Editor’s note – Reporters around the country collaborated with the Education Writers Association, Education Week and The Hechinger Report for an analysis of the nation’s massive effort to improve its lowest-performing schools. Education News Colorado was one of the partners.

In the Obama administration’s new push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, the vast majority of districts chose the reform option that seemed the least invasive: Instead of closing schools or firing at least half of the teaching staff, schools could undergo less aggressive interventions, such as overhauling how teacher performance is measured and rewarding teachers who do well.

But the teacher evaluation requirement has turned out to be a major stumbling block for many schools in the School Improvement Grant or SIG program. Last summer, when the U.S. Department of Education offered waivers to extend the deadline for the new teacher and principal evaluations, more than two dozen states applied on behalf of their SIG schools.

“You have this pressure you’re putting on these schools, and it really becomes a challenge for them to respond,” said Scott Marion, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment, which has advised schools on evaluation models.

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The movement to overhaul how teachers are rated has sparked public battles between school officials and teachers unions across the country. Amid the tumult, the SIG program has received less attention.

Yet it’s likely to be just as instrumental in spreading the Obama administration’s vision of reform for the teaching profession. After initial delays, many schools, along with entire districts and states, are set to launch new evaluation systems to fulfill the grant’s mandates in the next year — despite technical difficulties, resistance from unions and questions about the accuracy of various evaluation methods.

Schools applying for SIG money had four reform models to choose from. During the first round of the program, launched in 2010, nearly three-quarters of schools — more than 600 — signed up for the “transformation” model, which requires schools to create new evaluation and reward systems for teachers based in part on student academic growth.

Some transformation schools are located in states already in the midst of launching new statewide evaluation systems, including Colorado, Florida, New York and Tennessee. Many are not, however. Elsewhere, SIG schools have helped influence whole districts and states to rework how teacher performance is measured, including Michigan, Mississippi and New Jersey.

In Colorado

Colorado is not among the states pursuing a waiver of the teacher and principal evaluation requirements for its SIG transformation schools. That’s because federal officials are satisfied that Senate Bill 10-191, the Great Teachers and Leaders law, fulfills those requirements.

The 2010 law links student achievement to teacher and principal evaluations, making it a factor in employment decisions such as pay and retention. Some state school districts are now piloting an evaluation system based on the law, which requires districts adopt such systems by 2014-15.

“What we have in place is sufficient from the standpoint of the U.S. Department of Education,” said Patrick Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the Colorado Department of Education.

Some Colorado SIG schools, such as Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary, have revised their teachers evaluations, moving from a binary system of “satisfactory” or “not satisfactory” to a more nuanced approach.

But Fort Logan Principal Barb Johnson said the new evaluations don’t yet incorporate student test results and the new effort will be revised over time to meet the requirements of S.B. 10-191.

In many places, schools have had to go it alone.

In Louisville, Ky., the teachers union reluctantly agreed to a new teacher evaluation model in four schools that entered the SIG program this year and chose the transformation model. Part of the agreement required that the new system — which includes bonus pay for high-performing teachers — not include any other schools in the district.

In Alaska and Nebraska, schools were left to design new teacher evaluation systems with the help of private consultants.

“The difficulty is that none of these sites had anything in place at all for collecting and analyzing student achievement data in terms of tying it to teacher evaluation,” said Gerry Briscoe, a school improvement specialist at the Alaska Comprehensive Center, which is supporting the state’s 10 SIG schools.

Even schools in states with advanced data systems must figure out how to measure student growth for the vast majority of teachers whose students don’t regularly take standardized tests, including those who teach social studies, music, art or physical education. The Department of Education has said methods must be both “rigorous and comparable” across teachers and schools, but experts say following that mandate can be hard.

In one popular approach, teachers set goals for their students at the beginning of the year and then check to see if they have met them the following June.

“If every teacher is setting their own goals and using measures of their own choosing … there’s going to be big differences in the goals, and there’s going to be big differences in the scoring,” said Laura Goe, a researcher at the Educational Testing Service who has advised SIG schools.

Officials in the Obama administration say they recognize the challenges, but insist that the teacher evaluation requirement is critical to the success of the reforms as a whole.

“This is tough work,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We want to make sure that districts have time to develop high-quality evaluation systems that will help them successfully turn around their schools.”

The waivers given out to the first set of SIG schools move the deadline for launching the new evaluation systems from this school year to 2013-14, the year after the schools’ grant money runs out.

Officials say the development process is the costliest part of the reforms. And there are no consequences if schools don’t make the deadlines or if their systems do not meet expectations, officials said.

See which states have sought evaluation waivers


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Leslie Brody of The Bergen (N.J.) Record, Antoinette Konz of the The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.