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The History Behind Colorado's Senate Bill 10-191

A graduate study dissertation on the 2011 Colorado law that tried to make teaching a more accountable profession.  Every school district in Colorado had to rewrite its teacher evaluation protocols, increasing the bureaucracy of education to levels that are more chaotic than visionary.

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     The history of modern education reforms in the United States waxes high on failed efforts.  The lack of teacher and administrator input in the design of reform efforts, at both the legislative and implementation levels, is one of the primary reasons these reforms are unsuccessful. As Hargreaves and Shirley note (2008), ― education leaders and teachers are the ultimate arbiters of change. The classroom door is the portal to reform or the raised drawbridge that holds it at bay.

     This means that, regardless of the intentions behind a reform at the legislative level, reforms that fail to incorporate teachers‘ and administrators‘ beliefs and perspectives are generally doomed at the implementation level. Education historian Larry Cuban stated this another way:  ― Schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools‖. To understand how reforms will fare once they are practiced inside actual schools and working with actual students, it is imperative to consult with teachers and administrators. To understand the meta-picture of education reform movements in action, it is also critical to circle back to the policymakers who passed the reform to explore whether the stakeholders have similar understandings of successful implementation.  


     The purpose of this mixed methods study was to explore how teachers, administrators, and policymakers viewed their role in the implementation of an education reform. The education reform being studied was Colorado Senate Bill 10-191: The Great Teachers and Leaders Act (SB 191), which aims to improve student learning by overhauling the teacher and principal evaluation system and eradicating teacher tenure. Within SB 191, this study focused specifically on the new teacher evaluation system. The subjects in this study were teachers and administrators in the Rockies School District (pseudonym) (RSD), a single, large school district in the greater Denver, Colorado, area, and policymakers who were members of Colorado‘s 2013 General Assembly. 


     Given the national focus on SB 191 as one of the first bills to significantly alter the modern teacher and principal evaluation processes, it was imperative to explore how key stakeholders—teachers, administrators, and policymakers—each viewed their role in the implementation of SB 191‘s new teacher evaluation system. The bill‘s attempt to achieve greater educational equity for students statewide by systematically shifting the job expectations for educators, as evidenced by the overhauled teacher (and principal) evaluation systems, places it among many national efforts to use education policy as a lever for change.

     Historically, these efforts have failed; hence the need for new reforms to seek these ends yet again. For this bill to achieve success, it could be instructive to gain insights into the perceptions from these three key stakeholder groups as well as subgroups within them. 


     Although no recent report has been as incendiary as the 1983 Nation at Risk report (National Commission on Excellence in Education), current education reform talk is dire, mired in discussions about failures and problems. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's PIRLS and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 exams show that some American students are improving. However, Secretary of Education Duncan pronounces older students‘ results on such assessments as ―unacceptable.  

     The current failures of students in the U.S. to test at competitive levels when compared to students from other countries has contributed significantly to the accountability and testing movement in public education. Furthered by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which sought to increase academic achievement for low-achieving students in high-poverty schools, public schools across the nation have been increasing the number of tests they administer to students. Most states in the 1980s required the administration of only one set of achievement tests for high-poverty areas and another (or no) test for all other communities. A result of NCLB is that all states require annual standardized assessments in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight.

     Recent research supports a direct link between teacher quality and student learning * At the same time, it is argued that the current teacher evaluation systems are not working. Under current teacher evaluations, most teachers are rated as exceptional. Yet students perform far below the exceptional level on state, national and international assessments. Although numerous factors contribute to student performance on said assessments, there appears to be a disconnect in the dichotomy between teacher ratings and student performance that is problematic. Precisely which elements of teaching lead to improved student learning and how to measure those elements remains unclear.  

     In an effort to improve teacher effectiveness, many researchers have developed new methods, generally known as growth models, for evaluating teachers and schools. The most well-known of these methods is the value-added model.


The overarching concept is that teachers should be evaluated based on the

value they add to their students‘ learning.


     Value-added models consist of complicated algorithms designed to determine the value a particular teacher adds to a particular student or set of students over the course of a school year. In Colorado, the growth model used allows student, school, and district learning growth to be compared to learning data from other students, schools, and districts. The objective of Colorado‘s growth model is to determine relative growth. For instance, a growth model can ascertain whether a student who is officially below proficient on his state‘s 3rd grade reading test improved by 1%, 10%, or 90% compared to other students in this similar bracket; this data creates an opportunity to see if that particular student is learning or not during a single school year, separate from the student‘s official classification on statewide assessments.   

     The 2009 United States Department of Education‘s Race to the Top fund was designed to inspire many states to rethink their education platforms, make changes as necessary, and then apply to receive some of the $4.35 billion dollars allocated to this grant.

     In President Obama‘s words, the guiding theory was that it was time to stop talking about education reform and time to start doing it‖ (U. S. Department of Education Executive Summary, 2009). The Race to the Top (RTTT) application had numerous requirements, including requirement D: Great Teachers and Leaders. Requirement D(2) called for measuring student growth and connecting this student growth to teachers and principals through annual evaluations (U. S. Department of Education Executive Summary, 2009).  

     One of the states competing for RTTT funding was Colorado.

     Although Colorado never received RTTT grant money, the state still made significant changes to its education policy as it was applying for RTTT, largely through the passage of SB 191. The link between SB 191 and RTTT is apparent just from the full name of Colorado‘s bill: Colorado Senate Bill 10-191: The Great Teachers and Leaders Act. The connections do not end there, as SB 191 completely modified the teacher and principal evaluation processes in ways delineated by the RTTT Fund application requirements, such as parts D(2)(ii) and D(2)(iii) which mandated "rigorous, fair, and transparent evaluation systems for teachers and principals‖ that used multiple rating categories and were conducted annually, respectively" (U. S. Department of Education Executive Summary, 2009). 

The passage of SB 191 was highly controversial,

illuminating a growing national schism between Democratic politicians and one of their most loyal supporters of the past few decades: teachers unions.  The lead author of the bill, then-freshman Democratic Senator Johnston, gathered a large and diverse coalition of supporters who collectively both supported the successful passage of the bill and defeated the Colorado Education Association (CEA)‘s numerous attempts to kill the bill.

     The bill also benefitted from the unanimous support of Colorado‘s Legislative Assembly's Republicans. Despite the CEA‘s staunch opposition to the bill, its leadership quickly changed positions after SB 191 became law. The CEA had two positions on the 15-person State Council for Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) and 6 worked with coalition members to help design the specific measures of the new evaluations.  


     In spite of a sustained and significant effort to transform SB 191 into a practice that will improve student learning around the state, the long-term implementation of SB 191 is still undefined.

     Policymakers were responsible for outlining the change goals through the law, but the individuals responsible for enacting it are educators on the ground level. It is unclear if teachers, administrators, and policymakers hold similar ideas regarding successful implementation. Similarly, it is currently unknown how these three key stakeholders perceive their role in the implementation of SB 191.  

     Enacting lasting changes in school is a complicated endeavor; change theory is an entire school of thought. Given the poor historical success of the United States‘s recent education reform efforts, it is critical to learn how members of each stakeholder group view their role in the implementation process. Attaining such an understanding may shed important light on the change processes involved as well as the hopes and needs of the various players. It is essential to develop an understanding of how members of each stakeholder group feel and to explore potential implementation modifications based on these results to avoid having SB 191 end in an education reform graveyard.  

Comments from School Matters:
This graduate thesis continues for 270 more pages with an exploration of the following two research questions:

    1) How do Colorado‘s teachers, administrators, and policymakers perceive their respective roles in the implementation of SB 191‘s new teacher evaluations?  
    2) Do Colorado‘s teachers‘, administra
tors‘, and policymakers‘ responses vary by demographic variables?   

It is useful to read theses such as this because it helps the regular person understand the disconnect between research conducted by those on the outside without regard to the realities on the inside.  In other words, what is imagined at the boardroom table or in various think-tanks is often far different from what is enacted on the battlefield (e.g. classroom) once mandates are issued. 

Researchers and politicians are further stymied by the status quo that prevents them from critiquing how teachers and children are assigned their placements in elementary classrooms.  Currently, it is the practice of most schools to mix students heterogeneously, meaning no attention is paid to academic, behavioral, or motivational attributes of children.  They are mixed together in randomized groups:  high cognitive ability with medium and low;  strong motivation and curiosity with no motivation or curiosity; acceptable behavior with poor behavior.  Teachers are then assigned to these classrooms without regard to their own skill strengths, with the hope they will differentiate effectively for all those in their charge.  This creates an impossible situation, but the current practice of grouping and assigning children and teachers has become sancrosanct at the insistence of the unions, consumed as they are with the need to make the teaching profession equitable for all its members:  "It's not fair that Mrs. Jones has all the gifted kids.  They're easy to teach, and I want some of them."
This reality is now the elephant in the living room in our education mess.

The ineffective placement of students in classrooms has been criticized by very few people with a public platform, but one notable figure did address it in an article he wrote for Education Week in 2015.  He was widely lambasted for his views.

While the CEA (Colorado Education Association) may have rubber-stamped SB 10-191 after the fact, it worked tirelessly to mitigate its affect on teachers.   Colorado now has a set of monumental bureaucratic requirements that are designed to prove -- on paper only-- that one is an effective teacher.  There are more effective ways to accomplish this:  one that comes to mind immediately is to watch the teacher teach.  Why this is a non-starter in today's world of public education is something that should be seriously addressed by the millions of stakeholder parents and guardians who must, at this moment, stand by while their children's education continues to be stymied by a system designed for failure and abuse.

Recent research supports a direct link between teacher quality and student learning.
The School Matters Foundation does not dispute this reality in any way. 
What is does dispute is the validity of using paperwork to create that link. 
For more information, please read our new book,
now available on Amazon.

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