Making process work for kids

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Ten years ago, a new contract between the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union called for a joint committee to look for ways to improve teacher evaluation and to investigate such innovations as peer review and a student achievement component.

A committee was duly formed in October 1994 but went nowhere amid changes in union leadershi and control of the school system. Five years later, the committee was taken out of the contract.

Meanwhile, teacher evaluation remained a matter of principals making largely cursory observations of teachers in their classrooms and checking off such items “uses sound and professional judgment” and “uses appropriate resources.” The process was—and continues to be—one that teachers and principals alike find nearly meaningless.

“We see it, we sign it, we get our paychecks, we go home,” Paddy O’Reilly told Catalyst in 1994 when he was a Head Start teacher at Whittier Elementary. “It’s something you do to fulfill the contract.” Today, O’Reilly teaches at the Chicago Academy.

Ten years later, Allen Bearden, assistant to the president for educational issues at the CTU, sounds an echo. “Some principals will just give a cursory look at the classroom, and at the end of the year ask teachers to sign off on an evaluation form. Many of [the teachers] will receive ‘superior’ or ‘excellent’ ratings but still know it will have no meaning. From a teacher’s perspective, I know there is no respect for the process.”

Another echo from 10 years ago: a joint board-union committee on teacher evaluation has returned to the contract. Its discussions will pick up from those started last spring by the nonprofit group Leadership for Quality Education (LQE).

“We should have a system where what is being measured is well-known and accepted by both the people who are doing the evaluation and the people who are being evaluated,” says Xavier Botana, CPS director of teacher accountability. “It has to allow for meaningful ongoing feedback, as opposed to one-shot reporting.”

Botana, Bearden and a dozen others from CTU and CPS are part of the LQE group.

Pam Clarke, senior associate director at LQE, says she believes the steering committee will “morph” into the joint CTU-CPS committee called for under the contract, but that was unclear in mid-November. The contract provision calls for five people appointed by the union and five by the board to meet, discuss the issues involved and report recommendations by next July 1, Clarke says.

Given the time it took to get the contract approved, she says, “It’s not clear to me how firm that deadline is. We’ll definitely have something to report by July 1, but whether we’ll have final recommendations on a brand new evaluation system is very much open to question.”

Since the steering committee had only preliminary discussions, little progress has been made on the substance. So far, the main consensus is that the evaluation system needs to be made more useful for everyone involved. While teacher career ladders are a possibility, so-called merit pay likely is not, Bearden says. As it stands, CPS teacher evaluation has no bearing on pay—the only formal use is on the rare occasion when a teacher is found to be unsatisfactory.

Describing career ladders, Bearden says, “If you meet these criteria, you should be at this place on the ladder—that’s doable provided it’s not based upon any single score or any single evaluative tool.” Rather, he says, it should be based on a set of standards.

“Pay for performance would certainly be a hot-button here,” he continues. “There are too many things that impede how a child performs to establish criteria—especially pay criteria—around a specific test score.”

That stance is disappointing to Clarice Berry, newly installed president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, which has not been part of the LQE-led steering committee. “I don’t know a principal who would not like to offer incentives,” she says. “Principals would not mind seeing the opposite for teachers who are not performing.”

Invited to the first of the LQE sessions last spring was Charlotte Danielson, a New Jersey-based education consultant who has developed an assessment model based on standards for teaching that is used primarily in small city and suburban districts.

“We weren’t necessarily endorsing her work, or saying this is the route we want to go,” Clarke says. “We felt she had some good things to say to get people thinking.” Beyond that initial presentation, “We were starting to flesh out a common dialogue of what is good teaching, what does it look like, and what is the purpose of evaluation?”

Another assessment model, peer review, under which teachers evaluate one another, may be considered, says the CPS’ Botana. “Anything and everything is on the table, in a serious way,” he says.

However, Bearden says peer review is not an attractive option from the union’s perspective. In the wake of the contract vote, “I don’t think the culture is right for it now,” he says. “There might be some discussions about peer coaching, which might be safer than teachers evaluating each other.”

The steering committee’s next step, Clarke says, would be to send out surveys and hold focus groups with teachers in various corners of the system to find out what they would like to see change. Then the committee would formulate recommendations to the School Board and, if approved, begin a pilot program in a half-dozen schools.