Uncertainty as new teacher-evaluation systems near

At Upper Darby High School, first-year teacher Joe Niagara works with senior Amanda Farina in class while Principal Christopher Dormer (seated, rear) observes and takes notes for Niagara's evaluation.
At Upper Darby High School, first-year teacher Joe Niagara works with senior Amanda Farina in class while Principal Christopher Dormer (seated, rear) observes and takes notes for Niagara's evaluation. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 25, 2013

Upper Darby High School Principal Christopher Dormer sat in the back of Joe Niagara's humanities class, tapping out notes on his laptop. But if having the boss sit in and observe made the first-year teacher nervous, he wasn't letting it show.

"What we're going to do today is create presentations on figures from the Enlightenment," Niagara said, breaking the classes into work groups, coaching the students on what they needed to be looking for, moving around the room, and making sure they were on task.

Later, teacher and principal discussed Niagara's instructional strengths, including extra efforts he makes with students outside class, as well as areas in need of improvement. Dormer then assigned Niagara a rating based on what he saw and what they talked about.

And soon, Niagara will also be held accountable for how well - or not - his students perform.

In the fall, Pennsylvania and New Jersey teachers will be under scrutiny like never before.

This year, districts like Haddonfield in New Jersey and Upper Darby and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania tried out their states' new teacher-evaluation programs.

The states are among 30 overhauling how teachers are reviewed. Previously, most teachers received high ratings regardless of whether their students succeeded.

The new system links job security to student performance with the goal of culling the worst teachers and helping others improve.

Administrators will analyze how teachers plan lessons and present them, interact with and question students, and communicate with parents.

Teachers will be rated in one of four categories, ranging from low-performing to very high.

In Pennsylvania, teachers' scores will based half on observation and half on student achievement, including growth on state tests.

Of Pennsylvania's 123,668 teachers, those who are rated unsatisfactory twice in 10 years can be fired.

For New Jersey's 110,229 teachers, the grading mix is for 55 percent observation and 45 percent student achievement in math and language arts, the subjects with state tests. For non-tested grades and subjects, it will be 85 percent observation and 15 percent student achievement. Under tenure reform New Jersey adopted last summer, if a teacher is rated ineffective or partially ineffective one year and ineffective the next, the district must start the dismissal process.

But in many ways, the new evaluations involve a leap of faith.

Research suggests teachers who do well in classroom observations tend to have students who perform well on tests, but there is no evidence that more intensive evaluations actually improve student achievement.

Educators in both states question whether the system will be fair and rigorous, and how schools will balance the demands of the new evaluations with other challenges, like budget cuts and new standards.

There's also worry among some educators in both states, as well as in Philadelphia, that there isn't enough time to get ready. Funding and resources are issues, too.

Moreover, there is evidence these new types of evaluations may not result in substantially more teachers getting poor ratings.

"To say that we're going to have great teachers by giving them As, Bs, Cs, and Ds while we ignore poverty in Philadelphia - get your priorities straight. It's not going to pay off," said William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which has been critical of test-based teacher evaluation.

In New Jersey, a legislative proposal sought to delay the evaluations for a year.

But Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf has indicated full speed ahead.

Both states also plan to have evaluation systems for principals. Next year, New Jersey starts its program and Pennsylvania rolls out a pilot.

Pittsburgh is one district that is ahead of the game. Four years ago, the city launched a new evaluation system after intensive negotiations with the teachers' union. It also won $40 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a national competition to spend on software and consultants, hiring staff, and raising teachers' salaries.

This year and last, Pennsylvania budgeted about $6 million per year in state and federal funds to cover software, consultant fees, and training for the rest of the districts in the state.

The Pennsylvania pilot program began two years ago with 200 of the state's 501 districts. Others joined this year, including Philadelphia.

But some suburban districts passed, including North Penn and Colonial in Montgomery County, Haverford Township in Delaware County, and Neshaminy in Bucks. They'll have no time to test the evaluations before they are launched in the fall.

"If we were starting the . . . process now and had to implement in August, oh, my word," Pittsburgh School Superintendent Linda Lane said. "My worry, my concerns, money is certainly one of them, but time is the other one."

By law, districts in both states will have to launch the evaluations in the fall, ready or not. Officials worry some schools may comply with little preparation or enthusiasm, making it less likely teaching will improve.

"Philadelphia has been slow to start. We have been doing massive intervention this year," said Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania deputy secretary of elementary and secondary education.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, says teachers have little information about the new system or how they will be evaluated.

Officials in Philadelphia say they are using an $11 million grant from the Obama administration's Race to the Top program to help launch the new evaluations. But a massive budget deficit has assistant principals slated for layoff. That could leave principals with little time to do evaluations.

Karen Kolsky, an assistant superintendent in the Philadelphia district, said the schools were already using an observation system; what's different with the new model, she said, is "the teacher does most of the talking."

Amber Burnett, an English and drama teacher at Lincoln High School in Northeast Philadelphia who recently got a layoff notice, was one of 75 teachers who volunteered to be part of the pilot program.

Observing teachers is a better measure of student progress than test scores, said Burnett, who considers the new process an improvement "because it included me instead of just the observer. I felt part of my own observation."

In smaller districts like William Penn in Delaware County, officials are enthusiastic but also say the new system has consumed a lot of time and resources. There, director of schools Jane Harbert said, it took six months to train all of the administrators. The training was paid for with federal money that could run out next year, before the district is ready to try out the observations in all classrooms.

The use of standardized tests has been a bone of contention around the country: In Chicago, teachers went on strike last year to protest how much the exams counted in their evaluations. Another issue is how to rate teachers who do not teach in grades or levels tested by standardized exams.

In Florida, officials have developed new tests that include all subjects and grades. In contrast, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are using what are known as "student learning objectives," in which teachers of subjects like art and gym set academic goals, relying on tests or projects.

Persuading teachers to buy into the system is critical, officials in Pittsburgh say.

Tensions have eased in part because unions participated in the design of the evaluations. Also, results and studies show few teachers are dismissed because of the evaluations.

In Pittsburgh, about 150 teachers have resigned or been dismissed, about 7 percent of the total. A study of four Pennsylvania districts using the new evaluations found 96 percent of teachers received ratings of proficient or distinguished. Only 1 percent received the unsatisfactory ratings that could lead to removal, the same percentage as under the old system.

Most teachers are satisfactory and acceptable, said Mathis, a critic of test-based evaluations. "Where I think it's a waste of money is they're trying to get a degree of precision that they cannot get with the measures they've got."

It's unclear whether the results suggest teachers are better than critics have claimed, whether the new systems are less rigorous than expected, or whether the numbers are the result of growing pains as schools adjust. Supporters say the system at least identifies excellent teachers.

Officials in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have defended the sunny results. "My goal is to improve teachers in Pennsylvania, and to recognize the ones that are already good, because we have a lot of good teachers in Pennsylvania," Dumaresq said.

Dormer, the Upper Darby principal, said that was also his goal. "I may end up with the same number of teachers rated satisfactory, but I am definitely ending the year with better teaching and a better quality of teachers in this building," he said.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University.

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