Van Schoales is part of the corporate reformer group that has controlled public education in Colorado for most of the past decade. When I visited Denver in 2010 to talk about my recently published book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” Van was running Education Reform Now on behalf of Democrats for Education Reform, the hedge-fund managers organization that lobbies for charters and high-stakes testing. I recall what a very nice guy he was and how generous he was in introducing me, even though we disagreed.

At the very time I arrived in Denver, the state legislature was nearing a vote on a teacher and principal evaluation plan devised by a young state senator named Michael Johnston, whose background was in Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. Several members of the legislature, who were former teachers, showed up for my lecture in Boulder and spoke to me afterwards about their concerns about this fast-moving bill. Johnston’s legislation, known as Senate Bill 10-191, promised to evaluate teachers and principals based on the test scores of their students. Fifty percent of their evaluation would be tied to test scores. I was scheduled to debate Johnston on the day of the vote, but he did not enter the room until the minute I finished speaking, so he never heard my side of the debate. Johnston, however, was flushed with excitement about his legislation. He said that if every educator was evaluated by test scores, then Colorado would have “great schools, great principals, and great teachers.” I tried my best to dissuade him and the audience of their obsession with the value of standardized testing, but it was too late. The legislature passed 10-191, and Johnston was considered a rising star.

Except, as Van Schoales now admits in this article in Education Week, the corporate reformers were wrong. SB 10-191 did not work out as planned, even though the framers relied on the very best Ivy League prognosticators.

He writes:

Back in May 2010, hundreds of the nation’s education foundation, policy, and practice elites were gathered for the NewSchools Venture Fund meeting in Washington to celebrate and learn from the most recent education reform policy victories in my home state of Colorado and across the country.

The opening speeches highlighted the recent passage of Colorado Senate Bill 10-191—a dramatic law which required that 50 percent of a teacher evaluation be based upon student academic growth. This offered a bold new vision for how teachers would be evaluated and whether they would gain or lose tenure based on the merits of their impact on student achievement.
Colorado would be one of several “ground zeros” for reforming teacher evaluation in the country. Many, including myself, thought these new state policies would allow our best teachers to shine. They would finally have useful feedback, be differentiated on an objective scale of effectiveness, and lose tenure if they weren’t performing. Teachers would be treated like other professionals and less like interchangeable widgets.

Colorado’s law and similar ones in other states appeared to be sound, research-backed policy formulated by education reform’s own “whiz kids.” We could point to Ivy League research that made a clear case for dramatic changes to the current system. There were large federal incentives, in addition to private philanthropy fueled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, encouraging such changes. And to pass these teacher-evaluation laws, we built a coalition of reform-minded Democrats and Republicans that also included the American Federation of Teachers. Reformers were confident we had a clear mandate.

And yet. Implementation did not live up to the promises.

Ah, implementation! The Soviet experiment might have worked had it been implemented the right way. When allegedly great ideas don’t work out in reality, then something is wrong with the idea. For one thing, it never had the support of educators, who were expected to make Michael Johnston’s big idea work. It didn’t work.

What went wrong? Almost everything.

Most teachers don’t teach tested subjects. The majority of teachers teach in states’ untested subject areas. This meant processes for measuring student growth outside of literacy or math were often thoughtlessly slapped together to meet the new evaluation law. For example, some elementary school art-teacher evaluations were linked to student performance on multiple-choice district art tests, while Spanish-teacher evaluations were tied to how the school did on the state’s math and literacy tests. Even for those who teach the grades and subjects with state tests, some debate remains on how much growth should be weighted for high-stakes decisions on teacher ratings.

Few educators “embraced” the new evaluation system. They complied, but they never believed.

Teacher evaluators were giving teachers higher scores than they allegedly deserved. This, of course, was a problem with the district and school culture, not the model, which was supposedly flawless.

Last, every one of the state’s charter schools waived themselves out of the teacher evaluation system.

Van Schoales doesn’t mention that test-based accountability has been criticized by leading scholarly organizations, like the American Statistical Association and the American Education Research Association.

Value-added measurement, or VAM, has fallen into disrepute for two reasons. First, it has not produced positive results anywhere. There is a solid body of research that has shown that it doesn’t work and will never work, because students are not randomly assigned, because home influences outweigh teacher influences on student test scores, and because most teachers do not teach the tested subjects.

Colorado had the perfect teacher evaluation plan, in theory, perfect enough to excite the corporate reformers, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, et al. Except it didn’t work. I salute Van Schoales for admitting that the experiment failed.

Unfortunately it is still the law in Colorado. Educators are still evaluated by flawed and invalid measures. Seven years after passage of SB 10-191, Colorado does not have “great schools, great principals, great teachers.” Actually, it does have great schools, great principals, and great teachers in affluent districts, as it did in 2010. It even has great educators and schools in urban districts, but only if they are not measured by their students’ test scores. Don’t blame the victims of this effort to turn educators into widgets. The best evaluation of professionals is done by human judgment, taking multiple factors into account, not by standardized test scores.

Due to term limits, Michael Johnston is no longer in the State Senate. In January, he announced that he is running for Governor of Colorado. On his wikipedia page, he still boasts about SB 10-191. He owes an apology to the thousands of dedicated educators who were subjected to his invalid teacher evaluation plan, many of whom were unjustly terminated and lost their careers.