In Defense of Teacher-Evaluation Reform
Teacher-quality laws will work, but they need time
When Gov. Bill Ritter signed Colorado’s teacher-evaluation framework into law in 2010, he set in motion a powerful transformation of the state’s education system. By passing Senate Bill 10-191 with bipartisan support, the state led the nation in forging a new path forward for tenure and evaluation reform.
As is the case with all revolutions, we understand it will take time to sort out the full impact. But we also know that Colorado’s law immediately wiped out an arcane and ineffective evaluation and tenure system, which has governed most of the nation’s schools for more than 50 years.
The 2010 law requires districts to reimagine their talent-management and educator-support systems by requiring annual performance evaluations, ensuring tenure is earned and not the guarantee of lifetime employment, and ending both seniority-based layoffs and the forced placement of teachers into schools where they neither want to be nor fit well. This has prompted profound change in districts and schools across the state and provides a useful model for states across the country that are also in the early phases of implementing similar policies.
From the beginning, the main objective of teacher-quality laws was to open a policy window around evaluation and tenure to promote local innovation and improve human-capital practices. In response, we are seeing tremendous examples of local ownership and buy-in, as leaders adapt and modify their evaluation systems to suit local needs.
Look no further than Durango, a small, rural district of roughly 4,700 students on Colorado’s Western Slope, for an example. It is committed to thoughtful implementation of these new talent-management practices and is one of the state’s fastest-improving school districts, with some of the state’s highest student-growth scores.
"Our evaluation system is generating far deeper conversations with teachers than we ever had before. We are evolving the role of principal from building manager to instructional leader," Durango Superintendent Dan Snowberger recently shared with me. “This is a shift that takes time, support, and training so that we customize professional development and feedback to ensure that improvement is not only possible but likely.”
Critics will point out that relatively few teachers have been rated ineffective under new evaluation systems. However, focusing solely on this fact and declaring the whole enterprise a failed experiment is a classic case of losing sight of the forest by getting lost in the trees. Any endeavor as complex as transforming the talent-management system is going to encounter bumps in the road. We shouldn’t overlook the significant, positive changes that evaluation laws across the country have created.
Talk to teachers, principals, and superintendents across Colorado and you’ll hear that educators now feel they’re receiving frequent, meaningful feedback about their performance. The kind of feedback they can use to retool their practice and get better. Linda Barker, the former director of the Colorado Education Association’s Center for Advocacy and Professional Practice, agrees the system for evaluating educators has changed for the better: “Now it’s really about teaching and learning systems that support continuous improvement, both for teachers and principals, but also for the profession.”
Contrast that with the old system, under which tenured teachers were rarely evaluated, and when they were, it was often in a superficial, drive-by manner. Yet the traditional opponents to these types of common-sense reforms haven’t stopped fighting against the policy.
It’s also critical to remember that the full implementation of evaluation laws across the nation has been slowed by a number of external factors. Since most bills were signed into law, there have been well-funded legal attacks and multiple changes to state assessment systems.
Many states are just now entering their third year of administering PARCC or Smarter Balanced exams, so reliable student-growth data from the new tests—a key component of the new evaluation systems—are just beginning to roll out. And locally developed assessment systems and other measures are still being validated. These delays aren’t failures of new evaluation laws; rather, they are the result of a need to make sure the academic-growth data educators are held accountable to are fair, reliable, and measure student learning.
As business leaders who have managed large-scale change efforts, our members know that urgency is important, but impatience can lead to bad decisions. Those of us who worked on getting teacher-evaluation laws passed or have worked on supporting their implementation never harbored illusions that this was going to be an easy lift. Transformational change takes time and requires our continued focus.
Think back to the late 1990s, when public charter schools were a new phenomenon in many parts of the country. They weren’t spreading as quickly or having the immediate impact that advocates had hoped. Did those advocates declare the experiment a failure and raise the white flag? Of course not. Today, many states have a thriving charter school sector that is making a real difference in the lives of tens of thousands of children and in many cases outperforming traditional neighborhood schools.
Like those charter advocates, we must acknowledge that improvements are needed, that support remains necessary, and that our work isn’t finished simply by passing policy. It’s important for advocates and critics alike to understand what pieces of the new evaluation laws are and aren’t working and why. More research is needed to understand the variances in district implementation across the state and how we might see more improvement with even greater buy-in.
Most importantly, though, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that teacher-evaluation and tenure-reform laws have sparked significant change and improvement to states’ evaluation and talent-management systems.
I’m confident that, through continued work together, we can make sure these systems only get better.
And that serves all children well.
Vol. 36, Issue 27, Pages 22-23Published in Print: April 5, 2017, as We Must Not Abandon Teacher Evaluation