This commentary was written by Jessica Cuthbertson, an educator with 10 years’ experience. She is a literacy coach in Aurora Public Schools and an active member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality.

How do you measure the effectiveness of an educator?

As a literacy coach I experience firsthand the multi-tasking, the magic, and the mishaps that occur in schools every day. I see teachers and kids on their best days, their worst days and all of the days in between.

I see teaching and learning in action. And I see the planning, thinking and “behind the curtain” decision-making that drives the day-to-day instruction in classrooms.

So it was with mixed feelings that I agreed to serve on the “alternative evaluation team” for three teachers this year. Would this blurring of instructional coaching and evaluation make teachers more or less responsive to collaboration and feedback? Would it foster trust and honesty or fear and fabrication?

Despite my initial reservations, being a part of each teacher’s team has strengthened our relationships and added layers of depth to our work.

The alternative evaluation process was piloted in 2006-07 in Aurora Public Schools and is currently an option available to non-probationary teachers (those with more than three years of experience in the district). Non-probationary teachers can pursue alternative evaluation or continue with traditional evaluations that consist of two to four formal classroom observations throughout the school year and a pre/post conference with an administrator.

The alternative evaluation elevates teacher voice and choice in the process. Teachers select multiple indicators for their evaluation. The measures come from a bank of indicators that are aligned to standards in four broad categories: Teaching and student learning, learning environment, professional development and professionalism. Teachers choose the indicators that align with their daily work and reflect areas where they want to grow as professionals and instructional leaders.

Teachers also organize an “alternative evaluation team” – a group comprised of at least one administrator (the “evaluator of record”) and one or more colleagues, instructional coaches, mentors, parents or other professionals selected by the teacher. The team works as a panel to inform and support the evaluation process alongside the teacher, who is responsible for gathering evidence of his or her progress toward the indicators for each standard.

Angelina Walker, a high school literacy/ELD (English Language Development) teacher and administrative teacher n special assignment (TOSA) at Vista PEAK in Aurora is currently engaged in the alternative evaluation process. “I truly feel like the one snapshot evaluation is not conducive, nor is it informative, to how I really teach and interact with students, parents and staff.”

She added: “I know that I can plan a great lesson and have it executed well in one shot.  However, as a professional, I also know that you will know a person’s true ability by having multiple interactions and conversations with a teacher. I felt that this process would challenge me to become a better teacher.”

Vanessa Valencia, a sixth grade literacy and humanities teacher at Vista Peak, entered the field of education with previous experience in the corporate world where concrete, tangible results drove her evaluation. She believes the alternative evaluation process should be open to probationary and non-probationary teachers alike, and that this process is in closer alignment with the rules for SB 10-191 and the upcoming implementation of the new teacher evaluation system in 2014.

“Student data shouldn’t be the only indicator of a teacher’s effectiveness,” states Valencia, “but it should be an important indicator that lives within a larger body of evidence.”

It is the collection of this body of evidence over time that made the alternative evaluation process an appealing option for Valencia, Walker and many of their colleagues. It is a process, that while intensive and time-consuming, is also proving to be professionally rewarding.  A process implemented with hopeful optimism as the state prepares to roll out an evaluation system comprised of results (data) and teacher-collected and created evidence.

In fact, alternative evaluation as implemented in this district may serve as a viable, holistic model worthy of examination and replication to inform the 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation that represent measures other than data, as outlined in the current rules for SB 191. Teachers who have experienced both traditional and alternative evaluations are valuable resources who can support policymakers and district leaders as they design implementation plans in preparation for 2014.

How do you measure the effectiveness of an educator?

You involve teachers in the process. You ask them to collect evidence over time, to reflect on their practice and identify their successes and struggles. You collect evidence alongside them.  You interact with them consistently, inside and outside the classroom. You listen. You increase the number of voices represented on the final document.

Finally, you acknowledge that evaluation is a subjective and imperfect practice. But you endeavor to capture the complexities that comprise the art and science of teaching and learning.