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Food for Thought as Colorado Grinds Ahead Reforming Teacher Evaluations

With so much going on in Colorado’s world of education reform — and all sorts of new and shiny things taking place — it can be easy to forget the state is in the middle of a large-scale change to teacher evaluations.

The highly-charged debates over SB 191 in 2010 seem like a distant memory. Yet the long process of implementing a new evaluation system focused on educator effectiveness grinds forward across Colorado, with bill sponsor Senator Michael Johnston insisting there is no reason to delay further.

A couple of new reports from different sources give reason for ed reformers to keep their fingers crossed. A Center for American Progress report by Patrick McGuinn unpacks the challenges facing state education agencies as they try to bring new evaluation systems to life on a large scale. The report specifically cites Colorado’s work to multiply the number of qualified trainers and the unique partnership between CDE and the Legacy Foundation — concluding that a lot of careful thought and planning has to be given to any state contemplating similar reform.

McGuinn’s report closely follows the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)’s release of The Hangover: Thinking about the Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge, by a trio of esteemed authors (Sara Mead, Andrew Rotherham, Rachael Brown). Though constitutional school board “local control” makes Colorado’s reform process a little less top-down than some others, AEI provides a clear reminder of the need to keep flexibility in the system, to keep focused on the purpose of evaluations, and to not expect new bureaucratic processes to accomplish the necessary changes to the culture of schools and education bureaucracies.

(That last point is important. Because, given an existing culture, a bent toward reforming evaluations could still result in Occupy Denver field trips for Little Eddie, unless vigilant action compels a major school district to back away from highly-charged, controversial language.)

Which brings me to a third report, a look by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) at the overhauled evaluation system in Washington, D.C., schools. IMPACT bears some definite resemblances to the new system being put into place here in Colorado — though the D.C. system goes further by directly embedding performance-based compensation into the mix. The key weakness identified is that many “principals struggle to create cultures and working conditions where the best teachers want to work.”

But overall, TNTP’s Keeping Irreplaceables in D.C. Public Schools offers a bright picture about the new evaluation system’s impact in keeping the best teachers — the “Irreplaceables” — from departing the district or the profession. And that finding in itself is nothing to sneeze at, thanks in no small part to my former edu-crush Michelle Rhee (even though Alex Ooms rightly declares that it’s important to keep policy and personality separate).

All throughout this conversation we are reminded that various reforms often are tightly tied together. That makes it difficult to anticipate that structural changes in one area (e.g., teacher evaluations) — despite all the intense work many will offer in implementation — will result in major changes for student learning, especially not overnight. There is hope, however. A study by researchers Eric Taylor and John Tyler found a rigorous teacher evaluation system in Cincinnati yielded some measurable learning growth in the classroom.

After all that, taking together the sum of these learned findings, what’s my conclusion about the results of SB 191? Nothing too profound, I fear, except to say it has potential to leave a measurably positive mark but more likely will move the needle very little. Ultimately, a bigger change has to come from the bottom up by giving students and parents more power to choose schools and course options through customized learning. It’s the future.