Colorado schools focus on teaching quality as they seek funding
Jana Thomas knows science. She knows education theory, and she knows how to command the attention of just about everybody in her fourth-grade class at Chamberlin Academy. After seven years in the classroom, she’s a pretty good teacher.What hardly anybody knows is what, exactly, in her background or her education or personality made Thomas a good teacher, or how to replicate her skills in a classroom down the hall or across the country.”Teaching is a very complex job, and we do not yet have a consensus on what good teaching looks like,” said Robert Reichardt, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Education Policy Analysis in the School of Public Affairs.Good teaching is like the famed Supreme Court justice’s description of hard-core pornography: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.That doesn’t make it easy for Colorado leaders grappling with how to reconstruct a system to improve and evaluate teachers, which would replace one that most everybody, from policy analysts to teachers, agrees isn’t working.But with the Obama administration dangling millions of dollars in front of states that show commitment to improving education, Colorado is going to have to craft some fair, workable and effective system for improving teachers who need it, rewarding those who deserve it, getting rid of those who warrant it – and determining who fits into which of those categories.Colorado learned March 4 that it is one of 16 first-round finalists in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top sweepstakes.And while only a few states – administration officials haven’t said how many – will ultimately share that money, the competition has at least put teacher quality and training “on the states’ radar screens,” said Joan Schunck of The New Teacher Project.Figuring out how to recognize good teaching and improve not-so-good teaching is viewed as a prerequisite to winning Race to the Top dollars.Improving teacher assessment is a primary goal of the governor’s 15-member Council on Educator Effectiveness, which held its first meeting Thursday.The council hopes to come up with something by December, but it has a lot to accomplish between now and then, said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who has led state efforts in the Race to the Top competition.The good news is that everyone, from union leaders to lawmakers, agrees Colorado’s existing evaluation system needs an overhaul and that student performance should be a part of any new system.
After decades of doubt and flip-flopping on what is most vital to kids’ educational success, researchers have settled on one key component: teacher quality.”Research now is extremely clear: The most important factor in a student’s education is the quality of the teacher,” said Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools.Less clear is how to create and nurture that quality.Colorado, for example, has made a push to increase the number of “highly qualified” teachers in the state.To attain that status, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, a teaching certificate and “prove that they know each subject they teach.”Those are good starting points. But they don’t necessarily correlate with effective teaching.Smarter people tend to make better teachers, research has found. But highly educated people don’t necessarily make better teachers.”The traditional teacher salary schedule offer rewards for getting a master’s degree,” said Robert Reichardt. “And there is absolutely no evidence that those master’s degrees improve teacher effectiveness.”The things she learned in teacher-education classes had value, Jana Thomas said. But her real education came courtesy of other teachers.”Who your mentors are is huge,” she said.In her first three years of teaching, she worked closely with her colleagues in the same grade. “I really think one of the best things teachers can do is have that collaboration,” the ability to share ideas and frustrations and feedback.Thomas was lucky. Many new teachers “feel like they are thrown in and it’s sink or swim,” Fallin said. “And a lot of teachers are drowning.”In fact, less than half of Denver Public Schools teachers surveyed by The New Teacher Project think new teachers get adequate support in their first three “probationary” years.The project examined evaluation processes in Denver and found that only about 1 percent of tenured teachers got an “unsatisfactory” rating, and in five years only 3 percent of probationary teachers were let go for poor performance.However, 30 percent of Denver teachers said they worked with colleagues who should be fired for poor performance.One problem with existing systems is that they lump everybody in one of two categories: The first says your teaching is acceptable. The second says it’s not. Only really really poor teachers make it into that second category. And often, only those poor teachers get any formal help in improving.That same New Teacher Project survey found only 38 percent of DPS teachers believed the evaluation process provides an accurate assessment of performance.”A lot of times, we find it feels like the evaluation is only to sort the good from the not so good, and get rid of people if necessary,” Fallin said. “What’s missing is any consistent method for helping teachers improve, for following up to see if they do improve.”
State Sen. Mike Johnston wants that to change.The Denver Democrat entered the legislature last session after four years as principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts.Johnston has authored legislation that would create “career ladders” for teachers.”It’s about finding the most effective teachers and providing additional compensation for them to document and share their practices,” Johnston said.With a $10 million boost from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, DPS is already at work developing a teacher-evaluation system that provides that kind of feedback and coaching.As the process unfolds, the district and the teachers association agree on basic principles, Boasberg said.And although both sides agree student performance has to be one measure of teacher performance, both sides recognize that “when we look at student results, we recognize that two students may come into the sixth grade for example, with very different starting points” he said.Currently, state law requires only that teachers whose performance is deemed “unsatisfactory” get help to improve. Many districts go beyond those basic requirements, said Nina Lopez of the Colorado Department of Education and a member of the governor’s council.But some don’t.The source of that feedback is supposed to be, and generally is, principals. But while principals are overseeing staff, they also are the instructional leaders and curriculum managers when they’re not the parent liaison, the district go-between, the operations manager and the chief disciplinarian.All of which helps explain why, according to Fallin, some teachers complain about “drive-by” evaluations.If the evaluations are dashed off in a rush, imagine how the follow-up goes, said Henry Roman, head of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.”The manager-employee ratio in schools is horrible. A principal in a building has to evaluate 20-some people. You tell business people that, and they say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Fallin said.As bad as Colorado’s system is, few states do it much better, said the teacher project’s Schunck.”Colorado is very consistent with what we see nationally,” she said.
Within the state, one district has created a template a lot of people are looking at: tiny Harrison School District 2 in south Colorado Springs.Five years ago, a lot of people were looking at Harrison, too, but not for any good reason. The impoverished district – about 80 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced- price lunches – was on the education system’s equivalent of double-secret probation.As the new sheriff in town in 2006, Superintendent Mike Miles made changes and enemies with almost equal speed.One innovation that got widespread attention is the district’s implementation of the always controversial pay-for-performance system.Several districts in Colorado have taken steps toward something that looks like financially rewarding teachers who excel. Douglas County, Eagle County and Denver have all either studied or implemented systems like that, Lopez said.In Harrison, Miles took the old experience/education system and blew it up.In its place is a system in which pay is linked to a teacher’s classroom performance.To do that, the district had to come up with a way to measure that performance.Teachers are assessed on whether they engage kids, on classroom management and on student outcomes. Student outcomes are measured partly on CSAP scores, where applicable, and partly on quarterly districtwide exams.”The challenge, and the fun part, has been trying to come up with a plan that makes it equally possible and measurable for an art teacher at an elementary school to be exemplary or higher on the scale as it is for a math teacher at the 10th-grade level,” Miles said.As part of that evaluation, principals make eight visits, not counting formal evaluations, a year for experienced teachers, 16 for probationary teachers.”There is feedback on a regular, constant basis,” Miles said.Pay for performance isn’t a hit with all of Harrison’s teachers. And it certainly isn’t popular with many other teachers across the state.Fallin, however, stopped short of saying her union is opposed to the idea, but the details cause concern, she said.”When you think about those overburdened administrators, they are not going to sit and bargain with each and every teacher,” she said.Which brings the issue full circle: “We have to strengthen the evaluation system. Then we can get all these other things into play,” Fallin said.”If you have a flawed foundation, it’s difficult to build a house on it.”But Fallin and O’Brien do agree on one other thing: the need to forge ahead on an evaluation system, and hope for the money to implement it.O’Brien said that even if Colorado doesn’t come out on top in the Race to the Top race, the state won’t abandon its quest to improve teachers and their effectiveness.To implement a new system would require some extra money, but in the meantime, the state will move ahead creating one, she said.”No matter what, we’re going to do this. It’s the right thing to do.”
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