06/19/2013 04:41 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Denver Teaches Us All a Lesson: Engaging Educators Can Strengthen Reform

It's been a contentious couple of years for teacher evaluation, and the headlines do not suggest this dynamic will end anytime soon. Just a couple of weeks ago, New York State imposed a teacher evaluation system on New York City because the union and district could not agree on one, even after the impasse cost them more than a quarter of a billion dollars. One has to wonder how the acrimony and the need for an external resolution will impact implementation and efficacy of the new system.

For the sake of the 1.1 million students in New York City Schools, I hope the state plan works. Teachers are vital to student success, and traditional ways of evaluating educators -- superficially, infrequently and without much support -- don't serve anyone well.

But success is far more likely when district and union leaders work through their differences and collaboratively create new ways to evaluate and improve performance. This best-case scenario isn't just some education policy wonk's fantasy. It's actually happening in a few communities around the country, including an inspiring example that is playing out in Denver, Colorado.

Denver schools have spent more than two years piloting a program to assess teacher performance and to help teachers improve. Recognizing that teachers directly experience what's working and what's not, the district partnered with educators to develop and scale up LEAP, the Leading Effective Academic Practice initiative. The Denver example suggests that partnering with teachers is an effective way to both engage union leadership and to ensure that teachers' lived experience and expertise are leveraged to greatest effect.

A new Aspen Institute report notes that Denver teachers have been integral to LEAP, helping design it and weighing in at various stages, including through anonymous online channels and more formal committees. Fully 80 percent of Denver teachers say they have provided feedback on the initiative. And a majority of teachers in 94 percent of schools voted to pilot the program last year -- a year before participation became mandatory.

This deep teacher involvement is not just window dressing. The district listened to teacher feedback and adjusted policies accordingly. When a team of educators refused to endorse an existing framework and argued for creating a home-grown model, district leaders listened and ultimately agreed, even though this was less efficient and more expensive. Similarly, the district decided to adjust the number and length of classroom observations based on feedback and to streamline student surveys based on teacher concerns that these were too complex and lengthy for some students. The district valued shared ownership over sticking with pre-set plans and timelines.

Partnering with the teachers who work in schools every day doesn't mean abandoning core principles or shying away from tough conversations, but it does mean being open to genuine dialogue and to making changes based on teacher input. System leaders who succeed with this approach likely will find that teachers are more supportive of the changes and more willing to put effort into making them work. In other words, teachers will move beyond experiencing the work as one more example of being held accountable to feeling professionally responsible for the work they helped shape.

Deep engagement of educators can be used as a strategy for building trust, an important ingredient in advancing reform. Research from the Chicago Consortium for School Research documents that schools with high levels of trust are much more likely to see math and reading gains than schools without that trust. When union and district leaders model trust-building practices, as in Denver, they send a powerful signal to the profession and create a climate where positive reforms can take root.

Leaders who want to try Denver's approach should consider a few key strategies:

  • make clear upfront what is non-negotiable, so that everyone is clear about the parameters for engagement and input is channeled toward issues where teachers' views can make a difference;
  • create multiple ways for educators to participate, from offering opinions to serving on committees, with some options that prioritize anonymity and convenience and others that allow for deeper, sustained involvement;
  • ensure the union has a significant role but also ensure teachers have opportunities to participate independently;
  • leverage teacher leaders as messengers and advocates to build understanding and ownership in the field;
  • make two-way communication an ongoing and sustained way of working, not something that only happens during initial design and pilot of new initiatives. Using teacher surveys and focus groups can be effective ways to do this and to ensure that reforms, including new evaluation systems, are being implemented effectively.

Communities are different, and what's worked in Denver might not work in New York City. Yet it's my instinct that the principles of engagement that serve as the foundation for the work in Denver are applicable in other places. It's important to acknowledge that engaging teachers in evaluation reform wasn't the first step in Denver, either; there is a track record of collaboration in Denver that goes back at least to 2004 when the district and the union created ProComp, a ground-breaking teacher pay plan. But every journey begins with a first step. You don't need a long legacy of cooperation to get started -- just a willingness among system leaders and union leaders to embrace common purpose and find common ground.