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Abominable Snowbills Look to Gut Accountability in Colorado

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s snowing outside. Like, a lot. The good news is that the snowstorm means I get to hang out at home, drink hot chocolate, and make snow angels. The bad news is that there is an approximately 63 percent higher chance of attack by abominable snowmen like this one:

View post on imgur.com

Okay, that’s a lie. Abominable snowmen aren’t real (I hope). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t abominable things afoot—like bills gutting accountability, performance pay systems, and tenure reform.

I’m sure you all recall that my Independence Institute friend Ross Izard is a big believer in accountability and tenure reform. He recently co-authored a Denver Post op-ed on the importance of these things. Last session, he wrote a big, long article on the dangers of Republicans mistakenly teaming up with the teachers union to dismantle accountability systems. Ross is working on updating that article for this year, but we’ll go ahead and get a head start today. Abominable snowbills wait for no one.

The two bills in question are HB 1121 and SB 105. HB 1121 would enable local school boards to pass policies allowing teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) to only be evaluated every three years. Currently teachers are evaluated every year, though we still haven’t gotten around to fully implementing SB 191’s strengthened evaluations.

As a quick refresher, SB 191 requires that 50 percent of teacher and principal evaluations be comprised of multiple measures student growth data (no, not just from the much-maligned state tests). The other 50 percent is made up of what I consider to be subjective judgments based on observations in the classroom. The student growth data is important, as it pushes back against the “Widget Effect,” which saw nearly 100 percent of teachers rated effective or better year after year under strictly subjective evaluation systems. Unfortunately, SB 191′s evaluation system has been on hold for a while as accountability opponents and the teachers union do everything they can do delay or disrupt implementation.

SB 105, which is being supported by a “bipartisan” group of senators that makes me feel like I’ve fallen into Bizzaro World, forgoes any pretense and just murders SB 191 entirely. It removes the 50 percent requirement for student growth in educator evaluations, forbids school districts from using student growth in evaluations in any amount exceeding 20 percent (an apparently arbitrary number that flies in the face of the research on the subject), and makes so local school boards can allow teachers and principals with effective or better ratings to pass on evaluations for up to three years—no extra certification required.

On the HB 1121 front, I’ll be intellectually honest and admit that there is some evidence that NBPTS certification can be an effective “signal” of teacher effectiveness. The effect sizes here are small, but they are statistically significant.

A discussion of the intricacies of these studies is too much for a blog post, but I will mention the important caveat that teachers must choose to pursue NBPTS certification, which could introduce some selection bias. In other words, it may be that better teachers are more likely to go through the certification process to begin with. Additionally, teachers are allowed to retake sections of the certification test they didn’t pass the first time, and the teachers who need to retest tend not to be any more effective than their uncertified peers in most subject areas. So, NBPTS certification does not necessarily guarantee teacher effectiveness.

But honestly, none of that really matters in this context. I’m glad that NBPTS certification can potentially increase teachers’ effectiveness, and I applaud teachers willing to put themselves through the process. But that’s an input, not an output. There are a lot of things that can help make teachers more effective. To borrow an idiom, all roads can lead to Rome. However, no input can guarantee a desired output.

For accountability and personnel purposes, what we care about is effectiveness as an output. That means we need to measure it as an output, not rely on input “signals” to make that call for us. And because teachers teach different students each year, we need to measure it as an output annually. Anything less risks letting kids slip through the cracks. Besides, if we’re really so confident that NBPTS-certified teachers will always be effective, why should we worry about them having to undergo evaluations each year?

SB 105’s propositions are even worse from a policy perspective. First, the bill’s elimination of the 50 percent student growth returns us to the days of the Widget Effect. Don’t think that will happen in Colorado? Think again. The last CDE report on the state’s model evaluation system pilot, which looks at data from 2013-14 and deals only with the subjective portion of the model evaluation system adopted by most districts, found that 97 percent of teachers in the pilot were rated proficient or better under the system. The Widget Effect is alive and well in Colorado education.

Because nearly every teacher will likely be rated effective or better under SB 105, we can forget about anything requiring meaningful differentiation of performance in the classroom. That means we can say goodbye to performance pay, merit-based personnel decisions, performance- rather than seniority-based collective bargaining agreements, and tenure reform.

And because those near-universal effective ratings can carry forward for up to three years should a local school board decide to allow that to happen (you remember how the November elections went, right?), we’ll be talking about the de facto elimination of yearly performance evaluations for educators. That’s right, we’re simply going to stop evaluating teachers—the single most important school-related factor in students’ academic success—in any meaningful sense.

“Bad idea” doesn’t seem like a strong enough description here. This is not just bad policy, it’s straight-up abominable policy. Here’s hoping we have about as much chance of seeing this silliness in the wild as a real abominable snowman.