Colorado’s teacher evaluation system could see big changes

 Noel Community Arts School math teacher Jeff Astudillo sits at a table in front of white boards and across from students.

Colorado’s controversial teacher evaluation system could get an overhaul this year, with less weight given to standardized test scores and more focus placed on helping teachers improve.

For years, revamping teacher evaluation has been a top legislative priority for the state’s teachers unions and school districts, but supporters of education reform and test-based accountability balked at proposed changes.

Now, supporters of accountability say there’s a proposal they can get behind that also addresses educators’ concerns about the current system. 

Senate Bill 70, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, would reduce the weight given to measures of student academic growth from 50% to 30% of an educators’ evaluation, provide more training for people who conduct evaluations, encourage local innovation, and put more emphasis on teachers’ professional development.

The bill, which received initial approval Thursday in the Senate Education Committee, also suspends the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation until the 2023-24 school year to give schools more time to recover from the pandemic and develop new systems.

Critically, the bill has the support of Gov. Jared Polis.

Jen Walmer, state director for Democrats for Education Reform, called it a comprehensive solution to long-standing complaints about Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law.

“The goal has always been to help develop and support excellent teachers,” she said. “The time is now to help streamline the system, make it less burdensome, restart the evaluation system, and set up the evaluation system to really help teachers grow.”

But groups representing educators aren’t cheering the changes. With schools still reeling from the pandemic, they say it’s the wrong time to do a major reform. They do want short-term relief so that teachers aren’t judged against test scores in the midst of ongoing disruptions.

“What’s happening on a daily basis is that central office people who are in charge of data and evaluations and assessments are substituting [in classrooms]. Superintendents are substituting,” said Bret Miles, head of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “We do not have the bandwidth to sit down and support major changes to education policy.”

Many states are relying less on test scores

Colorado adopted its teacher effectiveness law, still commonly known by its bill number, Senate Bill 191, in 2010. It was part of the federal “Race to the Top” program, which aimed to identify great teachers and reward them, help other teachers improve, and weed out those who didn’t belong in the classroom. 

Colorado’s law calls for teachers’ job performance to be measured half by student academic growth and half by classroom observation of professional practices such as showing a strong understanding of the content and delivering effective instruction.

Districts can use a range of academic data to show student growth, but at least 1% of every teacher’s evaluation must be tied to standardized test scores. Often it’s much higher than that. Many districts assign school or districtwide scores to every teacher. These collective measures can make up an especially high portion of the rating for teachers of non-tested subjects, like art, music, and physical education. 

Though the vast majority of teachers are rated effective or highly effective, many of them resent the system, while many administrators find it burdensome.

In recent years, due to changes in federal law, many states have reduced the weight given to student academic growth, making Colorado unusual in its reliance on test scores. Meanwhile, studies of teacher evaluation systems have not found any effect on student achievement, with a few exceptions, such as the Washington, D.C., school system.

Evaluation systems are supposed to both hold teachers accountable and help them grow, purposes that often are in tension with each other, said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. 

“If I had a magic wand and could go back in time, we would have been better off avoiding the debate about using student test scores,” Kraft said. “It’s been so polarizing and distracting and gotten us away from the very reasonable proposition that teacher performance in the classroom matters.”

Any questions people ask about the validity of test scores should also be asked about classroom observations, Kraft said, with studies finding they have the potential to introduce bias. But observations create more opportunity for constructive feedback when done well, he said.

With limited resources, students might be best served if administrators focused their attention on supporting the teachers who struggle most while providing better pay and leadership opportunities like coaching for the highest performers, Kraft said. Professional development for the rest of the educator workforce could be separated from the evaluation process.

Teacher evaluation presents another pandemic challenge

Three years ago, state Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat, sponsored a bill with the backing of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, that would have reduced the weight given to student growth measures to 30% — just as Bridges’ bill would this year. The bill failed to advance out of the education committee after reform organizations raised concerns that it was too drastic a change.

Gov. Polis, who has close ties to education reform, also opposed the bill but agreed that teacher evaluation needed reform. His office convened education advocacy groups to work on a compromise. The following spring, COVID hit, and Polis suspended teacher evaluations along with state assessments by executive order. Reform legislation never materialized — until now.

Bridges and the governor’s office describe Senate Bill 70 as implementing recommendations agreed to by that group. Miles, who represents superintendents, and Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, say that group never reached a firm consensus. 

Story, meanwhile, has a new proposal to change teacher evaluation. Senate Bill 44 prohibits giving student growth scores any formal weight in teacher evaluation, though that information would still be incorporated into the feedback that teachers get. 

“Many, many teachers that I have spoken to talk about how this process is so insulting and demeaning to them as a professional because there are so many factors that go into how a student tests on any given day,” Story said.

The bill has the support of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the American Federation of Teachers Colorado chapter, but not the support of other key education advocacy and interest groups on either side of the debate.

But CASE and CEA are supporting a different proposal, Senate Bill 69, also sponsored by Story, that would suspend the use of test data in teacher evaluations when there are major disruptions to student learning, such as fires, floods, and pandemics.

“The unfortunate reality is we’ve had multiple school years where we’ve seen big natural disasters that impacted particular communities and school districts,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We’ve had fires and pandemics at the same time.”

Opponents, including the organizations backing Bridges’ proposal, say the bill’s definition of a disruption is so broad it could apply for years at a time in most parts of the state, effectively gutting any coherent teacher evaluation system. Polis is unlikely to sign either of the alternative bills if they make it to his desk.

Kara Powell, a spokeswoman for Polis, described Senate Bill 70 as making “common-sense improvements” based on input from stakeholders while addressing pandemic circumstances, and said Polis has concerns about any proposal that “takes a blanket approach to suspending student growth.” 

Several years ago, a group of Teach Plus Colorado fellows surveyed educators and found that most teachers thought test scores mattered but accounted for too much of their own evaluation, that they wanted to be evaluated by people who understood their content area, and that they wanted more opportunity to keep improving, even if they were already rated effective. 

Teach Plus Colorado Policy Director Mark Sass said Senate Bill 70 incorporates many of these recommendations, and importantly, allocates state money to train evaluators and develop better guidance for observations.

“It’s committing the resources necessary to make this work,” he said.

Senate Bill 70 passed the Senate Education Committee in a 6-1 vote Feb. 10. Sen. Story voted no. Senate Bills 44 and 69 are scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 17.

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