staying the course

Proposal to strip student growth data from teacher evaluations goes down

Republican Sens. Vicki Marble (left) and Laura Woods originally were co-sponsors of the proposed evaluation bill but had changed their minds when it came time to vote.

A bill that would have dramatically changed Colorado’s teacher evaluation system was defeated Thursday on a 6-3 vote by the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 16-105, originally introduced with bipartisan sponsorship, would have allowed school districts to drop the use of student academic growth data in teacher evaluations. It also would have eliminated the annual evaluation requirement for effective and highly effective teachers.

Two Republicans who originally signed on to the bill voted no Thursday.

The requirement to base at least half of a teacher’s annual evaluation on student academic growth is a centerpiece of 2010’s landmark education evaluation law, Senate Bill 10-191.

That provision was hotly disputed then, and Thursday’s hearing demonstrated that passage of six years hasn’t fully cooled the passions.

Some lawmakers and education reform groups argue that use of student growth data gives a fuller, more objective picture of a teacher’s effectiveness than what’s provided only by a principal’s classroom observations and evaluation.

But many teachers, unions and lawmakers believe that use of student growth data is unfair, saying the tests used to generate that data are flawed and provide an incomplete picture. Critics also argue the evaluation law has placed a bureaucratic burden on districts, particularly smaller ones.

“This is not a valid method to evaluate teachers,” the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, told his fellow committee members. “We are not doing away with teacher evaluation. We are trying to change it so it is more fair and useful.”

The four hours of testimony and committee discussion resurrected arguments, beliefs and fears raised by the intense debate over SB 10-191 six years ago.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

Committee member Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, was the primary author of that bill. Six years ago, as chair of the House Education Committee, SB 16-105 champion Merrifield fought a losing battle against SB 10-191.

“This has been a great conversation. We had this debate before, but each year it gets more respectful,” Johnston said to Merrifield at one point. “Some things have stayed the same since this conversation started, and some things have changed.”

On Thursday, Johnston joined the five Republican members of Senate Education in voting against Merrifield’s bill. Two of those Republicans, conservative Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins and Laura Woods of Thornton, originally cosponsored SB 16-105.

In closing remarks Thursday both said they’d decided the bill wasn’t the right solution, although they didn’t fully articulate why they changed their minds. Some conservative interest groups like the Independence Institute opposed the bill.

Two committee Democrats — Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Nancy Todd of Aurora — voted for Merrifield’s bill. Both were in the House six years ago and voted against the original evaluation law.

Merrifield’s attempt to rein in that law this year drew close attention from interest groups. It was supported by teachers unions and the Colorado Association of School Executives, which backed SB 10-191. Merrifield’s bill was opposed by multiple business and education reform groups, and many of their representatives testified Thursday.

Evaluation law has rolled out in slow motion

The evaluation law has been put into effect in stages and isn’t yet fully implemented, partly because of the complexities of setting up the evaluation system and partly because the 2014 launch of new state tests created a gap in the state data needed to measure student academic growth.

The 2014 legislature gave school districts flexibility in using growth data for the 2014-15 school year. Districts could use 50 percent, 0 percent or anything in-between.

The 2015 legislature made a different tweak in the evaluation law. In the current school year, districts are required to base 50 percent of evaluations on student growth. But last year’s testing reform law barred districts from using state testing data to measure growth.

That testing law also says that if school districts don’t receive state test results in time to use them for evaluations districts should use local measures of growth.

It’s a common misconception that student growth is based only on data derived from state test results. The original evaluation law required that growth be determined by “multiple measures” such as state tests, local tests and other data. The law also gives districts flexibility in how they weight the different data used to make up the 50 percent. Some districts use school accreditation ratings as part of the growth measure and apply them to all teachers in a school.

The evaluation system wouldn’t work without local measures of growth. Statewide tests are given in language arts and math, but only in grades 3-9. State science and social studies tests are given only once in elementary, middle and high school. And the majority of teachers don’t teach those subjects.

Three other evaluation-related bills are pending this session:

  • House Bill 16-1016 – Provides state help to districts to develop additional measures of student growth
  • House Bill 16-1121 – Exempts nationally board certified teachers from the requirement for annual evaluations
  • House Bill 16-1099 – Repeals a provision that requires mutual consent of a teacher and a principal for placement in a school a creates additional protections for teachers who aren’t place

There’s been statehouse chatter about extending the current time-out on use of state test data in evaluations, but no concrete proposals have surfaced.

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.