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Disputed Dougco Evaluations? Don’t Turn Up the Heat, Just Share All the Facts

Update, 5/28: I took off for the long holiday weekend, and came back to learn that Our Colorado News had updated the article on the Trailblazer teacher evaluation controversy, addressing some of the shortcomings I identified. I’d like to thank them for making an effort to improve the story.

If you can’t stifle dramatic local innovation at the legislature, there’s always the route of misleading newspaper articles. When it comes to the bold transformational changes going on in Douglas County, and the overheated political opposition that goes along for the ride, you almost have to expect it.

The local journalists at Our Colorado News have picked up the slack, publishing a story rife with relevant omissions to try to convey a conveniently crafted political message:

Trailblazer Elementary School Principal Linda Schneider says 70 percent of her teachers are “highly effective” under the Douglas County School District’s new evaluation system.

The district questions that finding, and is summoning all the school’s teachers for a second, independent review….

District-wide, about 15 percent of teachers are rated “highly effective,” according to information provided by DCSD.

Under the evaluations, each teacher is assigned a rating ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective” that is tied to pay increases. “Highly effectives” could get a substantial raise, while “ineffectives” likely won’t see increases.

So only 15 percent of district teachers are getting raises? And central administrators don’t like the fact that a rogue, courageous principal gave far more of her teachers evaluation ratings that won’t get them a raise? So the meanies down in the Castle Rock administration building don’t like their artificial quota system being resisted, and are storming in to make sure teachers don’t get any more money? The story’s undertones would be laughable if key information hadn’t been omitted that turns the fantastic narrative upside down.

First of all, how about some basic facts? Trailblazer Elementary is one of 100 DCSD schools. Interestingly, it had by far the lowest teacher survey participation rate of any of the district’s more than 40 neighborhood elementary schools. Survey results that were overwhelmingly positive. Why is that?

There might be a clue for an ambitious reporter to connect a few dots and see if the two anomalies — evaluation results and survey participation — reflect on something deeper taking place in the school leadership rather than a mere coincidence. If they just don’t like, or don’t fully understand, the evaluation system, that would be a vital observation. Then again, the article says the principal didn’t respond to their requests for comment.

Next, it would be helpful to point out that there are a total of four (not just two) rating categories in the district’s new CITE evaluation system, and perhaps to indicate what share of teachers have received the different marks. It also would be beneficial to mention the range of compensation increases available to DCSD teachers this year based on their evaluation ratings:

  • Highly Effective: 6.7% – 9.2%
  • Effective: 4.7% – 6.2%
  • Partially Effective: 2.7% – 3.7%
  • Ineffective: 1.2% (benefits only, not base pay)

If there really are more than four times as many super-outstanding instructors at Trailblazer, shouldn’t we expect the school to improve measured student academic growth more than most other DCSD elementary schools? Isn’t it only fair to ensure teachers there are being judged by the same basic standards as their counterparts at other sites? And isn’t it fair to bring in a team of principals from other schools at least to check and see if there is a legitimate reason for a HUGE anomaly in the ratings?

We don’t know how many Trailblazer teachers truly meet the rigorous standard of “highly effective.” But the article could have directly stated (rather than just putting words in the mouth of the district administrator) that a panel of 10 other DCSD principals reviewed the school’s results and clearly found a problem. Or instead of writing the district maintains that the system actually is not quota-driven, or “norm-referenced,” the newspaper actually could confirm that’s the case.

After all, the review process is about the integrity of the evaluations, not the teachers themselves. The first place to look for the apparent failing is at the school leadership level. For whatever reason, the soon-to-retire Principal Schneider came up short with the process. (Maybe that story isn’t juicy enough?) Now a trio of her colleagues — experienced and respected evaluators — are going back through the body of evidence teachers have provided, and will come back with more accurate determinations next week.

Some truly may believe once the bank errs in your favor, it has to stand because somebody said so first. Some might also feel teachers are all great, and that no real judgments can be made to distinguish the performance of some from others. But fair-minded reporting wouldn’t ignore the clear facts that call into question the basis of those opinions.

Let’s be clear. The implementation of any new major system like CITE evaluations in Douglas County is going to encounter some initial bumps and flaws, and require continuous improvement. But unless you believe in grand conspiracies, there’s no good reason to frame a news story as an attack on the integrity of the system and/or of district officials, when evidence suggests the problem is with the evaluations being run at the school level.

You’ve got to hand it to Our Colorado News. They may have backed away from the outrageously overt bias that got them in trouble a few months ago, but the latest result really isn’t much of an improvement. Rather than fan the flames of controversy by driving an agenda, why not point out the facts and let readers make informed decisions?