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.”

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.