Assurances that school districts will comply with new state requirements to evaluate public school teachers and principals are due to the Colorado Department of Education by Monday, so they canl be put in place in the coming school year.
The complex system that calls for 50 percent of job performance to be based on demonstrated academic growth of students has many wondering whether the revamped approach will be beneficial or detrimental to those toiling in the trenches of K-12 education.
"We don't know how it's going to work. People are afraid they'll lose their jobs over it," said Bryn Abrahamsson, a third grade teacher at Odyssey Elementary School in Falcon School District 49.
Colorado lawmakers passed Senate Bill 10-191 in 2010. Known as the Educator Effectiveness Act, the law overhauls the evaluation requirements of the past 30 years for all licensed personnel, which in addition to teachers and principals includes such positions as school counselors and librarians.
A governor-appointed, 15-member State Council for Educator Effectiveness made recommendations to the CDE about how to put the system into practice. After public comment sessions, the CDE designed a model evaluation program and tested it in 27 school districts. None were in the Pikes Peak region.
"We definitely found that the more time the pilot districts spent using and becoming familiar with the evaluation system, the more comfortable they became with it," said Amy Skinner, the CDE's director of communications.
Based on feedback, changes were made to more clearly define what effective teaching and school leadership should look like, she said.
The policymakers' stated goal: Support educators' professional growth and accelerate student results.
Under the new requirements, all teachers and principals will be evaluated annually on how well they perform in their job, as well as the progress made in their students' learning.
"The concept of assessment tools, used to craft and guide a child's education, as a measurement for the effective rating of an educator is an interesting idea," said Abrahamsson, who has been on D-49's evaluation committee. "It's kind of a test for teachers. We've never been evaluated on student test scores before."
Classroom tests, as well as standardized achievement tests, are just a few of the assessment tools that districts can use to chart student learning.
"Every student should be getting at least a year's worth of growth every year," Skinner said. "But districts have to include multiple measures that are deemed fair and valid. We can help districts create systems to achieve the standards."
Tenure is tied to the program, with teachers earning tenure after three consecutive years of "highly effective" or "effective" ratings. Tenure will be lost after two consecutive years of "ineffective" or "partially effective" ratings.
"I think it's a good tool to help promote teacher growth - tenure would have to be earned," said Mary Thurman, Colorado Springs School District 11's deputy superintendent for personnel support services.
The CDE is allowing school districts to develop their own evaluation program, as long as it meets or exceeds the state's new quality standards.
The Pikes Peak region's two largest districts are taking somewhat different paths, with Colorado Springs School District 11 adopting the state model while Academy School District 20 revised its existing evaluation procedures. Another large district, Harrison School District 2, has had new evaluations and a pay-for-performance plan in place for two years, and surveys show that teachers are warming to the new system.
Teachers, principals, board members, parents and administrators spent two years creating the system, said David Peak, D-20 assistant superintendent for human resources.
"We have a longstanding commitment to involving our stakeholders in something that will have a significant and lasting impact on our schools," Peak said. "It gives us greater buy-in and local control."
Peak said D-20 avoided creating student assessments for the sole purpose of using the data to evaluate teachers and principals.
"If the assessments are good to use to measure student learning and growth, we use that as the driving force," he said, "and if, by chance, some could be used in our evaluation process, we use those."
D-20 created an online tool where teachers and principals can plug in data to measure student growth.
"This is not a system designed as a 'gotcha' - we're not out to penalize teachers or principals," Peak said. "This is a system to try to meet the requirements of the new law yet honor, value and support the good things we know about research-based practices regarding effective teaching and leadership."
D-11 is using the state's model, Thurman said, because "it has all the things we would need to be accountable for."
As with any new method, Thurman said it will take time to learn.
"We'll provide the necessary training in order to understand what's in the new evaluation, starting Aug. 1 with our principals," she said.
Peak said while he doesn't agree with all of the components of the system, he's hopeful there will be a silver lining - "that the intent will raise the level of conversation and focus around student learning and student growth, and that it no longer can be a conversation about what a teacher or principal does or does not do."
The evaluation system won't be fully operational until the 2014-2015 school year. Districts must submit plans for incorporating an incentive system by August 2014, which may or may not tie compensation to the evaluations, Skinner said.
Abrahamsson said she sees the reasoning behind the new system.
"Assessment data is supposed to drive instruction and help a teacher figure out what they're doing and what they need to do differently or get staff development on," she said.
"Every year, we have a different group of kids. Something that worked last year may not work the next year. I understand we should be able to figure out how to show student growth and improvement. I'm not sure if this is the way to accomplish that. But I'm going to try."