Bipartisan Vote Sinks Anti-Accountability Bill… Again

I’m back after a brief hiatus, and we’ve got some catching up to do on the legislative front. Specifically, we can celebrate the fact that Sen. Michael Merrifield has learned once again that doing the same thing over and over again may not be the best approach.

I wrote a rather snarky post a few weeks ago about Merrifield’s SB 067, which was functionally identical to last year’s SB 105. Both bills sought to gut tenure reform, performance pay, and merit-based personnel decisions by essentially blowing up strong educator evaluations. In particular, Merrifield was once again attempting to eliminate the requirement that evaluations include multiple measures of student growth. And once again, he failed to do so.

Before we get to the particulars of SB 067’s timely death, we should pause to consider what such legislation might have meant for Colorado had it survived. If Merrifield had been successful, Colorado would have been returned to the days of essentially every teacher being rated effective every year. No meaningful differentiation would mean no way to tie things like the earning or loss of tenure, compensation, layoff decisions or other actions to educator performance. Tenure, compensation, and much of collective bargaining reform would die basically overnight. To make matters worse, the bill would have allowed  teachers rated effective (i.e., essentially all teachers) to be evaluated just once every three years instead of every year. The unions would love such a change. Those of us who understand and appreciate the power of effective teaching—and the importance of being able to measure and identify different levels of effectiveness— would be significantly less enthused.

SB 067 got its required hearing before the Senate Education Committee on February 16. There were hours of testimony offered on both sides, much of which followed Merrifield’s lead in decrying the reliance on “test scores” to evaluate teachers. I’ve always found that particular misconception fascinating.

SB 191, the law that brought evaluation reform to Colorado in 2010, does require that state test scores be included as part of the statutory 50 percent student growth metrics if they are available, but it does not tell districts how heavily to weight those scores. Districts that dislike the use of PARCC scores for evaluations could weight them at half of one percent, then fill in the rest of the 50 percent with district- or school-created metrics, other test results of the district’s choosing, student learning objectives, or a number of other interesting measures of student learning. There is nothing stopping districts from getting creative in how they develop their evaluation systems. Indeed, some have already done so with significant success. The only requirement is that some sort of reasonably objective measurement of student learning be included in evaluations.

I was pleased that the members of the Senate Education Committee made exactly that point repeatedly during the hearing, pushing back against both those who came to testify and Merrifield himself on this pernicious piece of misinformation. They challenged opponents to justify their argument that unlike just about every other profession in the world, teachers should not be evaluated in part on objective measurements of performance. The toughest resistance came from Republicans, but even Democrat Rachel Zenzinger didn’t buy the rhetoric embraced by her colleagues.

Ultimately, the committee killed SB 067 in its crib just as it killed SB 105 last year.  And, just like last year, the bill died in a bipartisan fashion with one Democrat—Zenzinger this year and now termed-out Michael Johnston last year—voting with Republicans to put this silly idea to rest. Kudos to the committee for making the right call once again, and to all the groups (including the Independence Institute) that worked hard to ensure that result.

As it turns out, doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result may not be the best approach to change. There are certainly issues with Colorado’s educator evaluation system, but the answer to those issues is not to tear it down and return to the old system—a system we know definitively did not work. I’m happy to have those conversations. In the meantime, I’m pleased that this piece of bad legislation is once again in the ground.