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From the Rocky Mountains, Lessons on Teacher Tenure

Credit: Marilyn Lehren

Colorado is proving an interesting case study for New Jersey’s efforts to reform teacher tenure and evaluation.

The Rocky Mountain state enacted in 2010 a law strikingly similar to what is being debated now in New Jersey’s legislature, one that would grant tenure to teachers after three years of positive evaluations and take it away after two years of negative.

It also uses four different grades for teachers, and like New Jersey, Colorado launched a pilot for districts this year to test an evaluation system. Both have a deadline for a statewide system by 2013-14.

But for all those similarities, Colorado is learning a few of its own lessons along the way -- ones that could prove prescient for New Jersey as it enters the same debates.

At the very least, the architects of Colorado’s efforts acknowledged in interviews that it’s been a humbling experience.

“It’s definitely hard work,” said Katy Anthes, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director for teacher effectiveness. “It’s not like any state has figured it out yet.”

State Sen. Michael Johnston, the legislative architect of the law and one who testified before New Jersey’s Senate education committee last year, estimated it could end up a four or five-year process to get it right. Colorado is only now starting to try out using student test scores for judging principals, with teachers still a year away.

“It takes a few years,” said Johnston, a Democrat from Denver. “But to do it right is more important than doing it fast.”

One major distinction from New Jersey has been Colorado’s roll out first of a pilot for the evaluation of principals, with the teachers’ piece coming next year. New Jersey is starting with teachers, and will include a principal pilot next year.

“That is probably my biggest lesson learned,” said Anthes of the decision to start with principals. “It is so essential. The principal sets the whole culture for teacher effectiveness, and the fact we did it first immediately decreased the anxiety for teachers. They felt like more of a team.”

The capacity of districts and the department itself to train educators to the new rules has proved a challenge, too, an issue already starting to rear its head in New Jersey.

In Colorado, a summit of educators from pilot districts last month heard many teachers and principals saying they felt overwhelmed by all the requirements and training. Some doubted it could be ready in a year.

“We certainly wish there were more trainers for the department itself,” Anthes said in an interview yesterday. “I’m hearing other states having 50 or 60 trainers working for them, and we have two with maybe a chance of getting four more. Tennessee has 50 trainers and fewer districts than we do.”

Colorado has also gone a different path on a couple of other points, too.

In the bill now under debate in New Jersey’s Senate, existing teachers would retain their seniority in the case of layoffs and only new teachers would face new rules that limit their seniority rights. In contrast, Colorado provides the same requirements for all teachers, new and old.

“That’s why we consider ours one of the toughest in the country,” Johnston said.

Just the fact that Colorado enacted the law first and is developing the evaluation system second marks a strategic decision different from New Jersey. Johnston and others said it came with its challenges of not knowing the full system they were enacting, but it also gave the state invaluable leverage over districts.

“In Colorado at least, it proved the right order,” said Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, a state policy clearinghouse based in Denver. “The state law being in place puts people’s feet to the fire.”

But with that advantage, Christie said the state has also learned the difficulties rest in the details, a lesson that New Jersey is sure to confront as well.

“The law itself was well crafted, making sure there were a lot of crafts and balances,” she said. “But getting all the nitty gritty details done, its still proving very tough.”

Anther of the Colorado education department said the state is still on track to have a system in place for 2013-14, the statutory deadline, with some leeway to tweak it in the first year. And if it needs more time, she doesn’t rule that out, either.

“If we need to talk to legislators about maybe changing the timelines, we will,” she said.

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