Do Mandatory Evaluations Contribute To Colorado’s Teacher Shortage?

Jun 7, 2017

Colorado has some homework to do. A bill sponsored by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, recently signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, requires the state to study the causes and possible solutions to its chronic teacher shortage. Some of these causes are already known in education circles: declining salaries, sharp rises in housing prices and Colorado’s knotty school finance system. McLachlan, however, offers one more guess.

“Well, it’s probably politically incorrect to say,” she says, “but I don’t think Senate Bill 191 helped.”

Senate Bill 191 is Colorado’s teacher evaluation law. Signed into law in 2010, it mandated yearly evaluations for teachers with student achievement comprising half of a teacher’s rating. McLachlan knows this first hand; just four years ago, she was in her classroom at Durango High School, receiving the last evaluation of her teaching career.

“One girl had laryngitis and said, ‘I just didn’t want to miss your class but I can’t talk today.’ So I said, ‘Can you write what you want to say? ’ and she goes, ‘Yup,’” McLachlan explains. “So she handed in a two-page paper for me at the end of class, and the assistant principal marked me down. He says, ‘Not everybody participated.’”

McLachlan was happy to be evaluated -- constructively. That’s not a word she’d use to describe what went down that day. To her, evaluations like the one she received are just another hoop to go through, one that teachers don’t take seriously. And in her opinion, one that may be driving teachers out of the classroom.

“I haven’t heard anybody saying they want to leave the profession because of Senate Bill 191,” says Rob Stein, superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools. “I certainly haven’t heard anybody say, ‘I want to enter the profession, it’s gotten so much better since Senate Bill 191.’”

In 2010, when Stein was the principal of Manual High School in Denver, he was a strong supporter of SB 191 -- even testifying in favor of it at the statehouse, and appearing in a campaign ad by the group Stand for Children. Now, seven years since, he’s had a change of heart after seeing how the law has been implemented.

“Some people would say it’s a good policy, but implementation has been poor. To which I would say, that’s right, then it’s not a good policy,” Stein laughs.

Principals do have the flexibility to use their own evaluations, so long as they meet or exceed the standards set by the Colorado Department of Education. There’s where Stein’s main problem lies.

“They came up with five standards, 27 elements and 346 indicators,” he says, recapping the lengthy process CDE and various stakeholders undertook to develop evaluations. “Can you imagine waiting until the end of the season and sitting down with your coach and going through 346 pointers for improvement? Or is it from the sidelines in real time, telling you to work on one thing today.”

To be clear, Stein is not anti-evaluation. He just thinks there has to be a better way. And as this year marks the law’s seventh anniversary, others have echoed these critiques.

Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, a Denver-based education think tank, slammed the implementation of SB 191 in a recent editorial. Schoales was also one of the stakeholders who helped develop the state’s model. Similar to Stein, Schoales bemoaned the evaluations as “ineffective” and called for his fellow stakeholders to “dig into what has happened—to understand what worked, what did not, and why.”

“The answer is not to say, ‘Oh wait, you found out one of your kids is sick, but you don’t have the medicine, so you wish you never had the test in the first place,’” says Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. “Not knowing you’re sick doesn’t make you well.”

Johnston -- a former principal and long time education reform advocate -- stands by SB 191. Though he agrees that the implementation process was flawed, he doesn’t think the answer is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

“The reason why I think this kind of policy is the solution to the shortage and not the cause for the shortage is because what you’re going to do is change the profession in people’s minds to one where you can come, you’re going to get real feedback, you’re going to improve, you’re going to get better, you can be really successful, and then you can grow in that profession over time to support a middle class job and a career that you want that has interesting challenges, and you have marketable skills you can take other places also, right?” he says. “If you are going to change careers a bunch, we shouldn’t expect teaching to be different.”

He says that while the law has accomplished its goal in theory -- more teachers are having meaningful discussions with their principals about professional development -- he’d like to see more resources for teachers to improve. As someone not unfamiliar with the business end of a classroom, Johnston would also like to see evaluations that identify whether or not a teacher is suffering for reasons out of their control -- like funding.

Whatever the reason, Colorado still faces a shortage of about 3,000 teachers. So how much does SB 191 factor into this? Or salaries? Or housing? That’s what McLachlan is hoping to get to the bottom of.

“I’m hoping that [...] we understand why they’re not applying to Colorado schools, and why they’re not applying to teach in public schools and then take a look at [kindergarten] through college and figure out how Colorado can be better,” she says.

The Colorado Departments of Education and Higher Education have plotted a course for conducting McLachlan’s study. They’ll first examine other areas of the nation that are also dealing with teacher shortages, and what strategies they may be using to alleviate the problem. Then, a series of town halls will be held all over the state during the summer months, followed by an online survey of Colorado residents.

A full report is due to legislators by December 1, 2017.