Colorado education law may mark a national shift

A landmark Colorado law that ties teacher evaluations to the progress of their students on achievement tests could help build momentum for a national movement that seeks to overhaul how instructors’ tenure and pay is earned, education leaders say.

Colorado’s law will hold teachers accountable for whether their students are learning, with 50% of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ academic growth as measured partially by test scores. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing legislation that will change the way teachers are evaluated, but its prospects are less certain; the state’s teachers union strongly opposes it.

Colorado’s action comes amid a national debate over how to get the best teachers into the classroom and remove the ones who aren’t doing a good job.

Similar legislation emphasizing teacher performance over job security is pending in Louisiana and Minnesota, and bills overhauling tenure protections and/or evaluation systems have already passed in Maryland, Connecticut, Washington, Tennessee and Michigan.

“It’s impossible to overstate just how significant this [Colorado] bill is,” said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that released a report last year revealing how the vast majority of teacher evaluation systems fail to distinguish effective teachers from ineffective ones.

Under Colorado’s law, passed with bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. on Thursday, even tenured teachers who are found to be “ineffective” for two consecutive years could lose job protections, and possibly their jobs.

Support from Democrats and, at the last minute, from a teachers union in Colorado represents a major political shift at a time when states are facing huge budget cuts that could mean thousands of teacher layoffs.

Colorado’s law also reflects a wholesale change in attitudes toward evaluating teachers. Like many states, Colorado is hoping to bolster its chances in the Race to the Top grant competition before second-round applications are due June 1. The program rewards states for assessing teacher effectiveness, and Colorado has $175 million at stake.

Approval in Colorado is a promising sign, said Bonnie Reiss, California’s secretary of education: “Every time our state Legislature sees another state taking leadership in this important reform area, it does increase our likelihood” of passing the bill.

The teacher’s union is vehemently opposed to the bill introduced by state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) and approved by the Senate Education Committee in April. Union leaders, who are paying for television ads urging opposition, argue that it would gut due-process rights and scapegoat teachers during bad economic times. “Rather than focusing on the real problems facing our schools, like larger class sizes and cuts to student programs, this bill simply blames teachers,” the California Teachers Assn. said in a statement.

Supporters argue that performance should dictate personnel decisions. The bill would allow schools to lay off, assign, transfer and rehire teachers and administrators based on effectiveness and subject-matter needs — a radical departure from the current seniority-based policy.

The governor’s push for the bill comes as the cash-strapped state is also making a second attempt to win Race to the Top dollars. In the hopes of making the state more competitive, Reiss has sent a letter urging all county and district superintendents as well as charter school administrators to adopt specific reforms, including linking teacher evaluation to student growth; the unions are urging local affiliates not to sign on.

President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are actively encouraging teacher evaluation and tenure reform by tying them to federal funds, another sign of the changing politics of education reform.

In Colorado, the law attracted national attention in part because it bucked a trend of Republicans leading statewide efforts to implement merit pay and tenure reform. Democrats have largely sided with unions in opposition to these changes.

“It may be the first time ever that Democrats pushed an agenda that opposed the agenda of the teachers unions,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

And although teachers unions opposed the legislation in Colorado, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, in an unexpected twist, endorsed it after securing several amendments that both the AFT and the Colorado Education Assn., an affiliate of the National Education Assn., had pushed.

“I truly believe that we need to be leaders in education reform,” said Brenda Smith, president of AFT Colorado.

The NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, remains opposed.

Teacher tenure legislation has been a challenge. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have mandated performance pay and eliminated tenure after he was besieged by the opposition.

Delaware, one of only two states to receive money in the first round of the Race to the Top competition, has already revamped its teacher evaluation systems. New York and New Jersey have announced plans to do the same.

Eliza Krigman, a staff reporter at the National Journal based in Washington, D.C., has written extensively on education issues. This article was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.