KALAMAZOO — Until recently, a good job evaluation was virtually automatic for U.S. schoolteachers.
For tenured teachers, something on the order of 99 percent were rated as satisfactory, according to “The Widget Effect,” a 2009 report by The New Teacher Project.
Kalamazoo-area educators say that assessment sounds about right.
Now, 33 states are overhauling their teacher evaluation systems, one of the most significant shake-ups in U.S. education in recent years.
In Michigan, most school districts must include test-score data as part of their teacher evaluations starting this school year.
In addition, part of the tenure changes passed in July calls for a gubernatorial commission to develop an assessment model that will be used statewide for teacher evaluations starting in 2013-14. By 2015-16, that measure is to comprise half of a teacher’s evaluation.
Although some see the changes as “teacher bashing,” many — including national union leaders — say revamping the teacher-evaluation process is long overdue.
Done correctly, they say, it will help teachers obtain valuable feedback to improve their craft and, in turn, improve academic outcomes.
It also addresses some of the biggest, longtime problems in American education: The lack of reward and recognition for top-performing teachers; the wild inconsistencies in quality of instruction between different classrooms; the difficulty in getting poor instructors to either improve or leave the profession.
“No question, (overhauling teacher evaluations) changes the rules of the game,” said Larry Killips, principal of Portage’s West Middle School and supervisor of secondary instruction for Portage Public Schools.
The hope, he said, is that better evaluations that help teachers identify their strengths and weaknesses will put more “precision and focus” in school-improvement efforts.
But “it’s not a magic wand. It’s not going to fix problems overnight,” Killips said.
Like many educators, he is worried about how quickly states are moving to enact changes, particularly in using test data to rate teacher effectiveness — a relatively new and controversial concept.
The wariness of local educators is shared even by people at organizations such as the Gates Foundation, which is at the forefront of the movement to revamp teacher evaluations.
“The process has become ‘ready, fire, aim,’ when we probably should be using blanks,” said Don Shalvey, a longtime California K-12 educator who is now a deputy director with the Gates Foundation.
That said, Shalvey is among those convinced that improving the evaluation process has the potential to revolutionize the education profession.
“Feedback matters,” Shalvey said. “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”
Raising the bar
As a district in the midst of a multiyear contract with its teachers’ union, Gull Lake Community Schools is exempt from having to use test scores in teacher evaluations this year.
But Superintendent Chris Rundle says the district is ahead of most in overhauling its evaluation process. Gull Lake initiated major changes a few years ago, partially at the urging of teachers who wanted more meaningful feedback.
Gull Lake has a new form for evaluating teachers, and the checklist of what makes for an effective teacher is more specific. Classroom observations by Gull Lake administrators are much more frequent, and the feedback is more pointed. For instance, a teacher struggling with a certain skill may now get an email with a video showing a master teacher at work.
Last year, for the first time, Gull Lake teachers qualified for up to $200 in merit pay based on their evaluation.
“It’s not significant yet, but it’s a start,” Rundle said.
Just as significant, perhaps, Gull Lake changed its evaluation process in conjunction with the development of “professional learning communities,” a reform designed to break the old model of teachers working in isolation.
The district has 24 teams of teachers grouped by grade and subject. Each team determines what students should be learning, how to measure outcomes and how to identify and help struggling students.
The goal is to put teachers on the same page, so that, for instance, students in ninth-grade language arts will learn the same content and be measured by the same standards regardless of their teacher. It also makes it easier to compare teacher effectiveness, as teams review the results achieved by each team member.
“The first time you do it, it’s not real comfortable to put all the test results on the board for everybody to see,” said Kristin Flynn, Gull Lake’s curriculum director.
Still, Amie McCaw, principal of Ryan Intermediate School, said the reforms have changed the way her school does business — for the better.
Last week, she visited all four fifth-grade classrooms. She came away impressed both by the quality and consistency of instruction, and made that point to the teacher who serves as team leader.
Recalled McCaw: “She said it was because they’re all having conversations now about what they’re doing and best practices. She said a few years ago the only time they all talked was in the lunch room, and they talked gossip.”
Rundle said there’s no question the reforms have helped Gull Lake teachers to raise the bar.
“Back in my days of teaching, I could shut the door and do what I wanted,” he said. “In a short period of time, we’ve advanced light years.”
A dramatic change also is under way in districts such as Otsego and Kalamazoo, where students’ test scores are being incorporated into teacher evaluations for the first time this school year.
In Otsego, 40 percent of teacher evaluations are based on growth in test scores.
“We’re only 60 days into it, but one observation is that, across the board, it seems to have really brought a focus” to strategies to improve academic achievement, Otsego Superintendent Dennis Patzer said.
“Every teacher is looking at the scores for their students” and thinking about whether their instruction is effective, he said.
“It’s made for a new ballgame.”
Using value-added measures
The nationwide movement to revamp teacher evaluations was the subject of a daylong conference in Chicago last weekend.
The event was sponsored by the Education Writers Association, a professional journalism organization that brought in experts from around the country to talk to education reporters. The speakers included policymakers, union leaders and researchers on school reform.
There was unanimous consensus among the presenters on the need to change the status quo on teacher evaluations, and on using student test data as a measure of teacher effectiveness.
But they also agreed that use of student test scores is the most controversial and problematic aspect of reforming evaluations.
As in Otsego, these so-called “value-added measures” focus on student growth rather than raw test scores. The formulas take into account students’ abilities when they start a class, leveling the playing field for teachers no matter what type of students they serve.
Proponents say value-added measures offer an objective measure of student learning. And pilot projects show that, on the whole, the measures tend to line up with more subjective evaluations of teachers. Teachers who get top marks from principals also tend to have higher value-added scores, while teachers with low value-added scores tend to rank lower by other measures, too.
But researchers also acknowledge the formulas used to calculate value-added measures are complicated, there are multiple models and there are plenty of concerns about the margins of error.
The formulas works best at identifying the very strongest and weakest teachers, presenters at the conference said. It’s much more murky in terms of assessing teachers outside of the top or bottom 10 percent.
Also, in the same way that ACT scores aren’t a precise or wholly accurate indicator of a student’s academic performance, experts readily acknowledge that value-added measures tell only part of the story of teacher effectiveness.
Speakers at the conference suggested that value-added measures should account for, at most, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and probably less.
“It’s reasonable to use” value-added measures in evaluations, said Tim Knowles, of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. “But it should be used with caution” and in combination with other measures — preferably multiple classroom observations by multiple observers who have been thoroughly trained in the evaluation process.
Knowles and others also stressed that improving teacher evaluations is not an end to itself. The point has to be improving instruction and, in turn, student outcomes.
The end goal, Knowles said, is to be able to tell educators that, “If they can adopt certain behaviors, we can say with some certainty that student achievement will rise.”
While many experts see tremendous potential in improving teacher evaluations, they also say it’s effectiveness is largely dependent on successful implementation.
“I tell people, don’t kill yourself on the standards, kill yourself on the implementation,” said Rob Weil, director of field programs for the American Federation of Teachers.
But in that regard, there are some considerable roadblocks.
One is the enormous culture change it involves for many schools.
There’s some real fear,” said Charles Glaes, superintendent of Vicksburg Community Schools. “If you’ve been told you’re entire career that you’re golden, and now you’re being told that you need improvement in certain areas, it’s jarring.”
Almost everybody agrees that truly terrible teachers are few and far between. But Tim Daly, of The New Teacher Project and one of the speakers at the Chicago conference, suggests “there’s a lot more mediocre teachers out there than many would admit.”
He pointed to the results of a pilot project involving the evaluation of teachers in Chicago Public Schools, where it was found 43 percent of teachers struggled to conduct a high-quality classroom discussion.
Daly suggested that’s a finding that should provoke soul-searching among educators.
As better evaluations yield new, and perhaps, unnerving insights about U.S. teachers, Daly said, “What are we going to do when the truth is put in front of us?”
Another big issue is that improving teacher evaluations is an expensive and time-consuming reform, especially in terms of training administrators to be effective evaluators and giving them the time do it.
At the Chicago conference, participants said principals need to make it their top priority and offload some of their current responsibilities if necessary.
“This is what they’re supposed to be doing,” Daly said. “Do we really think that lunch-room duty or monitoring the school buses is so important?”
Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, agreed. “This is about clearing the decks and rethinking how they do their jobs,” Jacobs said.
That’s easy to say if you’re sitting in a Chicago conference room versus a Michigan principal’s office, respond local school administrators.
They note that administrative ranks are shrinking, as schools eliminate assistant principals and stretch principals over multiple schools to save costs. That means principals have more to do than ever, even before adding on a heightened emphasis on teacher evaluations.
“We have a difficult, ongoing battle with our Legislature over unfunded mandates, and this is a big one,” Glaes said. “We’re under huge pressure to reduce administrative costs, but you can’t do this reform without trained administrators to do the work.”
Still, overall, Glaes and other local educators say they see “tremendous potential’ in revamping teacher evaluations, even as they stress that the changes are in their infancy and it’s hard to know how they will play out.
It’s that way across the nation, Jacobs said.
“Most states have made big policy changes,” she said. “But now the rubber hits the road.”