SB 191 Under Attack?

It ought to go without saying that an effective public education system should seek to identify classroom instructors who are successful and those who are not in order to reward and incentivize the former and to correct the latter. This was ostensibly the aim of the 2010 Senate Bill 191, the provisions of which continue to find themselves under near-constant attack nearly a decade after Gov. Ritter signed it into law.

SB 191 was most importantly an effort to reform tenure practices in Colorado’s public schools and to thus make sure that only effective teachers would continue to educate the state’s public school students. The foremost provision of the bill was to tie a teacher’s attainment of tenure—or “non-probationary status”—to his or her respective teaching expertise rather than merely to the number of years they had spent in their position. Moreover, the bill also stipulated that a teacher could lose his or her tenure if their performance in the classroom demonstrated a pattern of insufficiency: in other words, no longer would extensive and expensive legal action always be necessary to penalize ineffective educators. This seems like a rather commonsense business practice, especially so when the business in question is as crucial socially as is education.

Though we have seen some challenges to the provisions of SB 191 that relate directly to tenure and hiring practices, over the years, the focal point of the arguments and battles that have continued to emerge in the Bill’s aftermath have been the methods and measures used to evaluate teachers’ classroom effectiveness.

Because the granting and potential loss of tenure hinges on a pattern of year-to-year results, the law logically requires that teachers be evaluated annually. Recently, the Colorado Education Association president expressed support for an effort to remove the ‘every teacher, every year’ evaluation provision. The proposal in question would have instead required that a teacher who had demonstrated effectiveness for three consecutive years, thus earning non-probationary status, subsequently be assessed only every third year. This would have meant that a tenured teacher could potentially begin demonstrating instructional ineffectiveness almost immediately, but three years would have to pass before the initial negative evaluation would prompt a second evaluation that could then lead to their loss of tenure. An ineffective, or perhaps even bad teacher could thus be continually employed for four years, or twice as long as SB 191 now stipulates.

While the portion of Sen. Story’s proposal addressing evaluation intervals was ultimately scrapped, her bill modifying SB 191 is now before the Colorado Senate as SB 247. Instead of modifying the frequency of Colorado educator evaluations, the bill would affect the content of these evaluations.

Under SB 191, 50 percent of teacher effectiveness ratings are to be tied to direct measures of student growth, SB 247 would reduce this percentage to 30. It bears noting that this 50 percent requirement does not necessarily stipulate that scores from state standardized tests constitute the entirety of this sum. Instead districts may weigh test scores however low they wish, and can use other forms of data so long as it constitutes an objective measurement of student learning. Two similar measures were unsuccessfully put forth before the Colorado Senate in 2016 and 2017 (SB 105 and SB 067, respectively). Senate committee hearings for both of these bills and this year’s SB 247 continue to reveal a steadfast commitment to the narrative that teachers’ careers are unfairly put on the line because of test scores and test scores alone.

Unlike its predecessors, however, SB 247 includes the provision that the remaining portion of the previously required 50 percent—that’s 20 percent for those not keeping track at home—be based on “other measures determined […] to support student, educator, and system growth.” It may be easily argued that adding another parameter to the process of educator evaluation could stand to make the process far more cumbersome than it is, and this is crucial because what often goes unmentioned in discussions of Colorado teacher evaluations is the remaining 50 percent of the equation.

Currently, the system established by SB 191 dictates that one half of the teacher’s performance be assessed based on the performance of students while the other is based on an evaluation of the teacher’s performance as a teacher. This half of the evaluation equation is in turn shaped by a state-mandated Quality Standards outline that schools and districts must follow or exceed, the accompanying rubric includes 148 points across 4 standards and 5 levels of proficiency.

Given the tremendously high stakes that are always at play in the realm teacher accountability and education more broadly, such a detailed outline may in fact be necessary. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Colorado’s teacher evaluation process as a whole can be burdensome and some of its aspects can, and perhaps should be reevaluated. Last Thursday’s teacher testimonies before the Senate Education Committee were certainly moving and do attest to this need for reconsideration. For this reason, SB 247’s second major provision, which seeks to establish a working group to review current evaluation practices and put forth recommendations for future changes, could be a step in the right direction.

The proposed working group is to be composed of the state commissioner of education or his or her appointee, six legislators, as well as 20 members of the public. The latter category is to include teachers, school and district administrators, policy experts, as well as two parents and a student.

Attention should be drawn here to the teachers that are to participate in the proposed study. Four of the six educators are to be appointed “with the advice of a statewide association that represents teachers.” While no such provision is made for the remaining two teachers, the bill does not stipulate that any of the teachers whose advice is to be sought ought should be union non-members.

Colorado’s labor relations landscape is relatively unique in that teachers are not required to be members of a union in order to hold public school employment. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, claims to represent more than 35,000 educators across the state. While this is certainly a large number, there are currently around 55,000 teachers working in our state, meaning that the percentage of teachers who hold interests that may be very distinct from those of their unionized coworkers is in fact not negligible at all. Because teacher effectiveness evaluations relate directly to hiring, firing, and tenure practices, they intersect with the realm of labor practices, and for this reason we believe that steps should be taken to ensure that the proposed working group factors in the interests of the state’s non-union teachers.