Fixing How Colorado Teachers Are Evaluated an Important Reform Piece

Hooray for Nancy Mitchell, and so glad she is working at Ed News Colorado these days. Her latest investigation probes the value of our current teacher evaluation system at identifying effective teachers, weeding out ineffective teachers, and providing support where necessary.

The results? Not very good:

Education News Colorado requested teacher evaluation data from the six largest districts, all in the metro area, which serve more than 40 percent of public school students statewide.

The analysis found little difference between the results of evaluations given in affluent, high-performing Douglas County and those doled out in urban Denver Public Schools, where large numbers of students perform below average on state exams.

Fewer than 2 percent of teachers in either district – or in Adams Five-Star School District or in Jefferson County Public Schools – were told they needed to improve their instructional skills.

For their part Denver leaders have worked to pioneer performance pay through ProComp, but even two years ago they recognized the limitations of relying on teacher evaluations as a component of the pay system. My Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow documented it in his Denver’s ProComp and Teacher Compensation Reform in Colorado (PDF):

ProComp officials have chosen to rely more heavily on objective indicators. “Frankly, we don’t have faith in high-stakes judgments,” [then-DPS Senior Academic Policy Adviser Brad] Jupp said.

Quoted in the Ed News Colorado article, Jupp elaborates on the problems with the current teacher evaluation system:

Jupp, now on loan to Duncan’s office to work on teacher effectiveness, said the complicated schematic evolved because quality teaching can be difficult to measure. Unions wanted to ensure their members were evaluated fairly and their livelihoods protected from biased evaluators.

“In the absence of good information about what teachers did with kids, and in the presence of people having grave consequences committed upon them for arbitrary or capricious reasons, people created a system with a lot of brakes,” Jupp said. “And the brakes have taken on a life of their own.”

The result is that regardless of whether a school district has performance pay, it is very difficult to remove poorly-performing teachers. Sure, the burden of state laws (effectively, but not officially known as, “tenure”) makes it a tremendous and costly challenge.

But even without changing the laws, there are a couple things that can be done:

  • Make a concerted effort to improve the quality and autonomy of school-level and district-level leadership
  • Improve the teacher evaluation system

Which brings us full circle.

The Ed News Colorado article provides a great example of a Colorado school district that is making a difference with effective use of classroom monitoring and evaluations, and even committing to remove ineffective instructors. Kudos to Harrison School District 2 and Superintendent Mike Miles for working to set the standard in this area.

But I still have one problem: If the teacher evaluations don’t mean very much, how do I really know how well my teacher is doing?