Teacher Quality in Colorado

This week, Colorado's state house is debating the pathbreaking teacher-quality bill that passed the state senate 21-14 on Friday. It's a terrific proposal in many ways: It would dismantle teacher tenure, a hyper-rigid, industrial-era policy; require that teachers and schools mutually consent before a teacher can be placed in a specific school; establish procedures for handling teachers who aren't placed; specify that teacher evaluations can be considered when layoffs are made; and mandate that schools hire and compensate teachers based on performance.

However, the legislation goes too far when it comes to value-added metrics--that is, the measurement of teachers' performance by the effect they have on their students' test scores. Teacher evaluations must be based 50 percent on student growth and principal evaluations, with value-added calculations accounting for at least two-thirds of that 50 percent. Teachers can earn tenure only after three consecutive years of effective performance on this evaluation scheme, and tenured teachers can lose that status after two years of poor results. This plan is itself hyper-rigid, and it entails the use of metrics that have yet to be fully developed.

So, while the bill is a giant step forward, the impatient rush to "fix" teacher quality in one furious burst of legislating amounts to troubling overreach; it is a case of putting the cart before the horse. The result: Hugely promising efforts to uproot outdated and stifling arrangements get enveloped in crudely drawn, sketchily considered, and potentially self-destructive efforts to mandate a heavy reliance upon value-added assessment.

Education reformers, especially impassioned progressives frustrated with stagnant results and teachers'-union obstruction, have trouble accepting that unwinding a century's worth of accumulated detritus and replacing it with a functioning system will take a little time. Also, they fail to realize that uprooting the old, intrusive superstructure, not imposing a new one, is what matters most. Only after a few years of stripped-down tenure, "mutual consent," and evaluations focused on performance--and after a handful of select locales have crafted some promising approaches--will it make sense for state legislatures to start talking about forcing specific teacher-quality initiatives on all the public schools.

There are at least two big problems with a "fix it now" approach that uses value-added measurements--even if one simply stipulates that all of the technical challenges can be resolved (a pretty big stipulation).

First, systems built around individual value-added calculations can stifle the kind of smart use of personnel that reformers are trying to encourage. Principals who rotate their faculty by strength during the year, or who augment classroom teachers with guest instructors or online lessons, are going to clash with a system predicated on linking each student's annual test scores to a single teacher. If teachers are sharing kids or kids are being served by other providers, the results will be muddy.

Second, none of this matters yet. Florida's SB6, a similar measure, went down over resistance to value-added calculations based on tests that weren't going to exist until the middle of the next decade. Colorado's system won't be functional for years, given the need to create assessments and build the data systems.

Rather than imposing systems that are currently nothing more than concepts, legislators should focus on stripping out troubling mandates, creating room for new solutions, and building the tests and data systems. This way, by the time those systems start to come online, lawmakers will have experience to inform their deliberations.

Right now, the best move for states is to insist that districts base a substantial part of teacher evaluation and pay on outcomes, flag indicators deemed legitimate for these purposes (this might include principal evaluations, parental feedback, value-added calculations, and classroom observation), and then give districts and providers leeway to develop and employ their own metrics. Over the next few years, this will begin to shift norms, allow value-added systems and evaluation models to develop organically, and set the table for adoption when proven value-added metrics are more readily available. If advocates are nervous that their window of opportunity will pass, they should write a trigger into the statute that will force the legislature or state board to revisit the question in 2013 or 2014.

The frustration with the status quo and union resistance that has fueled this "fix it now" thinking is eminently understandable. But K-12 schooling is a sprawling, complex exercise. Big, hurried solutions have a way of working less well than hoped. Impatience and lashing out in frustration can lead to flawed policy--as with No Child Left Behind, which overreached in ways that helped undercut public support and the law's more sensible provisions. The more promising path is the patient course that lawmakers followed when they pursued welfare reform: Create opportunities, nurture and monitor successful efforts, and then talk about new policy requirements.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/drflet

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