Colorado seeking to define “highly effective” teachers?

Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver)

Colorado, which finished 14th among the 16 finalists in round one of the Race to the Top competition, is considering major changes to state teacher-tenure laws. Senate Bill 191 was introduced on Monday by a high-school-principal-turned-legislator named Michael Johnston (D-Denver).

Though the bill has bipartisan and bicameral support, it will face an uphill battle from the 40,000-member Colorado Education Association (CEA). The CEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, quickly announced its opposition to the “Great Teachers and Leaders” bill, saying it “goes too far and costs too much.”

According to a story in The Denver Post, the bill would:

       “Define effective teachers and principals and use student academic growth data to set that mark.

     Base 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student academic growth and 66 percent of principal evaluations on a combination of the school’s academic growth and the demonstrated effectiveness of the teachers in the school.

     Grant tenure after new teachers demonstrate three years of being ‘highly effective’ — a classification based on evaluations weighted heavily by student academic growth data.

     Remove a teacher’s tenured status after two years of ‘ineffective’ ratings.”

An editorial in Tuesday’s Denver Post praised the bill, saying “It would be a shame to see this bill gutted or killed in committee. As states around the country reposition themselves for a second round of Race to the Top awards, the failure of this bill would be a death knell for Colorado’s chances.” The state’s education commissioner, Dwight D. Jones, also registered his support for the bill, in a Post guest editorial entitled “Finishing the Race to the Top.”

Part of what makes Colorado’s efforts on this front so revolutionary is the state’s attempt to define “effectiveness” among teachers and principals. To this end, Gov. Bill Ritter created the “Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness” in January 2010, and tasked the council with defining “effectiveness” by the end of the year.

This is a bold and important move. If we learned nothing else from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, it was that calling for “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom across the nation didn’t lead to substantial change. A more meaningful goal would have been to call for all teachers to be “highly effective.”

The two terms are anything but synonymous.

A “highly qualified” teacher under NCLB simply needed three things: 1) a college major in the subject area to be taught; 2) demonstrated competence in basic skills and the subject area to be taught; and 3) state certification. These are all “inputs,” meaning they are measured before a would-be teacher even begins his or her career in the classroom.

Determining that a teacher is “highly effective,” on the other hand, requires looking at outputs. It can only be done, of course, after a teacher actually starts teaching. How much do students learn in a given teacher’s classroom? Are students learning more, or less, than statistical models would predict (taking into account students’ backgrounds and skills at the start of a year)?

In education, measuring outputs is invariably more difficult, expensive and controversial than measuring inputs. But outputs are what matter at the end of the day. Whether Colorado is able to define teacher and principal “effectiveness” in a meaningful way, and whether interested parties will agree on the proposed definitions, remains to be seen.

Justin Snider