A student works on a number diagram during the first day of school at Amos Steck Elementary on Thursday, August 18, 2011.
A student works on a number diagram during the first day of school at Amos Steck Elementary on Thursday, August 18, 2011. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Though Colorado is more than a year away from implementing its new teacher-evaluation system, doubts have surfaced about the state's ability to launch such a sweeping initiative on time and with adequate resources for professional development.

Educators from some of the 27 districts piloting all or part of the new system say that effort has turned out to be a complex and time-consuming task heaped upon demands of other education reforms.

"I think it's fair to say most people feel overwhelmed," said Sandra Smy-ser, superintendent of the Eagle County Schools. "It's such a large shift in practice and expectation."

The evaluation process will score teachers on student academic growth and a detailed look at their professional practices. Ultimately, they will be labeled with one of four designations: ineffective, partially effective, effective or highly effective.

Consecutive years of an "ineffective" score may result in a teacher losing nonprobationary status, or tenure. Although the system is expected to weed out underperforming teachers, it also is designed to steer educators toward professional development.

The evaluations, which include a similar model for principals, is scheduled to be rolled out statewide in the 2013-14 school year, though full implementation, and consequences for ineffective teachers, won't begin until the following year.

Representatives from nearly 100 districts gathered recently for a summit where the Colorado Department of Education and speakers from some of the pilot schools brought them up to speed on the process — and gave them a reality check on the work ahead.

Sharon Olson, president of the Thompson School District board, spoke at the summit. She said it appeared that districts' readiness to take on the demands of the new system varied widely.

"If you're one of the pilot districts, your ability to deliver dramatically increases," Olson said. "If not, I think you'll struggle."

But even some pilot districts have struggled.

Jefferson County Public Schools, the state's largest district, was slated to pilot the principal-evaluation model and the teacher model. But Superintendent Cindy Stevenson called off the teacher-evaluation pilot because it added too much work to principals already swamped by new standards and assessments and facing the possibility of a revamped child-literacy law that could add more mandates.

That may portend problems for other districts' ability to handle the workload.

"I think it does if we don't have an improved resource picture," said Stevenson, whose district has absorbed big budget cuts. "When we start implementing evaluation of every employee, every year, and it's high stakes, we're going to have to look at our resources. With a reduction in resources, I'm pretty concerned about that."

Well into the process of setting up the mechanics of the new system, the state still grapples with developing a firm template defining how to gauge student growth, which accounts for half of teachers' scores.

Although high-stakes tests such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program provide one measure, the law calls for multiple measures — including in areas such as music, art, drama and physical education that aren't gauged by the statewide test.

What the CDE calls "content collaboratives" continue to convene to explore options, but it has been difficult to find many assessments that meet new state standards.

"No other state has entirely figured it out either," said CDE's Katy Anthes, who is directing the state's efforts on educator effectiveness.

It's those still-undefined metrics of achievement that give pause to instructors such as Dee Blecha, a special-education teacher at Buchanan Middle School in Wray.

"If I'm going to be evaluated on my students' growth, I want to make sure that they're fair, that they really measure what we're hoping they measure," she said.

Even as educators remain skeptical that the process can be launched on time, some profess an underlying sense of optimism.

"The motives of the people who are working on actually implementing it are of the highest level," Smyser of Eagle County said.

Part of the challenge revolves around the CDE, and its limited staff, formulating evaluation procedures and then training districts how to use them. All districts are expected to have an evaluation system in place — either their own or CDE's model — by July 2013.

After the recent summit, Anthes said, her e-mail in-box quickly filled with requests for help. Three people handle the load at CDE, although federal Race to the Top money will fund two more trainers within two months.

"To have this system be about growth rather than 'gotcha,' we need to provide face-to-face training for everyone who wants it," Anthes said.

In Eagle County, teachers long have been evaluated each year by multiple assessors, though the subsequent ratings don't carry prescribed consequences beyond hooking them up with coaches to improve areas of weakness.

But grant money that funded professional development has evaporated and cut the available coaching in half, Smyser said.

"So part of my efforts in the process has been to say, 'OK, let's move people out of the profession who shouldn't be there,' " said Smyser. "But the other 98 percent are going to benefit from this."

With the specific data culled from the evaluation, Anthes said, districts will be able to more effectively target limited dollars for professional development and recognize which teachers' strengths could be used for in-house workshops.

"I don't want to be a Pollyanna and say resources are not a stumbling block — they are" she said. "But this provides us the ability to target development and save resources."

But while the run-up to the launch proceeds in fits and starts, it's the uncertainty that has some educators concerned.

"There's a lot we don't have answers for yet, and I think that raises the anxiety level," said Raylene Olinger, an elementary-school principal in the South Routt School District. "By the time you have consequences attached, you want to have it be a smooth-running system."

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739 or ksimpson@denverpost.com