WebExtra: Teacher evaluations linked to contract talks

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Posted July 12, 2007– Teachers don’t like it. Principals rush through it. Schools CEO Arne Duncan says it’s ineffective. Yet Chicago Public Schools’ version of teacher evaluation persists as little more than busy work, having resisted reforms dating back to the 1980s.

In fact, some critics contend Chicago doesn’t even meet the minimal teacher evaluation guidelines set by the state, which recently earned a “D” from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

A fix may be finally at hand, now that a joint School Board-teachers union committee created to revise teacher evaluations has been revived and eight schools piloted a new approach to teacher assessment last year.

Retooled evaluations could also help union and district officials bridge a key divide over new teachers’ job security during this summer’s contract negotiations.

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart won reelection in May by thrashing the now-expired contract that predecessor Deborah Lynch negotiated, especially a provision that allowed principals to fire without cause teachers who have less than four years of experience.

Lynch granted principals the additional power in exchange for a guarantee that new teachers would automatically be slated for the tenure track. But the move backfired politically, as some 3,000 probationary teachers subsequently lost their jobs.

Stewart and her team must now live up to their campaign rhetoric and win back some protection for those new teachers. But winning such concessions during ongoing contract talks with the School Board will be difficult, as the district continues to enact policies that empower principals.

Seeking compromise

Common ground may lay in better teacher evaluations and mentoring for new teachers.

Union spokesman John Ostenburg, who also edits Chicago Union Teacher magazine, says a chief problem with how new teachers’ dismissals are handled is that principals rarely offer guidance or feedback on their job performance. A better evaluation system would address those problems, he notes.

The union has “a serious concern” about principals not evaluating probationary teachers before firing them, says Ostenburg.

For the district, better evaluations and mentoring could pad the bottom line. A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future pegs the cost of recruiting and training replacement teachers at nearly $17,900, money that is lost each time a teacher quits or gets fired.

The timing is ripe now that the district has wrapped up revisions to principal evaluations and is ready to follow suit with better assessments of teacher performance.

Details of a revamped districtwide teacher evaluation system remain unclear, but may borrow from an established peer review model in Toledo, Ohio that was adapted last year at eight so-called “Fresh Start” schools, where the union is leading reforms. (See sidebar)

While districtwide use of peer review is under consideration, the joint School Board-union committee charged with revamping teacher evaluation has already decided to adopt a popular tool, designed by education consultant Charlotte Danielson, that measures the quality of teachers’ lessons, classroom management and instruction. (See Catalyst Chicago, December 2003)

That’s not how teachers are judged today.

In most of the city’s public schools, teachers are evaluated based on two classroom visits by the principal during the school year, one scheduled and one random. As defined in Article 39 of the teachers’ contract, new teachers are reviewed annually, as are tenured teachers with satisfactory ratings or worse. Tenured teachers who have excellent or superior ratings are reviewed every other year. Consequences await only those who receive an unsatisfactory rating—and even then, it rarely leads to dismissal, says Pamela Clarke, who spent years trying to get the union and Board to revamp assessments when she was executive director of the now-defunct Leadership for Quality Education.

“It’s a non-event—that’s why it’s broken,” Clarke explains.

The district uses an evaluation form that requires principals to rate teachers on generic skill areas like “provides bulletin board” and lacks critical assessment of instruction, she adds.

“A window of opportunity” opened and closed back in 2003, Clarke notes, when the CTU was led by Deborah Lynch, who was viewed as a reform-minded union boss. The joint board-union committee was revived then, too, but like the 1993 effort, it went nowhere, and ultimately grounded when Lynch’s proposed contract snowballed into a political fight for survival, says Clarke.

Taking it districtwide

This third and current iteration of the board-union committee, however, appears to be gaining traction on teacher evaluation reforms—particularly with its recent decision to use Danielson’s evaluation criteria. That comes as a surprise to some who see Stewart as the bread-and-butter union president.

Picking Danielson’s rubric puts Chicago in line with scores of other districts across Illinois, says Audrey Soglin, who directs a branch of the Illinois Education Association that has helped dozens of districts to adapt the tool.

The rubric, says Soglin, works because it evaluates teachers on their use of instructional strategies that research has tied to higher student performance. It also establishes a clear definition and common vocabulary around quality teaching that helps educators and administrators to communicate and trust one another, she notes.

But picking an evaluation tool is merely the first step.

“If you take this rubric and you just use it like a checklist, don’t bother,” Soglin says. Even more important, districts must determine whether principals, peers or someone else should evaluate teachers, and how often they do so. “That’s where the rubber hits the road,” she says.

Chicago’s joint committee is looking to decide those issues this summer and launch a pilot evaluation system next year, says Amanda Rivera, who oversees CPS teacher professional development and is a member of the joint committee. Districtwide rollout would follow in 2008.

Overcoming opposition

The fine points that Chicago’s joint committee is now grappling with proved detrimental just two years ago in Elgin, the state’s second largest school district.

Members voted down an overhaul of the district’s evaluation system that featured Danielson’s model, leaving in place an ineffective system that greatly resembles Chicago’s.

According to Tim Davis, president of Elgin’s teachers union, a joint district-union committee was formed seven years ago to fix evaluations, but their work was scuttled in 2005 after transitions in union leadership, a financial crisis and the district’s “rush” to get something done.

This year, Elgin is taking another stab at reforming teacher evaluations with Danielson’s tool, but this time around, says Davis, the union has worked harder to keep members in the loop. The new system also differentiates evaluations by job type and years of experience.

Because teacher evaluation reform covered so much ground, Davis notes that Elgin separated those discussions from basic contract negotiations. “We knew that evaluation would be too complex for comprehensive bargaining to deal with,” he says.

Chicago may well consider a similar move. Reforming teacher evaluations “is not a process that should be rushed,” says Rachel Garza-Resnick, CPS director of labor relations.

Resnick says it will take longer to revamp teacher evaluations than it will to wrap up ongoing contract talks, and it’s important to keep those discussions separate from the dismissal process of new teachers.

“I don’t see [reformed teacher evaluation] in terms of job security,” Resnick says. “The purpose is to help inform practice, to help move a school forward.”

Unlike Resnick, CTU’s Ostenburg says new evaluations and job security are closely related. Surveys of dismissed probationary teachers showed performance evaluations and instructional advice were routinely withheld.

“It’s pretty clear that there were people who were targeted,” Ostenburg contends.

He declined to comment on the likelihood of contract changes related to probationary teachers or evaluations. However, he did not rule them out, noting that past CTU contracts have included provisions that went into effect later, sometimes years after the contract start date.