At-risk students in some big Colorado districts have a better chance of having an effective teacher than others

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages.

The sun rises over Denver, as seen from Denver Public Schools' Hilltop Bus Terminal, the mothership of their daily logistics operation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)sunrise; cityscape; skyline; school bus; denverite; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado;

By Melanie Asmar and Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

While at-risk students statewide were less likely to have teachers rated effective or higher in the 2014-15 school year, the gaps between the percentage of effective teachers in high-poverty and low-poverty and high-minority and low-minority schools varied greatly by district.

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages, according to data released this week.

Students in the second-largest district, Jefferson County, experienced the opposite: Kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools were actually more likely to have an effective teacher.

And in Douglas County, large gaps that showed poor students at a significant disadvantage in terms of teacher effectiveness were attributable in part to the fact that the wealthy district has so few high-poverty schools and so many low-poverty schools.

The data was released nearly seven years after state lawmakers adopted a landmark teacher and principal evaluation system. The 2014-15 school year was the first year it was fully in effect. Under the law, the state must look at the number of effective educators in schools that serve varying levels of low-income students, students of color and English language learners.

To calculate those gaps, the state education department ranked every school in Colorado from highest to lowest by the percentage of students in each of those three groups.

The state then broke each of those lists into four quartiles and compared the percentages of effective teachers in schools in the highest and lowest quartiles for each district.

The gaps in Denver were bigger than statewide averages.

For example, in DPS schools with high proportions of English language learners, 62 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher, the data show. In schools with low proportions of English language learners, 89 percent of teachers were effective or better.

That’s a 27 percentage-point gap. Statewide, the gap was 8 percentage points.

The numbers were almost exactly the same for DPS schools with high and low proportions of students of color: 63 percent versus 89 percent, respectively.

And in DPS schools with high proportions of students living in poverty, 64 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty schools, 84 percent were effective or better.

DPS uses its own teacher evaluation system, which meets Colorado requirements but is different than the state-developed system most school districts use. Denver also had a high percentage of teachers show up in state data as “not rated” in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons related to attrition, new hires and the large number of charter schools in DPS.

But while DPS officials said they’re still digging into whether the state’s gap analysis lines up with the district’s own number-crunching, they acknowledged that DPS is “not satisfied where we are” when it comes to teacher effectiveness gaps.

“One of the things we have been focused on is getting our strongest teachers to come to and stay in some of our highest needs schools,” said Sarah Almy, the district’s executive director of talent management. “…One of the challenges — and one of factors in that gap — is that we, as many districts do, struggle to retain teachers in our highest needs schools and consequently wind up with a greater proportion of new teachers in those schools.”

New teachers are more likely to be rated “partially effective” — as opposed to “effective” or “highly effective” — than veteran teachers, Almy said. DPS has been trying to attract more effective teachers to high-needs schools by offering them financial incentives, she said. This year, the district is also focusing on increasing teacher retention in those schools.

In neighboring Jefferson County, state data show 90 percent of teachers in schools that serve the county’s poorest students were rated effective or higher. At the same time, 82 percent of teachers in the county’s wealthiest schools earned one of the top two ratings.

Similar inverse gaps existed in schools that serve high and low proportions of English language learners and students of color.

Todd Engels, Jeffco’s executive director of educator effectiveness, said the district is studying the data but noted it could be difficult to draw any conclusions given how old it is.

“We’re thankful that we have some great teachers in those high-needs schools,” he said.

One possible reason for the reverse gap, Engels said, is that a dozen of the district’s highest poverty schools have been involved in a national pay-for-performance study known as Strat Comp to test new ways to pay teachers and identify what helps them become better instructors.

Teachers in the study were evaluated by both school administrators and trained peer evaluators that worked across multiple schools. Some teachers received bonuses up to $15,000 tied to their evaluations, while others received stipends. All teachers received a higher starting salary.

The research was funded by a $32.8 million five-year grant from the federal government. Engels said the district has not yet received the final report on the impact of the investment, but participating schools have been flushed with additional resources and training for teachers and principals.

One of the largest gaps based on poverty in the state was in wealthy, suburban Douglas County. In high-poverty Dougco schools, 42 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty Dougco schools, 79 percent were effective or higher.

But according to the way the state calculated the gaps, the district had 79 schools in the wealthiest quartile and only three in the poorest quartile. All three are run by the HOPE Online charter organization, a multi-district online school with learning centers along the Front Range.

Britt Wilkenfeld, director of research for educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said that because of the exceedingly low number of Dougco schools in the high-poverty quartile, the gap analysis there “might not be as meaningful” as in other districts.

“You’re really just looking at the gap between that school and the rest of the district,” she said.

Douglas County School District officials did not provide responses to Chalkbeat questions by the end of business Tuesday.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.