New teacher evaluations get positive reviews

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Most administrators and teachers say that the district’s new evaluation system is providing helpful feedback, finds a report released today by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. But there are several challenges ahead, including an increasing workload for principals and anxiety among teachers about using test scores.

“Even in the face of teachers’ apprehension and mistrust, and the time burden on principals… they see it could be a tool for improvement,” says Sue Sporte, lead author of the report, “Teacher Evaluation in Practice.” Majorities of teachers and administrators see great promise in REACH as an instructional improvement tool.”

The report found that 92 percent of principals say at least half their teachers are incorporating feedback into their teaching, and 82 percent of principals say that same number of teachers made noticeable improvements over the course of the year. Among teachers, 76 percent said the feedback they got from observations was useful.

However, the study also found a lack of understanding among teachers of how their ratings are calculated, as well as confusion among teachers about whether English language learners and special education students are to be included in tests for the evaluations. This past year, up to 10 percent of high school teachers’ ratings and 25 percent of elementary teachers’ ratings was based on student growth on the NWEA test, “performance tasks” for each subject, or a combination.

Few differences from last year

Another issue with the rating system is that it’s not clear how different the results will be from the checklist system.

In fact, the proportion of new (untenured) teachers in each of the four possible evaluation categories did not change by more than 2.5 percentage points as the district changed their evaluation from the old checklist system, to the new one. (Most tenured teachers were observed by principals once this year, but did not receive ratings.)

Alicia Winckler, the district’s chief talent officer, says this is because CPS has worked with principals over the last several years to rate teachers more stringently, even under the old system the district criticized for its vagueness.

She also notes that the proportion of teachers in the very lowest rating category quadrupled, from 0.7 percent to 2.9 percent.

“Although they may not have had the richness of the tools available to them, they changed their behavior and they changed their approach,” Winckler says.

CPS data show that 24.5 percent of untenured teachers received the lowest two ratings in 2009-10, but that number had increased to 40.1 percent in 2011-12, the last year of the checklist.

Also, about one-fifth of untenured teachers did not get ratings this year, because many principals struggled to complete the state-mandated online training on the observation process until November. “We lost almost the equivalent of a semester,” schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says.

High stakes for teachers

The new evaluations rate teachers as Unsatisfactory, Developing, Proficient or Excellent. The stakes for teachers are high:

*Economic layoffs will be based on teachers’ ratings. All teachers with the lowest ratings will be first to go, followed by untenured teachers (by rating) and then tenured teachers (by rating).

*Untenured teachers in the two lowest rating levels are subject to dismissal by principals.

*Starting this year, untenured teachers who receive the top rating are eligible to earn tenure in three years, instead of four. Other new hires won’t earn tenure for at least four years and to do so, they must earn a rating of at least Proficient in either their second or third year, and again in the fourth year.

*Tenured teachers at the lowest rating level are put on a 3-month remediation plan; at the end of it, their classroom teaching must be rated Proficient – the second-highest of the rating levels – or they will lose their jobs.

Principals’ workload to increase

The report notes a heavy workload for principals last year of six hours per teacher evaluation, or an average of 120 to 168 hours per administrator per year.

That may double next year as more evaluations for tenured teachers are added to the mix.

Tenured teachers were supposed to be observed just once last year, and 91 percent were, but the observation did not count and teachers did not receive ratings. But this year, all tenured teachers will be observed at least twice, with those in the two lowest rating categories being observed at least four times. This could amount to a doubling of some principals’ and assistant principals’ evaluation workload.

Byrd-Bennett says the district is working with principals to ease their workload by helping them delegate it to others in their school.

“They are the nurse for the boo-boo on the kindergartner; they are the judge and the jury sometimes at the high school level. …(But) this is the work,” she says. “When bureaucracies layer on administrative responsibilities, the core of your work disappears.”

She says she expected principals and teachers would want to decrease the number of observations, but instead, teachers valued the feedback.

However, Sporte notes the workload poses a danger of its own. “If it turns out that principals just get burned out, this could turn into just a more elaborate checklist,” Sporte notes. “If it takes so much time that it takes you away from other kinds of instructional leadership, then it may not be providing the total best bang for the buck. And yet, the fact that almost all the principals believe it can work, gives you a strong base to work off of.”

She says her advice to CPS would be to work on communication and on building trust between administrators and teachers.

A majority of teachers believe the evaluation system relies too heavily on student growth, according to the report, but many are also unclear how much tests count for in their evaluations.

Administrators, in turn, said in a survey for the report that they lack sufficient time to train teachers on the new evaluations.

“If I were CPS, I would pay close attention to communication, and not leave it strictly up to principals to communicate,” Sporte says. “The amount of confusion we heard from teachers makes me think that teachers need to know more.”

Specifically, the Consortium study found frustration among two specific groups of teachers. It noted that special education teachers find assessments inappropriate for their students. Also, teachers of non-core subjects felt it was inappropriate that school-wide literacy growth is incorporated into their evaluations.

The study found that some teachers may now be reluctant to ask principals for help with problems, fearing that the information will be used against them in evaluations.

In addition, researchers found that principals want more help from the district on how to provide useful feedback to teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union seized on this finding in a news release, noting that this was also a challenge in a previous study of a pilot observation framework. The union charges that CPS has not provided adequate training to principals.

Uncertainty about new teacher firing, student growth

Several pieces of the new rating system remain to be worked out.

One is using evaluations to determine which new teachers get to keep their jobs at the end of each year. Currently, that decision is made based on a “projected” rating – consisting of a teacher’s evaluation score, plus the maximum possible points in student test-score growth – because teachers must be notified of their non-renewal before test scores are in.

But, says Chief Accountability Officer John Barker, CPS plans to ask state lawmakers to change the rules on when untenured teachers must be notified of their dismissal.   

Also, several issues have yet to be decided by the join union-district committee on evaluations. A bone of contention between CPS and CTU is whether core-subject high school teachers will be rated against their students’ EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT expected gains – or some other measure.

Another open question is how previously high-scoring tenured teachers’ ratings will be formulated – likely a majority of teachers in the district – since those teachers’ evaluations will be based on two years of observation and student growth data.