Illinois parent group pushes for access to teacher evaluations

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Parents should have access to teacher evaluations as part of a plan to
heighten transparency and academic performance in Illinois schools, says
a recently released report by the Statewide Action & Grassroots
Education (SAGE) campaign.

Parents should have access to teacher evaluations as part of a plan to heighten transparency and academic performance in Illinois schools, says a recently released report by the Statewide Action & Grassroots Education (SAGE) campaign.

The SAGE campaign, which launched this April with funding from sources such as The Joyce Foundation and Woods Fund, is an initiative aimed at getting parents involved in pushing for school improvement. One goal of SAGE is to secure “timely access to quality data for parents, teachers, and principals” in order to “raise achievement, improve college readiness, and reduce the drop-out rate.” 

Teacher quality is a major issue across the country as well as in CPS, which last week won a $34 million federal grant to launch a new evaluation and merit pay program at up to 25 schools. Meanwhile, a study released last week by researchers at Vanderbilt University found merit pay programs had no impact on student achievement.

Yet teacher evaluations are a crucial piece of data that parents could use to determine whether or not their children are being taught effectively, says Patricia Watkins, one of the campaign organizers. Watkins says evaluations should rate teachers’ classroom management skills, ability to teach specific subjects and student progress on standardized tests.

With this information at hand, Watkins says, parents can begin to advocate for the type of teachers they want for their children.

(Editor’s note: SAGE wants access to grade-level data on teacher quality, Watkins later clarified.)

“Right now, the way we define [teacher] quality is by what we feel and see,” says Watkins, executive director of TARGET Area Development Corporation, which launched SAGE. “We need qualitative information so that we can draw a relationship between teachers and how students are developing in the classroom.”

As it stands, the disclosure of individual public school teacher evaluations is prohibited under the Illinois School Code. Changing the law may prove difficult.

State Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) says that principals may be less critical of teachers if they know evaluations will be public. In her view, information about teacher quality should be available at the school and district level, but not on an individual basis.

“At a time when we’re trying to make evaluations mean more and be useful, putting them online detracts from all of the hard work we’re doing,” says Steans, who is vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It would be hard to give negative feedback, and much harder to think that you’re going to get real information if it’s all public.”

The union is wary of using test scores to measure teacher performance, even value-added measures that are intended to show a student’s academic growth under a particular teacher.

Technical snafus have made the union suspicious of value-added measures, says Xian Barrett, the political activities coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.

“When you’ve got inaccurate data, that’s not really accountability at all,” he says.

This conflict over value-added scores went public last month, when the Los Angeles Times came under fire for releasing its rankings of about 6,000 public school teachers based on their success in raising student test scores. The United Teachers of Los Angeles referred to the move as the “height of journalistic irresponsibility.” Education experts also slammed the Times, pointing out that the story and data release would unfairly hurt the reputation of some teachers and potentially cause attempts to crowd children into the classrooms of other teachers. 

Diane Ravitch, a professor and historian of education at New York University, wrote in response to the Times story and data: “It’s going to create dissension on school staffs.  It’s going to have parents say, ‘I want my kid in the class of those who are in the top 10 percent,’ and I don’t know how you squeeze 100 percent of the kids into the classes of 10 percent of the teachers.”

Organizers of the SAGE Campaign see access to grade-level teacher evaluations as an important strategy to increase parental involvement in their children’s education and a crucial aspect of its push for greater transparency about schools.

“We want to see teacher evaluation tied to performance and available to communities,” says Watkins.  “We are not going to let up on that.  In the twenty-first century, we should have access to that kind of information.”