By Robert Reichardt and Alex Medler, EDUCATION NEWS COLORADO
At a speech in Vail last June, Gov. Bill Ritter outlined the straightforward goal for the teacher identifier enacted by the Legislature this year.
“Every teacher in the state is going to have an identifier number,” Ritter said. “You can actually look at how kids do as they utilize that teacher going forward. We wanted to be able to use the data to ask the question ‘who works’, ‘what’s making a difference.’”
If only it were so simple.
A report released this week reveals the challenges and potential rewards of implementing the teacher identifier, an approach used to varying degrees in 21 states.
The report, “Teacher Identifiers and Improving Education Practice: Experiences in Colorado and the Nation,” was produced by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, and the Colorado Children’s Campaign with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Among the contributors were administrators from two Colorado school districts that have extensive experience with teacher identifier systems.
Jason Glass, director of human resources for Eagle County Schools, and Elliott Asp, assistant superintendent for performance improvement at Cherry Creek Schools, described how the identifier is being used to improve teaching and learning in their very different learning environments.
They also offered advice on potential challenges.
In most schools, Asp said, students are taught by several different teachers each day, so isolating the impact of a specific teacher on a specific student’s performance in, say, writing is difficult. Unless careful analysis is done on the various student-teacher relationships, “student performance may be linked to the wrong teachers.”
Another problem is the lack of standardized test information in several subject areas.
Glass estimated that 69 percent of teachers in the Eagle County School District “could not be validly tied to student results because of scheduling or lack of valid assessment issues.”
Asp also cited the culture of the teaching profession as an obstacle to be overcome if the teacher identifier is to reach its full potential. “Most teacher evaluation systems don’t meaningfully differentiate between levels of performance,” he said. “Teachers are either ‘perfect’ or they are ‘incompetent’ with little middle ground.”
The teacher identifier ultimately should be used to provide information about areas where every teacher might be able to improve performance. As Asp said, it would create “a consistent norm of continuous improvement.”
By organizing already existing data in a more meaningful way, the identifier helps teachers identify what content students have mastered, what to re-teach and which students need extra help.
Principals can use data to set goals for the school, assign the strongest teacher to the neediest students, and determine which teachers need additional training. Districts can use it to evaluate effective programs and some have used it for determining compensation.
Under the guidelines for federal stimulus funds, teacher identifiers linking teachers to individual students’ performance would be an essential part of educators’ performance evaluations.
As Colorado moves to develop teacher identifiers, policymakers would be wise to build on the experiences of states and districts here to minimize problems and maximize acceptance of what offers to be an extremely valuable tool for improving student performance.
A clearly articulated goal for the use of the identifier must be established early in the process and educators should be consulted from the beginning to ensure their cooperation and trust.
Sufficient technical capacity, training and sensitivity will be required to avoid the pitfalls of inadequately designed and tested data systems, issues that have created serious problems in other state departments.
Finally, the system will only be as good as the data it contains, so procedures to test, verify and validate the data are essential.
The teacher identifier could cost Colorado $2.7 million or more to implement. Without attention to such details as the accuracy of the data, the technical capacity of the system and its users, and the confidence of educators in its purpose, it could be a missed opportunity.
The teacher identifier is an important tool for creating meaningful progress in improving education in the state. It’s critical that it be designed well.
Robert Reichardt is director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.
Alex Medler is vice president for research and analysis at the Colorado Children’s Campaign
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters