POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 16, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 1:23 a.m. HST, Oct 17, 2012
LONGMONT, Colo. » In an exercise evoking a corporate motivation seminar, a group of public school teachers and principals clustered around posters scrawled with the titles of Beatles songs. Their assignment: choose the one that captured their feelings about a new performance evaluation system being piloted in their district.
Jessicca Shaffer, a fifth-grade teacher in this suburban community northeast of Boulder, joined the group assembled around "Eight Days a Week." (Other options: "We Can Work It Out" and "Help!")
"If we truly had 52 weeks of school a year, we still would not have enough time to do everything we have to do," Shaffer said, sounding a common note of exasperation. "I am supersaturated."
An elementary school literacy coach wondered whether the evaluations would produce anything other than extra paperwork. "Are they going to be giving us true feedback?" she asked. "Or are they just going to be filling out a form?"
The teachers and administrators, who gathered last month in the boardroom of the St. Vrain Valley School District for a daylong training session on evaluating teachers through classroom observations, echoed anxieties that are rippling through faculty lounges across the nation.
Fueled in part by efforts to qualify for the Obama administration's Race to the Top federal grant program or waivers from the toughest conditions of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education law, 36 states and the District of Columbia have introduced new teacher evaluation policies in the past three years, according to the National Center on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. An increasing number of states are directing districts to use these evaluations in decisions about how teachers are granted tenure, promoted or fired.
Proponents say that current performance reviews are superficial and label virtually all teachers "satisfactory." "When everyone is treated the same, I can't think of a more demeaning way of treating people," said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in a telephone interview. "Far, far too few teachers receive honest feedback on what they're doing."
So far, attention has focused mainly on one element of the new evaluation systems, the requirement that districts derive a portion of a teacher's rating from student performance on standardized tests. Anger over the use of test results exploded during the strike by the Chicago Teachers' Union last month. But most of the new state policies also include a component based on classroom observations by principals, peers or outside evaluators.
Advocates of the new evaluations, including Duncan, have repeatedly emphasized the importance of professional reviews including "multiple measures" of performance.
During the St. Vrain seminar, officials from the Colorado Department of Education walked administrators and teachers through a model rubric for classroom observations that the Education Department had developed to guide principals in assessing teachers. At 24 pages, the rubric serves as a checklist of broad ideals, asking whether a teacher "motivates students to make connections to prior learning" or "provides instruction that is developmentally appropriate for all students."
The new Colorado evaluation system was developed in response to a 2010 bill requiring that all principals, teachers and other licensed school staff be reviewed annually. Half of a teacher's score is determined by student achievement on a range of tests; the other half is based on an evaluation of "professional practice" — what can be observed in class as well as gleaned from lesson plans and other instructional materials.
Even those who are skeptical about the value of using test scores to rate teachers say that classroom observations, done well, can help teachers improve.
"It can be very powerful and it is more stable and reliable" than measures that look at test scores, said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University. But, she added, "one of the big challenges we have is to create systems that are manageable, doable and not overwhelming."
For teachers, the biggest fear is that a poor evaluation could lead to job loss. Under the new Colorado law, teachers can be rated highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective. Starting in the 2014-15 school year, anyone who receives an "ineffective" or "partially effective" rating for two consecutive years will be stripped of the state's equivalent of tenure status, said Katy Anthes, the executive director of educator effectiveness at the state Education Department. To qualify for tenure, a new teacher must be rated at least "effective" for three consecutive years.
During the St. Vrain training session, officials from the state Education Department sought to tamp down fears that the new evaluations were designed to weed out or shame underperforming teachers. "It is not about a ‘gotcha' game," Mike Gradoz, a consultant with the department, told the teachers and principals. "It is about elevating the game so you get better at what you already do."
To help acquaint the principals and teachers with the state's rubric, Gradoz and another trainer walked them through a mock scoring exercise. In one case study, the phantom teacher earned a "partially proficient" rating for failing to establish a "safe, inclusive and respectful learning environment" and showing weak evidence of lesson planning.
Gradoz asked the group how they would respond to such a rating. Joe Mehsling, a veteran principal, got right to the point. "If it is a rookie, there is hope," he said. "If it is a veteran, time to start counseling out."
During a break, Mehsling said the new system — and the mandated consequences — would indeed make it easier for principals to fire low-performing teachers. "The elephant in the room that we are dancing around is the fact that public education has not done a good job on our own dismissing ineffective teachers," Mehsling said.
But, he added, such teachers represented only 1 or 2 percent of those in classrooms. The new systems, he said, could subject the best teachers to onerous observation and bureaucracy so that principals could justify firing a few bad eggs. "It is taking a sledgehammer where an ice pick would have been effective," he said.
Still, Mehsling said the new evaluation systems could result in more objective reviews. "I think it is going to be more work," he said. "But I think it is going to be more meaningful."
In that, he was joined by many principals and teachers at the training session.
"The current system has no rubric so it is harder to know what you are checking for," said Janis Hughes, a principal who attended the training.
The following day, Hughes, who has been the principal for more than a decade at Burlington Elementary, a diverse neighborhood school where about 41 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, dropped by to observe Brian Huey, a fourth-grade teacher.
Huey, who shaves his head and wears a tiny silver hoop in each ear, began by asking the children to define the word of the day: "disposition."
Quietly segueing into a math lesson, he wrote a multiplication word problem on a whiteboard. The students worked independently, and then Huey helped guide them through several strategies that would help them arrive at the right answer.
Next the class gathered on the rug for a review of geometry concepts. "What are the dimensions of that rectangle?" Huey asked one boy.
The boy paused. A girl who had piped up several times during the lesson was eager to showcase her knowledge again. "It is also known as a perimeter!" she blurted.
"Let's not cheat his thinking," Huey said gently.
Hughes, watching from the back of the room, noticed. "He engaged Janelle but did it in a respectful, nice way," she said. "But it also let her know she can't dominate the conversation."
Such observations, Hughes said, would easily fit into the state's model rubric. (Page 10: The teacher "ensures that all students participate with a high level of frequency.")
In general, Huey said, "when I looked over what the criteria are, they sound fair."
"It's just good teaching," he added.