Since a landmark piece of school reform legislation passed in 2010, teacher evaluations have become a hot topic in Colorado education circles. What’s lesser-known is that the system ushered in by Senate Bill 10-191 extends to thousands of school employees who don’t work in classrooms, but rather counseling offices, health rooms and other school spaces.

Starting this year, the law requires annual evaluations of counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other staff labeled “Specialized Service Professionals” or SSPs. These employees fall into nine categories, number about 4,700 and make up around 9 percent of the licensed school workforce.

As with the introduction of statewide teacher evaluations last year, the evaluation process for SSPs has brought some predictable bumps in the road: anxiety, confusion and a steep learning curve.

“The details of it are huge,” said Anne Hilleman, director of exceptional student services for Montrose and Olathe Schools. “It’s a bear.”

It’s a sentiment familiar to Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness at the Colorado Department of Education.

“There was a big fear factor with Senate Bill 191,” she said.

Despite concerns, there’s a sense among some SSP staff that the new system offers meaningful professional feedback and concrete avenues for improvement.

“I was kind of excited to have a useful evaluation tool,” said school nurse Jackie Valpiando, who came to the Widefield School District last year after working in other districts. “Before, we were kind of evaluated like a teacher because they didn’t know what to do with us…Most of the time I wasn’t evaluated.”

Widefield is one of 19 sites—mostly school districts and BOCES—that piloted SSP evaluations last year. So was the Montrose district. Previously, evaluations there were conducted using generic rubrics that didn’t always fit well with the employees’ responsibilities.

Under the state model system, which districts can use to guide the evaluation process, there are rubrics defining high-quality practice for all nine SSP categories.

“These rubrics [are] very detailed, very specific to each specialty area, which in terms of morale had to feel good to folks,” said Hilleman.

“Before last year, we were like, ‘Which rubric do you put an audiologist on?”

New model includes student outcomes

While many states have implemented evaluation systems for teachers and principals, mandating evaluations for other licensed school personnel is less common.

SSP Numbers in Colorado

    • School counselors: 1,617
    • Speech language pathologists: 1,065
    • Psychologists: 738
    • Social workers: 461
    • School nurses: 357
    • Occupational Therapists: 325
    • Physical therapists: 79
    • Audiologists: 67
    • Orientation and mobility specialists: 12
*Numbers are from the 2012-13 school year

“We’re probably in a small grouping [of states] that includes the specialized services professionals,” said Anthes. “Our state was pretty all-encompassing and comprehensive when the law said all licensed personnel must be evaluated.”

By the end of this school year, Colorado’s SSP staff will earn one of four final ratings: ineffective, partially effective, effective or highly effective. Eventually, the ratings will be posted publicly in the aggregate, but individual employee ratings will not be available.

While all Colorado SSPs must be evaluated this year, districts do have some leeway in how they come up with the final rating. They can choose to weigh only professional practice scores—those based on the SSP rubrics—in the final rating. That will change next year when 50 percent of the final rating must include “measures of student outcomes.”

Those outcomes, usually three to four different measures, are defined by each district and will vary by SSP category. For example, nurses may be asked to ensure that a certain percentage of asthmatic students can demonstrate the proper use of inhalers. Meanwhile, a counselor may be judged on students’ acquisition of knowledge after a social skills program.

In some districts, student outcomes measures may include things like state test scores. That may sound counterintuitive since SSP staff don’t provide academic instruction, but the rationale is that all school staff have ownership of student achievement.

“Interestingly, a lot of the SSPs are including some portion of student growth in the collective measure,” said Anthes. “Kind of as a nod to saying, ‘We’re all supporting students. We’re all contributing to the environment that helps them learn.’”

In Widefield, state test scores will count for 5 percent of SSP evaluations.

“They want us to have buy-in and I agree with that 100 percent,” said Vialpando. “We need to make sure the kids are successful too.”

She added, “I’m glad it’s 5 percent and not 50 percent.”

Adjusting to a new system

While most district administrators have always had some role in evaluating SSP staff, most agree that the new system is far more time-consuming. Hilleman, who evaluates SSP staff as well as other employees, said the new system has tripled her evaluation workload.

“You are more frequently engaged in coaching and evaluative conversations with people,” she said.

Overall, she believes the process is valuable, but given the time commitment wonders if “rock star” employees truly need annual evaluations.

James McGhee, assistant director of special education in Widefield, said the district’s old process, which entailed a written narrative about the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, took about an hour to complete. Not only do the new write-ups take 1.5-2 hours to complete, the district opted to move from one formal evaluation a year to two though that’s not required by the state.

“It’s a big shift,” he said, one that was rough at first but ultimately more informative for staff.

“The feedback is more specific in helping them grow as professionals.”

SSP staff have noticed the increased time commitment too, but some say the close examination of their day-to-day work is welcome.

“It’s a chance to be acknowledged and validated for what we do as special service providers,” said Christine Gray, a counselor at Aspen Elementary School.

Working outside the classroom sometimes gives SSPs the sense, “You’re an ‘other,’ a  little out of the mainstream,” she said.

The evaluation process–time-consuming though it is–helps remedy that feeling. For Gray, the new system has also meant more on-going reflection. Under the previous system, she’d usually turn her attention to her evaluation for a day, maybe two.

Now, she says she can’t quantify the minutes and hours she spends preparing for, having, or reflecting on her evaluation because it’s woven throughout her job.

“Its not something you put to bed anytime,” she said. “Hopefully its something you carry with your and it guides your practice.”

Moderating expectations

Aside from the extra time investment, many SSP employees find the new system challenging because earning top ratings on the professional practice half of the evaluation is tougher than under most previous evaluation systems.

Under the state model system, SSP staff can earn one of five ratings for professional practice: exemplary, accomplished, proficient, partially proficient and basic. While “proficient” meets state standards, it can seem like a mediocre rating to employees who are used to superlatives.

Valpiando said she earned “exemplary” on a few standards last year, but overall would have fallen into the proficient category.

“I’ve always thought of myself as better than proficient….so that was hard for me to take,” she said.

One of the criteria that distinguishes proficient from “accomplished” or “exemplary” for all types of SSP staff, is whether they move from carrying out required duties to empowering students, parents or teachers around certain professional goals. For example, a proficient employee might make a recommendation to a student, whereas an exemplary employee prompts the student to act on the recommendation.

“That is a really unique piece of all of our rubrics…the same things happen with principal and assistant principal rubrics,” said Anthes. “When you move to accomplished or exemplary it’s what has the work you’ve done enabled others to do?”

Hilleman said while her SSP staff all scored well into proficiency based on the rubric, few were exemplary.

“I did really have to frontload especially with my overachievers…Don’t feel like this is a ding.”

Impacting personnel decisions

With many SSP staff employed on single-year contracts, their employment status may depend more on student enrollment and district needs than evaluation ratings. Still, those not on single-year contracts who score below effective for two years in a row can lose non-probationary status. Technically, this could make it easier for districts to dismiss them.

“It is easier to fire you if you don’t have non-probationary status,” said Anthes. “Whereas if you had non-probationary status… it might take a district longer to remove you.”

No SSPs will lose non-probationary status till the end of the 2016-17 school year at the earliest, since this year is considered a hold-harmless year. Even then, districts will not be required to dismiss partially effective or ineffective employees, though administrators will have that option.

Despite the potential influence of SSP evaluations on job security, Anthes said, “That’s really not the main point of the law…We really try to emphasize…it’s about professional growth.

As always, she said, districts should use evaluation ratings for personnel decisions, such as determining what professional development to offer, how to draft professional growth plans or where to place staff.

“Every professional in public schools deserves meaningful practice.”