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Let’s Pay Teachers to Be Effective, Too

Colorado is one key step closer to distinguishing teachers who effectively help students learn from those who don’t. But we certainly haven’t overcome every obstacle to delivering top-notch instruction.

House Bill 1001’s “rule review evaluation of educator effectiveness” quickly sailed through the Colorado Legislature with only a single vote against, before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law. The rules flesh out how Colorado schools will tie professional teacher and principal evaluations more closely to measures of student performance and hold them accountable for the results.

HB 1001’s smooth sailing contrasts with the ground-breaking legislation that launched the process. Two years ago the Colorado Education Association threw up a heavy roadblock to Senate Bill 191, standing alone against a broad coalition of parents, teachers, business leaders and other reformers. Union teachers lobbied lawmakers on the public dime and some lawmakers shed tears, while hearings and debates dragged into the late hours.

The state’s largest teachers union could not stop SB 191 but did win key concessions, primarily slowing down the process to put the new educator evaluation system in place. Twenty-seven school districts have begun piloting implementation of the model system. Meanwhile, four other “partner” districts that already have developed high-quality evaluation systems will provide feedback for comparison purposes. The full system is not scheduled to launch until 2014-2015.

While the process may be moving forward more slowly than many would like, positive steps have been taken. Teachers will have to earn and keep tenure protections by demonstrating effectiveness, and seniority no longer can trump performance as a factor in lay-offs. Principals as instructional leaders will share accountability with classroom teachers for promoting student growth, which must make up at least half of educator evaluations.

Research shows that Colorado is on track using value-added measures as a major factor in judging instruction. A peer-reviewed 2010 study in American Economic Review found that a teacher’s effectiveness at improving measurable student learning could be predicted far better by previous value-added ratings than by experience or credentials.

In fact, no result is so unanimous in education research as Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek’s survey of 34 high-quality studies, all of which found that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective. That the vast majority of educators do not earn these advanced degrees to enhance relevant content knowledge partly explains the result.

The progress in upgrading evaluations and tenure boosted Colorado’s grade on the nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality’s recent report card of state teacher policies. Only eight states earned better overall marks at helping to ensure students receive the highest-quality instruction.

However, NCTQ pointed out weaknesses in several areas. Colorado netted consistently poor ratings for teacher preparation standards, including for teachers in early grades to provide effective, research-based literacy and math instruction. The report also identified plenty of room for improvement in our state’s existing educator compensation systems.

The same effectiveness measures that will be used to evaluate and make tenure-related decisions ought to factor significantly into how principals and instructors are paid. This logical leap forward from rewarding educators based on years of service and academic credentials can be enhanced further by paying more for harder job and school assignments. After all, fewer people are qualified to teach higher-level math or special education, and fewer people want to work at challenging, high-poverty sites.

The new effectiveness-based evaluation system paves the way to pay many more Colorado teachers for effectiveness, too. Districts can model and adapt groundbreaking changes like Harrison’s Effectiveness and Results plan or strategic compensation in Eagle County. Harrison and Eagle County have changed the paradigm by abolishing the old salary schedule and linking educator pay to performance.

Adopting new educator evaluation rules has proven a harmonious task for legislators. But as the process rolls on, Colorado’s real work of changing policies and systems to promote the highest-quality teaching has only begun.

Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank located in Golden.

This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on February 22, 2012 (subscription required), and in the Summit Daily News on February 23, 2012.