluation that says ‘highly effective,’ we can trust that that teacher IS highly effective. We can’t afford to waste anybody’s talents.”
Greg Ahrnsbrak, a science teacher at DPS’ Bruce Randolph School, fears that the council’s recommendations are so much flowery language with no good support plan and too little input from teachers who are actually in the classroom every day. He suspects 99 percent of his colleagues haven’t a clue what’s actually in the report.
“I would have liked to have seen a more timely and thoughtful process,” he said. “It was rushed through with just a cursory effort to get teacher input. You really need to hear more voices, get different perspectives.”
Ahrnsbrak says he can’t argue with the necessity of changing the method of teacher evaluations, but so far he hasn’t seen a method that’s fair to teachers in the most challenging schools.
“I have these children with no study skills, no record of success in school, first- and second-grade reading levels and math scores that are even worse, writing skills that are non-existent, and I’m trying to get movement there,” he said. “What kind of evaluation tool is fair?”
Ahrnsbrak predicts it will take a decade or more before changes proposed today can be fully implemented.
“I think we’re not being realistic with what we can do and how fast we can do it,” he said. “People say we can’t wait for change and I can appreciate that. But there are so many variables involved in getting students and getting teachers to proficiency.
“You can come up with two or three paragraphs about what an effective teacher looks like,” Ahrnsbrak added. “But the real question is how will we get people to do that job, and how will we prepare them and keep them and support them? We’re creating a job description that’s going to be impossible.”