Teacher evaluations depend on the actions of students

According to Colorado legislators, the upcoming 2013-14 school year should be a watershed moment for the academic performance of our state’s students. They are betting that the implementation of Senate Bill 191, or the Educator Effectiveness Law, will result in student scholastic growth. In 2010, Democrat Mike Johnston and Republican Nancy Spence co-sponsored a bill that sought to improve our state’s schools by defining the qualities of effective teachers. The argument is that better teaching will lead to better learning. It makes sense.

The bill charged the Colorado Department of Education, with the help of school districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), to create standards of effectiveness for teachers and principals no later than the end of the 2011-12 school year. The Colorado State Model Evaluation System was created and then piloted in several school districts throughout the state, including Durango School District 9-R, during this last school year. The idea was to beta test the process and tools looking to refine them into a system by which teachers can be evaluated and leading to increased student achievement. The full rollout will occur at the beginning of this next school year. Although student academic growth is the ultimate goal, the heart of the Educator Effectiveness Law beats with a rhythm attuned to the hiring, support and firing of educators. This intent is not necessarily bad, but the power the law possesses requires a closer examination.

Fortunately, I was able to participate in this year’s pilot of the teacher evaluation rubric in our district. Honestly, the process was more helpful than any observation or evaluation I have experienced in my previous 22 years of teaching.

One valuable step I was asked to take was an online self-evaluation using the rubric. I spent much time working through the five quality standards that covered my content knowledge, my learning environment, my instructional choices that facilitate learning, the reflection I employ to address student needs and the roles I assume as a teacher-leader.

As an aside, there is a sixth standard based upon the data collected around the academic growth of my students as demonstrated through multiple measures of achievement of which the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program is one, but that wasn’t a part of the online reflection.

On the self-evaluation, each standard was made up of a number of elements: six in content knowledge, six in classroom environment, eight in facilitating learning, three in reflection on practice and four in leadership.

So next year, my evaluation that says whether I am an effective teacher worthy of retention will consist of two halves: one being the five quality standards mentioned above and the other consisting of the test scores attached to my classload. Herein lies the rub.

I am willing to own the growth – or, heaven forbid, the lack thereof – that my students demonstrate because that is my job. That being said, there are several bugs to be worked out concerning student growth within the evaluation system, but that is a discussion for another time.

My real concern arises upon a closer examination of the teacher-effectiveness rubric. A rubric is a standard of performance expected from a particular group in regard to a specific task or concept. In education, rubrics tend to identify four or five levels of accomplishment with the observable criteria that defines each. The teacher-effectiveness rubric presents five: inadequate, partially proficient, proficient, accomplished and exemplary. So each level within each element in each standard then states the criteria that describes teacher effectiveness.

The designers of the rubric took an interesting path with the first three standards. From inadequate to proficient, the rubric identifies teacher behaviors, but accomplished and exemplary identify student behaviors. This is intriguing unless you look a little closer.

For teachers to move beyond proficient, they must rely on the actions of others. I get the idea, as it is similar to student testing, but when I have to rely on the students to “accelerate their learning by connecting to other disciplines” for me to demonstrate exemplary content knowledge, or if I am to be accomplished in a learning environment, families must “participate in school-based activities,” it seems beyond my influence.

It would be as if we decided to improve voter effectiveness by designing a rubric that said you were inadequate if you didn’t vote, partially proficient if you voted strictly on party lines and proficient if you researched the issues and representatives and actively campaigned for those candidates and measures that matched your values and beliefs. But if you wanted to be an accomplished voter, then the representatives, not the voters, would have to vote consistently in line with their campaign promises, and to be exemplary, then those representatives must always demonstrate integrity through completely ethical behavior. If they don’t, you might lose your right to vote.

I see the value in the process and criteria and can imagine improved teaching across the state as a consequence, but I just want to be judged based on the things I can truly control. I know numerous teachers who will strive to reach exemplary, thereby improving student academic growth because they are driven.

Too bad they may be driven out because the criteria is beyond their power to reach.

John Hise is an instructional coach at Escalante Middle School. Reach him at jhise2@durangok12.co.us.