Colorado School Districts Swarm Teacher Evaluation Pilot

Published July 27, 2011

Forty-one school districts volunteered to participate in Colorado’s statewide teacher evaluation pilot program this fall, an unusual response given tepid enrollment in similar programs in states such as New Jersey and Virginia. Program officials said the response caught them off guard in light of stringent opposition from state teachers unions and the lack of federal funding. 

“We are surprised and extremely pleased,” said Toby King, senior education evaluation consultant at the Colorado Department of Education. The state originally planned for six to eight school districts, was overwhelmed with participation requests, and will make room to accommodate all applicants. 

The evaluation program arrives courtesy of Senate Bill 191, legislation targeted at improving teacher performance. Teacher performance became a public concern in June 2010 when, according to state Sen. Nancy Spence (R-Arapahoe), teacher satisfaction was at 99 percent while the dropout rate among minorities was 52 percent. 

SB-191 directs district-level accountability committees to measure teacher and principal effectiveness. Classrooms must show a 50 percent improvement over their previous grade as measured by standardized test scores before a teacher can be rated “effective.” 

Structural Changes, Union Opposition
The bill met opposition from the most prominent state teachers union, the Colorado Education Association. The union pushed for watered-down teaching standards, Spence said. 

“A lot of the controversy came out of the fact that school districts wanted to do their own evaluations,” Spence recalled. 

Previously existing standards require a three-year probationary period before a teacher can receive tenure. The new law axes a teacher’s tenure if he or she receives an “ineffective” rating for two years in a row. 

As the legislation creating the pilot program and other reforms progressed, Colorado’s DOE worked closely with school districts to inform them of the coming changes, King said. 

“We went up and down the front range,” he said, attributing the enthusiastic response to these efforts.

Part of Nationwide Trend 
Last spring a similar evaluation program began in the Denver Public Schools. LEAP (Leading Effective Academic Practice) developed its approach by examining other teaching programs across the country, said Amy Skinner, a DPS communications manager. 

“A lot of other programs only focus on teacher behavior and not the student’s behavior,” Skinner said. “LEAP focuses on both.” 
The evaluation programs reflect a nationwide move toward improving education effectiveness. 

“In the past, education has been about quality, which has been good,” King said. “But now [teachers] are highly qualified and don’t have the outcome we expected.” 

Low funding, among other factors, separates CO’s pilots from similar state pilots, most of which have found anemic response. Colorado lost its bid for federal grants supporting evaluation programs in 2010 using Race to the Top funds, which states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland received.

The state board will give the legislation its recommendations on final program structure after responses from districts participating in the pilot this fall are in. Spence estimates statewide implementation will not occur before 2014. 

King said statistics showing Colorado students taught by effective teachers in an effective environment graduated in the top 96 percent. 

“All of our students deserve to have someone in front of them that is effective,” King said.  

Correction: This article has been amended to correctly attribute the quotes from Amy Skinner. It previously incorrectly attributed them to another person with a similar name.