Human Resources

Colorado testing an updated teacher evaluation system that will take less time but set a higher bar

Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lori Petersen, principal of Arkansas Elementary School in Aurora, is a huge fan of teacher evaluations. But as she sees it, there are two critical problems with the state’s system that need fixing:

First, the system is cumbersome and overly time-consuming. Second, too many teachers in Aurora and across the state are earning high ratings while student test scores continue to lag.

“I was shocked,” she said, recalling a meeting where she learned that most of the suburban school district’s teachers received an “effective” rating or higher — even as Aurora faces state intervention for chronic poor performance on state tests.

This year, the state is trying out changes to the evaluation program in 40 districts, including Aurora, that would address both of Peterson’s worries. The overhaul is aimed at making evaluations easier for principals to conduct — by halving the number of practices they are supposed to observe — and harder for teachers to ace.

Most of Colorado’s 178 school districts use the state’s system. But some large districts such as Denver have developed their own and are not part of the pilot.

The changes to the state’s system come seven years after Colorado led the nation in updating its teacher evaluation system, which included the controversial move of linking teacher ratings to student performance on tests.

The new law required that all teachers be evaluated every year, a change from every three. They’d be issued a rating from “ineffective” to “highly effective” — and teachers who earned a low ratings for two straight years would lose job protections.

The effort has failed to provide backers with what they wanted: better data identifying teachers who need help. Nearly 90 percent of Colorado teachers in 2015, the most recent year available, received a rating of effective or higher. States across the nation have seen similar results from their efforts to better evaluate teachers.

Instead, teachers and principals alike often complain that the system is cumbersome and time-consuming — and far too subjective.

Now, Colorado officials hope the updated version will alleviate detested paperwork, freeing up principals and teachers to focus more on the craft of teaching.

“We want to see a reduction in time spent on checking boxes, and that time spent in a more meaningful way,” said Mary Bivens, the state education department’s director of educator development.

The biggest change to the teacher evaluation system is the number of classroom practices principals need to monitor. The list has been cut nearly in half from 336 to 181.

The reduction comes from eliminating dozens of near-duplicative strategies that were supposed to be measured in different sections of the evaluation, said John Madden, an assistant principal at Overland High School in the Cherry Creek School District who helped with the revisions.

For example, he said, multiple parts of the current rubric ask principals to look at how teachers are incorporating technology and literacy skills, and developing challenging lessons. In the pilot, each of those topics gets addressed only once or twice.

“These changes will help teachers and principals focus on the practice and not on the tool itself,” he said. “It helps clarify some of the expectation and it cuts down on the enormity of the document. It doesn’t feel so cumbersome and hard to get through.”

Petersen, the Arkansas Elementary principal, is participating in the pilot. She said she’s reviewed the new rubric and found it to be clearer. She said she plans to monitor each classroom more carefully throughout the year instead of just checking off a box if she sees a teacher use a particular strategy just once — like she used to.

“We [were] just giving instant credit,” she said. “I now have the expectation that I have to see it over time.”

The skinny version should help her complete the 24 informal visits she plans for each of her 20 teachers.

In total, Petersen estimates that she was spending upwards of 500 hours — the equivalent of three months of work — on the evaluation process each year. That includes multiple rounds of goal setting, regularly monitoring student progress and giving her staff midyear reviews.

“It’s time-consuming,” the third-year principal said. “I had never counted the hours before.”

The state will be monitoring data from informal visits that principals track in the state’s system throughout the year and it will collect anecdotes from districts piloting the rubric. What the state wants to see more than anything is principals spending more time coaching teachers.

“We’re studying that conversation,” said Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the state education department. “We’re focused on the growth of the people.”

Not all of the changes under consideration are aimed at simplifying the process for educators. Some are meant to raise the bar on what it takes for a teacher to earn a top rating.

Previously, teachers could earn the state’s highest rating if they earned roughly 68 percent of the total points from classroom observations. Under the pilot, teachers will be eligible for the highest rating only if they’ve earned about approximately 78 percent of points. But that number could change as a result of the pilot, state officials said. In both cases, students must show more than expected academic growth on state tests and other course work in order for a teacher to earn a highly effective rating.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a critic of using student test scores in Colorado’s evaluation system, declined to comment on the changes, saying the pilot was too new for the union to have formed an opinion.

Elizabeth Ross, managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit that advocates for more stringent evaluations systems, applauded Colorado’s work to update its evaluation system.

“It’s crystal clear that the system is not working as it was supposed to in Colorado,” she said. “It’s not giving them the information to figure out where there are teachers who need more support to improve their practice.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

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Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.