Earlier this year, teachers in Chicago Public Schools went on strike, delaying the start of the new school year there for more than a week. One of the many issues in that strike, according to news reports, was a new system of conducting teacher evaluations that holds them accountable for students’ academic achievement and progress.
Such policies are part of a nationwide trend that has been stirring controversy in states and local school districts around the country. And it will soon take hold in Kansas, where districts are now required to have such a system in place by the 2014-15 school year.
But local officials who have been working on a new evaluation system for the Lawrence school district are hopeful that the transition will be much smoother here.
“I think as a district there is an understanding that the whole process of teacher evaluations has to be elevated to a much higher priority,” said Lois Orth-Lopes, a Cordley School music teacher who serves on a committee that’s developing the new system for Lawrence schools. “The board, I believe, understands that; the administration understands that; and I think the teachers understand that. If it’s to be meaningful, then it needs to be a priority.”
That requirement to include student performance as a major part of teacher evaluations was one of the conditions Kansas had to agree to as part of its recently approved waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under policies of the Obama administration, states can receive those waivers only if they agree to implement a host of other educational reforms, including adopting new evaluation systems that use student growth as a major component.
The Kansas State Department of Education is now developing a model that will be available for any district to use. But the Lawrence school district, as well as several other large- and medium-sized districts in Kansas, has opted to craft its own.
“We were involved in the early meetings at the state level and had already started our own work here within the district,” Orth-Lopes said. “Even before the state came out with this, we realized that we wanted to make some changes of our own.”
Orth-Lopes represents the Lawrence Education Association on a 10-member working group — five teachers and five administrators — that’s developing the new system. LEA is the collective bargaining unit that represents local teachers in contract negotiations and other matters. She’s confident that when the new system is put in place, it will be much less controversial than it has been in Chicago and other places where it’s been tried.
Part of that, she said, is because the new system is being actively negotiated between teachers and the administration.
“We’re working hard to get buy-in from everybody, to make sure that people really understand the value of it, the effort that’s been put behind all of this work, and our commitment to members,” she said.
Angelique Kobler, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction who also serves on the team, agreed.
“As we talk about the purpose of evaluation, it’s not about ‘gotcha,’” she said. “It’s about supporting staff to continue to professionally grow. And I think a natural outcome of professionally growing and learning is student achievement.”
Another reason for the optimism, both said, is the fact that, unlike the policies in districts outside Kansas, student scores on standardized tests will not be used as the measure of student growth and achievement.
That has been a major source of controversy in other states, where critics of such plans say too much emphasis has already been placed on those high-stakes tests, forcing teachers to spend too much time “teaching to the test.” Pinning a teacher’s job and career on those tests, they say, would only make matters worse.
Instead, Lawrence officials are developing a system around a framework designed by Charlotte Danielson, a nationally renowned education theorist based in New Jersey who developed a framework for evaluations known as the Danielson model.
Danielson specifically advises against using standardized tests in teacher evaluations, arguing that they are not an accurate measure of how a student is progressing, or how effective a teacher has been.
Instead, Kobler and Orth-Lopes said, the system Lawrence is developing will use other indicators.
“For example,” Orth-Lopes said, “if it’s a language arts teacher, maybe some early examples of student writing (compared to) later examples. Or maybe a unit pre-test that was given before a particular unit of study and then the results of the post test. These are all possibilities.”
Using those kinds of measures also allows the evaluation system to be used for teachers in subjects that don’t have state assessments — classes like music, art and physical education. They can also be used for evaluating nonteaching professionals, such as counselors, school nurses and speech pathologists.
The key, they said, is that for every element on the evaluation, there are well-defined standards, or “rubrics,” that are used to determine whether the person being evaluated has or hasn’t met the expectations.
“It clearly defines what’s expected at each level so it’s not a secret for anybody what the definition of effective teaching is,” Kobler said.
When it’s fully in place, Orth-Lopes said, the new system will be vastly different from the current evaluation process.
“The current evaluation system that we have was put in place many years ago and it was, at the time, cutting-edge,” she said “Instead of there being a checklist of things you did well in or maybe didn’t do well in, it had a personal goal component. And at the time we adopted our current evaluation (system), that was like rocket science. To think that teachers would take some responsibility for growth and improvement, and tie that to their evaluation.”
“Over time, we see that there were some weaknesses with the model,” Orth-Lopes said. “But we also know, just because of research and the use of rubrics and language and all kinds of things — just the advancement of science and learning and brain research, all those kinds of things move us along. And so currently there are so many better ways of doing it.”
Kobler said the timeline calls for training administrators in how to use the new system this spring. Then in the summer, the committee will sign up teachers to volunteer to test out the system in the 2013-14 school year. Full implementation is planned for the following, 2014-15 school year.