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Are teacher evaluations making the grade?

From metrics to methodology, our panel of superintendents provides insight on this hot-button topic
Chris Belcher, superintendent of Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools, recognizes an outstanding teachers as part of the district’s educator of the year recognitions in 2012.
Chris Belcher, superintendent of Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools, recognizes an outstanding teachers as part of the district’s educator of the year recognitions in 2012.

Teacher evaluation may be the hottest—and most divisive—topic in education right now. From Florida to Missouri and Nevada to Minnesota, state legislatures are debating bills that would tie teacher assessment to student achievement. Meanwhile, school districts are revamping their systems, and superintendents are trying to balance the often-conflicting demands of teachers, unions, state-imposed rules, and good educational practice.

The push to update teacher evaluation models has been driven by the education reform movement and the financial incentives in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top. Traditional systems that rely heavily on classroom observation are giving way to ones that place greater weight on student test scores.

Those changes worry many educators who say that standardized test scores don’t accurately measure teacher proficiency. Others say traditional teacher evaluation systems often fall short, leaving failing teachers in the classroom.

For insight, District Administration convened a virtual roundtable of school superintendents, all members of the District Administration Leadership Institute.

What were the most important factors you considered in creating your current teacher evaluation system?

Andrew Dolloff, Maine Regional School Unit 21 in Kennebunk, Maine

Our current system was created with one goal in mind: to improve instruction. We view teacher evaluation as the single most effective way to accomplish the goal. The only factor that seems to be different now is the drive to use student performance data in teacher evaluations. The need to properly supervise and evaluate staff as a means for improving instruction has always been present.

Stephen Murley, Iowa City (Iowa) Community School District

One of the things important to us is that we look at what we want to happen in the classroom and then design a system wherein the purpose is to improve teachers’ capacity to deliver the instruction that is relevant to the students in the classroom. So ours is very much focused on what teachers know and are able to do. From that standpoint, you see that very strong focus on professional development because our goal was to make sure that those teachers are growing in their capacity to deliver the instruction that we have determined is appropriate for kids in the classroom.

What standards should be used as a guideline for evaluations: federal, state, professional organizations, local?

Ben Zunino, Eureka County School District in Eureka, Nev.

I am in favor of local control. I believe there are some proven guidelines teachers can use in their instruction to help ensure students have the best opportunity to learn. If administrators and teachers work together to develop what excellent teaching and learning looks like it will be more effective than someone somewhere else telling them how to teach.

Stephen Murley

There are two perspectives. One is an emphasis on local control—that the more local the decision, the more relevant it is for that district, that school, that classroom. From that standpoint, you would argue that you want an evaluation system that’s built in-house. On the other hand, on other end of the spectrum, clearly there’s some great value in having some systemic standards—either statewide or nationwide components that allow for transferability of staff and understanding among administrators about what that type of evaluation means. One way to balance it is not unlike what we’re looking at with the Common Core standards—getting some direction at the national or state level that the evaluation must include x,y,z; but with some latitude at the local level as to what those components are.

Chris Belcher, Columbia (Mo.) Public Schools

With all the federal push and thrust and money, I don’t see that we’ve gotten better in the urban centers. In suburban and rural schools, I’m not sure they got any better. They just played the game better. I question if something handed down and mandated is something that can be manipulated and gamed. If you do something locally, people believe in it and are not going to let it get abused because they are too close to it.

Who should evaluate teachers? And what kind of training/experience should they have?

Sarah Jerome, Arlington Heights (Ill.) School District 25

The principal as the instructional leader of the school is the appropriate person to do the evaluation. But that does not exclude teachers learning from other teachers. We encourage teachers to visit other teachers’ classrooms and when we have a teacher that is in difficulty, we ask another teacher to be a coach and be helpful in that way.

I’ve taught classes in graduate schools designed to help people evaluate teachers and other principals. It is part of the graduate repertoire. Districts have to pay some attention to that as well and provide opportunities to get better at that craft. It takes time and that’s the crucial piece. It takes quite a bit of time. Often principals are hard pressed to find that time.

Susan Belenardo, La Habra City (Calif.) School District

Site administrators should evaluate teachers who are under their supervision. They must be strong instructional leaders who understand the impact of the classroom teacher on student learning.  They must be trained in progressive discipline and skillful leadership. Evaluation is a tool to recognize performance and to improve performance.

What criteria should be used to evaluate teachers?

Ben Zunino

Test scores and student data should be a part of the conversation with teachers and administrators when discussing evaluations. A longitudinal look at the trends of individuals and the cohort are important when discussing how a teacher performed during the year. There are many reasons that can affect a student’s test scores, not just instruction. What a teacher does in a classroom is the key to student learning.

Susan Belenardo

Evaluation is not a one-time measure. It is necessary to evaluate the teacher’s impact on student academic growth. It is most important that teachers receive feedback on their performance. In an elementary school environment, I believe that student performance must include looking at data on individual students as well as looking at the impact that the teacher has made on that student’s academic growth and development.

Stephen Murley

There’s a rational argument to be made that the test score is their performance on a single day on a specific type of measure, which may or may not be applicable to the actual content of the class. On the other end, there is the evaluation that is based totally on input: Did you turn in your lesson plans, have you done your professional development time? A test isn’t always a reflection of you as an instructor and the work that you did preparatory to actually teaching doesn’t make you a good instructor. For it to be a good evaluation, it needs to be holistic. It can’t be a single facet.

If standardized test scores are used, what criteria would apply for teachers who teach non-core classes for which there are no standardized tests?

Ben Zunino

I am not sure how you can evaluate them the same, particularly if the law requires 50 percent of each teacher’s evaluation be based on test scores. We all know teachers who are not the core teachers or are the primary teachers that have a tremendous effect on the success of students.

Chris Belcher

I don’t know that there are models in place for music that can be that precise or for art or physical education or for the specialty courses we teach at the high school level, so it has to be collaboration with the teacher and saying “bring down your last assessment.” Was it a district assessment? Did you develop it? Why did you choose these questions? Do these questions align with common core? Does it make kids process and use information or are you asking them to recite information? Those are the discussions at work that just don’t make a 10-second sound bite. And nobody has answered that question.

What will you do with the results of the evaluations?

Susan Belenardo

Evaluation is an ongoing opportunity to recognize and improve performance. I do not believe that merit pay or bonuses work to improve performance. If a fair and equitable system could be created where increase in salary was not merely based on time on the job but also required the demonstration of professional growth and development that was fairly and equitably managed, that would be ideal.

Andrew Dolloff

Teachers who do not do well in the evaluation year may be moved to another step on the cycle, or, if necessary, placed on an action plan. We’re not hesitant to do that. In my first year as a high school principal, I began conducting classroom observations, placing teachers on action plans, and removing ineffective teachers from the school. Although I was warned that morale would dip, quite the opposite was true. Teacher morale improved because they had an administrator willing to say to them, “I recognize that not everyone can do this job well,” rather than one who let the poor teacher remain on the job with no expectation for improvement.

Stephen Murley

Teachers don’t go into teaching because of bonus pay. When you introduce bonus pay into the model, it changes the focus. There are other ways to provide incentives for teachers that are appropriately structured to get the results you want. One of the best ways to recognize teachers is in front of their peers. Some of the strongest recognition that people get is from people who do what they do. They understand how hard it is to get those results. You have to have dialogue with teachers and find out what is a meaningful reward for them.

Is there an accurate, equitable way to measure what makes a teacher good?

Sarah Jerome

There are certainly some clues. They have a personality that is warm and inviting. Children respond in a positive way. They are intelligent and understand what learning is about and construct a setting where children can learn. You see children in the classroom engaged and excited about learning.

Compare a teacher to a concert pianist. Some people have remarkable talent for producing beautiful music that can sweep you off your feet. But it has taken thousands of hours of practice. You can have a teacher who sweeps you off of your feet and makes it look so easy and natural. But behind that are hours and hours of practice, rehearsal, and coaching. It certainly doesn’t come without practice—on the stage or in the classroom.

Monica Rhor is a freelance writer based in Texas.