Seeking Aid, More Districts Change Teacher Evaluations

By Rich, Motoko | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, October 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Seeking Aid, More Districts Change Teacher Evaluations


Rich, Motoko, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


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. …

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