School districts retooling how they evaluate teachers
These New Teacher neoliberal types never tire of repeating their soundbites but I confess to getting very tired of responding. The New Teacher Project was founded by Michelle Rhee. Enough said? Kati Haycock of Education Trust is chair of the Board of Directors and Wendy Kopp, president of Teach for America, sits on the Board.
By John Keilman
Teachers in Evanston- Skokie School District 65 used to be judged on what they did in the classroom. Now their evaluations -- and their pay -- will also depend on what their students do.
The district has begun tracking the test scores of students, classroom by classroom, trying to figure out whether they achieve sufficient progress. If they don't, teachers could see their raises jeopardized.
It's a radical step for a school district, one that no other system in Illinois appears to have taken. But with the Obama administration pushing the concept, many education professionals -- even those critical of the practice -- say data-driven teacher evaluations look like an unstoppable trend.
"I think it's coming," said Audrey Soglin, executive director of the Illinois Education Association. "In what form, in what shape, remains to be seen. We want to be at the table to help frame it."
Though student achievement long has been used to evaluate districts and schools, few educational systems have linked the results to individual teachers. But some advocates have been pushing for a change, including the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit that aims to raise teacher quality.
It released a study this year in which it found that the vast majority of tenured instructors, even in districts with miserable test results, earn top marks from administrators.
Dan Weisberg, a co-author of the study, said that means that teachers rarely are fired for poor performance or recognized for excellence.
"In a world where teachers are treated as though one is as good as another, you don't evaluate them in a thoughtful way, and you probably won't get to the next step -- an intervention to get (underachievers) to a satisfactory level," he said.
Some administrators are trying to address that by taking methodical notes during their observations. They try to gauge various qualities deemed essential to good teaching -- everything from the clarity of an instructor's presentation in class to the way student misbehavior is handled.
Elgin-area School District U-46 introduced that system this year, and Bill DuBois, the administrator who helped to put it in place, said its design of steady, specific feedback should help teachers improve.
But the system, bargained with the teachers union, focuses on the process of teaching, not student test scores.
There will be an incentive to change that when negotiations for a new teachers contract open next year. The federal government is dangling the promise of extra money for districts that adopt certain policies, including the use of "data on student growth," to evaluate instructors.
A district spokesman would not comment on whether U-46 might try to change its policy. But union president Tim Davis said that the tests in current use would not yield accurate results about teachers.
In Chicago, 30 public schools are trying a program in which teachers get a bonus if test scores go up. A Chicago Public Schools spokesman said the administration ultimately wants to use student achievement data as part of its teacher evaluations districtwide.
Union officials said they would be open to that if testing were a small piece of a broader appraisal system.
The nation's most far-reaching plan has come in a district where the teachers union was powerless to stop it.
The public school system in Washington, D.C., imposed its new evaluation system through an act of Congress. It uses statistical models to predict how well a given class should do in the course of a year. Teachers who better that mark could be in line for a bonus. Those who fall short might be fired.
Evanston's District 65, which educates children from kindergarten through eighth grade, designed a two-part evaluation system. One uses an appraisal of classroom teaching style, and the other examines test scores.
At the start of the year, students take a test that is meant to show whether they are performing at grade level. They take another at year's end to determine their progress.
Teachers who earn a rating of "excellent" are expected to move at least one low scoring child to grade level while assuring that most of the class gained a full year of growth, no matter where each child began.
That score-dependent rating is combined with the traditional evaluation to produce a final appraisal of excellent, satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A teacher needs at least one excellent rating over several years to earn a merit pay boost.
The system, created with union input, includes wiggle room -- a student's test scores can be discounted if, say, an illness kept him out of school for an extended period -- but it has put an unprecedented focus on results.
Michael Dougherty, principal of Orrington Elementary, said his teachers have so far remained positive about the change, though fifth-grade teacher Amy Kipfer said she was cautious.
"Tests are not infallible," she said, recalling how a painting crew outside the building distracted her students one testing day. "I feel confident at this moment that the fullness of the child will be measured. But I don't know that our plan is written in such a way that all schools can be sure of that."
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