Monday, March 21, 2016

AV#145 - Teacher Leadership & Collaboration: DPS develops a better way to evaluate and support teachers

                                                                                                                                   March 22, 2016

“This is an enormous paradigm shift from the traditional way we’ve done school. We’re still learning
and there are bumps along the road. But it’s been extraordinarily positive so far.”
Superintendent Tom Boasberg (“DPS to expand teacher leadership program,” Chalkbeat Colorado, 2/9/16)

Teacher Leadership & Collaboration Model 
# of schools with Team Leads keeps growing
110 (projection)
It is not, I hope, a sign of the Apocalypse—to learn that the largest school district in Colorado has adopted policies around teacher evaluation and support that address concerns raised in Another View, over several years, about Senate Bill 191, the Educator Effectiveness law: AV#62, #68, #74B, #84, #113 (see page 4).  I, for one, applaud Denver Public Schools for deciding that we do a better job of supporting teachers by peer review than by expecting principals to “evaluate” 40-50 members of the faculty. 

If my criticism and warnings now seem justified, for at least one school district, I take no pride in this.  All I ever said was based on my experience, especially of the benefits of colleagues, not administrators, observing my classes and talking with me about what was and was not working well.  If DPS wants to call this change “innovative,” fine.  I simply note it is similar to what I witnessed in two private schools in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The point is: this development deserves our attention.

The state of teaching in Colorado – shortage, turnover, frustration

First, stepping back a bit–the big picture. Stories and reports this year continue to raise alarms about the state of the teaching profession in Colorado—and across the country.  In our state we hear of the teacher shortage as “crisis” in rural communities; fewer grads earning a teaching degree from Colorado universities; fewer applications for Teach for America; and the on-going challenge of how best to recruit and keep teachers of color.  Here in Douglas County, we read of Ponderosa High students protesting the high turnover of their teachers.  One reason they leave, students gather, is the district’s teacher evaluation policy.  Courtney Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation, points to this as a cause as well the higher turnover across the district, telling The Denver Post that “… teacher morale has never been lower. She counts the teacher evaluation system — which she said was mostly about ‘uploading evidence’ rather than true assessment of teaching skills — among the chief problems” (

Implied in all this is the larger question as to whether state (and federal) teacher evaluation policies designed to improve learning has had the unexpected (or was it?) result of burdening teachers—and principals—in ways that actually do more damage than good.  In particular, due to its impact on (both a principal and a teacher’s) time—and that key intangible: trust. (Did SB 191 aim to judge, or to support?)

Two of the most influential voices in the country on teacher evaluation suggest they also see ways in which the effort might have been—and still could be—implemented in ways more helpful to teachers.

    When we focus on ratings, how much do teachers—and students—benefit?
We learn that in Jefferson County in 2014-15, 98% were rated effective or highly effective. Which says what—exactly? Is that what we wanted SB 191 to do?
Vicki Phillips recently stepped down after eight years heading education grant-making at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Under her leadership, the Gates Foundation played a significant role in seeing 33 states with “teacher evaluation systems based on the (Foundation’s) “Measures of Effective Teaching Practices” (MET) (

Asked about the foundation’s biggest successes and missteps during her tenure, she answered:
"One of the things I am most proud of in this job is the way we have worked to put teachers in the center of everything….”  That said, Phillips said the foundation does have a bit of a mea culpa when it comes to teacher evaluation. “In the best of all worlds, everyone would have loved it if [the MET study] had come out in time to inform all the changes and policies around teacher evaluation, so people didn't jump too quickly and overemphasize one component over another....  And as that happened and other things happened, people would think the Gates Foundation is only about evaluation of teachers, when we were, all along, about meaningful improvement and actionable feedback.” (Bold mine)                               (
U.S. Secretary of Education John King – and formerly Commissioner of Education in New York, where he saw the battle lines drawn on teacher evaluation–went a step further in his remarks this past January:
Rethink Teacher-Evaluation Systems if They're Not Working, John King Says  -  bAlyson Klein 
        The Every Student Succeeds Act presents states, districts, and educators with a chance for a "fresh start" and "much needed do-over" on the very testy issue of teacher evaluation through student outcomes, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King said at a town hall meeting for teachers ….
What educators say of the old paradigm
“Administrators who already wear several hats find themselves trying to carve out more time to observe teachers in the classroom and score them against the CDE's rubric for teaching practices.  ‘Now we've got to be in the classroom a lot more and actually help teachers, coach the teachers in how they can provide the quality instruction we want,’ said Centennial Superintendent Brian Crowther. ‘So right now, that's the overwhelming piece.’"
Nicole Veltze, the principal of North High, said that the new role (of teacher leaders) was helping. “As a principal, having to manage 70 teachers is unrealistic if I’m really trying to improve their practice. It’s done a lot to create ownership for professional learning and built relationships among teachers.”
      "I'll start by being frank, if maybe also obvious, and say this conversation hasn't always gone well.  A discussion that began with shared interests and shared values—the importance of learning and growth for all our children—ended up with a lot of teachers feeling attacked and blamed. Teachers were not always adequately engaged by policymakers in the development of new systems. And when they disagreed with evaluation systems, it appeared to pit them against those who they cherished most—their students. That was no one's desire." He said states should be prepared to rethink their evaluation systems if they're not really helping teachers get better. (          (Bold mine)                                    

The rethinking done by DPS—focusing on feedback and support for teachers, by the men and  women who teach in their buildings, often in their subject—might be exactly what King hopes to see.
Team Leads in DPS  
“Support support support” for 6-7 colleagues

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has been a persuasive advocate for this change—in part due to his understanding of leadership. In January 2014 he told The Denver Post: “So long as schools are structured where one principal is responsible for coaching, supporting and evaluating 30 or 40 people, any system in the world is not going to work” (  In September 2015 he told an A Plus Denver audience that, in a “knowledge intensive” workplace, “this model is broken…. In other sectors we see managers develop six to seven people.” 

Which is exactly what Denver Public Schools asks its Team Leads to do, thereby getting at my fundamental problem with SB 191 as I understood the bill: expecting principals to spend a much greater percentage of their time observing and evaluating their teachers, when – in my experience – school leaders often have little expertise in good classroom instruction, while the school itself has a host of teachers better suited to helping their colleagues grow. 

Denver’s Teacher Leadership program began in 2013-14. Now in its third year, there are nearly 250 Team Leads in more than 70 DPS schools.  They stay classroom teachers half of the time, “and the rest of the day (are) coaching, engaging in planning sessions and providing feedback for a small team of educators”—usually six to seven teachers (  Laney Shaler, Associate Director for New Educator Development at DPS, anticipates 2016-17 will see another huge growth: about 400 Team Leads in 110 schools.  

Boasberg’s goal is to have Team Leads in every district school by the fall of 2018.

“Both teachers and principals say teacher-leaders, who teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities, offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers. ‘It’s not always easy to go to the principal or assistant principals, so I like that I’ve been able to take on that role. I can really stand up for what teachers need so students can achieve and be successful,’ said Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a team lead—one of the new hybrid roles for teachers—at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy."
In this new structure in DPS, principals are still ultimately responsible for the evaluation of the teaching staff in a way that fulfills the goals of the Education Effectiveness legislation. They still observe classrooms.  But, as Shaler puts it, the Team Leads are the ones giving teachers “on a weekly basis … high quality feedback and support.”

In the process, this change also advances two goals:
1) develops leadership skills in these teacher-leaders, perhaps encouraging them to become school leaders themselves; while at the same time 2) allows exceptional teachers who want to keep teaching—but who are also eager to share what they have learned in their teaching career and support colleagues, especially those in their first few years in the classroom—another avenue to grow, without taking them out of the classroom altogether.

It addresses another key goal: higher retention. Shaler is deeply troubled to see over 25% of Denver teachers leave after 1-2 years.  Today, less than half of DPS teachers, she says, have been in the district over five years. She hopes more effective support in these first few years DPS can significantly improve teacher retention.  Absolutely critical, I am sure you will agree.  Schools want to hire and invest in terrific young teachers who will find the job do-able and fulfilling—and stay a while.  I love what Jim Shelton, former Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, told a Hot Lunch crowd this past January regarding the time we spend on teacher evaluation: “Support support support needs to be the focus.”

Posting/Defining an Impossible Job Description (and we wonder why they can’t succeed?)

This is more than an academic matter; what we ask our principals to do, and not do, reveals a lot about our understanding of how good schools work. I close with a pointed comment on Aurora’s failed efforts to improve Aurora Central High.  Spring 2013: APS hires a new principal for ACHS.  Spring 2015: APS hires a new principal.  Spring 2016: any guess?  Yes, APS plans to hire again, and posts a job description* where we see, among the principal’s “duties and responsibilities,” at a school with close to 90 teachers:   
-“Hire, supervise, and evaluate all staff.” (Estimated to involve 14% of his/her time.)
-“SUPERVISION/TECHNICAL RESPONSIBILITY: Directly supervises all school personnel; may delegate some supervisory responsibilities to Administrative Team. … Responsibilities include interviewing, hiring and training employees; … planning, assigning and directing work; appraising performance….” (Bold mine)                          


Concerns expressed in past newsletters—Principal as chief evaluator? Why not more peer review?

From AV#62 – So “teacher evaluation” is broken – but is it worth fixing?    -   Dec 12, 2009
Besides, how many principals have taught our grade, our subject, and really know the dynamics of this particular eighth grade group we are struggling with as well as our colleagues do, those men and women teaching many or all of the same kids?  It is natural, then, that we turn to our fellow teachers for advice and affirmation, not to the too-busy principal who lives in another part of the campus or building, and in reality, who inhabits a different world.
And I would never fault the principal for being in that different place! It’s the world of major disciplinary issues and unhappy parents, of budgets, hiring, fire drills—and countless personnel issues that don’t even begin to touch on good instruction.  Along with guiding the school towards its larger goals, fulfilling its mission… no, I do not expect my principal to have a good handle on what is and is not working well in my classes.  But several of my colleagues do.
… In six years (teaching in two private schools) no school head ever visited my classes. It was tremendously helpful, though, to have the academic dean come in and observe—Jack was still teaching, he had twenty years of teaching experience on me, and we had co-taught an AP English class together.  It was equally valuable to have Donna, the chair of the English Department, visit and take notes.  It felt less like a judgment by an outsider and more like a much appreciated review by a friend.  I looked forward to the conversations that followed. I taught WITH these people every day, on one level we were peers, and I knew they understood the challenge of engaging the group of students they saw in the room that morning.  Yes, let’s explore the possibilities of peer review.
From AV#68 – A skeptic on SB 191 takes a closer look    -      Sept. 26, 2010
Principals as chief evaluator? I hope not. Allow flexibility on who does the evaluation.
Legislation that expects the current generation of administrators—who often found their way to these positions in spite of their lack of “instructional leadership”—to suddenly be trained well enough to offer sound evaluations is unrealistic.  I suppose in a perfect world, where principals and school leaders have a rare insight into good classroom management and teaching techniques across a wide range of grades – K-5 in many schools, K-8 in some, 9-12 in most high schools (and just consider the diversity of classroom subjects a principal might be asked to “evaluate”—physics and Shakespeare, calculus and studio art, economics and band, technology and dance)–well, if such folks exist, God Bless them and more power to them.  But for mere mortals it’s probably not going to happen.
From AV#113 – Uncomfortable Questions     -        May 7, 2014
Many acknowledge that a large percentage of principals were not hired to be, first and foremost, instructional leaders, and that—prior to the passage of SB 191—many were not well trained in how best to evaluate teachers.  Do teachers believe their principals are now well prepared to handle the evaluations? What concerns do they express about the capacity of their school leaders to handle this more substantial (and potentially high-stakes) role regarding these evaluations?
In some professions employees are evaluated by a senior colleague who has similar responsibilities.  Do teachers compare how they are evaluated by people in positions who do not do their jobs—often principals who do not teach—with how people in other professions are evaluated, and feel the evaluation system in education is placed in the wrong hands?
If teachers could determine who would be the men and women whose evaluations and recommendations for improvement would be most meaningful to them, who would it be, and why?  (Colleagues, department chairs, peers from other schools teaching the same age/subject?)  Are those people conducting the evaluations today?  Does SB 191 allow the flexibility so that those who can be most helpful to a teacher in terms of improving instruction are conducting the evaluations?

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