At charters, variety the norm for teacher evaluations

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During the contract negotiation sessions that recently ended at the UNO Charter School Network, one of the biggest points of contention for teachers was the evaluation system and its link to year-end bonuses.

Teachers considered the evaluation metrics unfair and complained that formal observations weren’t done the same way in all classrooms.

“For us, they stay the whole hour. For other [schools], they may only stay 15 minutes,” says Gerit Nora, a 5th-grade teacher at UNO’s Officer Donald Marquez Elementary. “In some schools, teachers never get feedback all year but then get a score at the end.”

At Marquez, teachers are formally observed and evaluated four times a year, Nora says. The evaluations are factored into a year-end score that comprises 40 percent of a teacher’s rating. Half of the rating is student growth on the NWEA test, and the remaining 10 percent is a mix of student attendance, student dress code compliance, and school-wide and network-wide performance.

The evaluation process did not change under the new contract ratified this week by UNO teachers and staff, who were represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, or Chicago ACTS.

But the contract did eliminate the link between evaluations and pay. Mallory Bruno, a special education teacher at UNO’s Octavio Paz Elementary School, said the bonus system “really formed bad relationships and ruined morale.”

Organizers said UNO administrators “really believed” in the system and were unwilling to change it, but compromised on the link to bonuses.

UNO representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

While traditional schools in CPS must adhere to the new evaluation system called REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago), one of the hallmarks of charter schools is the variety of systems used to evaluate teachers. 

Nationally, charter school teacher evaluations can be “as different as the number of charters,” says Nancy Waymack of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It is hard to generalize and say that charters evaluate their teachers in one way, versus districts.”

Allison Jack, director of charter growth and support at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says charter school principals often can spend more time in the classroom for observations because they more commonly hire business managers to take on school operations. As a result, they may be more hands-on, teaching lessons and observing teachers regularly.

As with UNO, charter schools commonly weigh growth in test scores more heavily in evaluations than non-charters. (Under REACH, test score growth currently accounts for up to 25 percent of teacher evaluations.)

In charters, scores are also often used to determine merit pay, unlike in traditional CPS schools.

Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris says that union members are almost entirely opposed to merit pay, believing it sows distrust. Instead, Harris suggests, evaluations should be about coaching and improving teachers’ work.

Teacher firing not a big strategy

Waymack notes that charter schools have more freedom to fire teachers with—or without—negative evaluations. But charters have not necessarily been quick to get rid of teachers who don’t measure up. Instead, some say they place more emphasis on good hiring practices and training.

Angela Montagna, director of external affairs at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, says the network leaves it to principals to “decide if and how they want to evaluate teachers.”

All teachers in the Noble network are eligible for bonuses based on factors including growth in student test scores, school culture, and parent involvement. But principals get the leeway to create their own evaluation systems.

Tyson Kane, the founding principal of Noble Street-Chicago Bulls College Prep, says that the network places a greater emphasis on hiring teachers who can demonstrate good results with students, rather than on evaluation once teachers are hired.

At Kane’s school, 80 percent of teachers’ evaluations scores are based on factors related to student achievement, like ACT and Advanced Placement test results and whether students are on-track to be promoted to the next grade. The remaining 20 percent is determined by more intangible factors, like professionalism and helping other teachers.

Teachers are measured against the Noble network’s own historical data that shows how much progress teachers are able to make with students.

He says the school focuses on outcomes such as test scores because those are the same factors that will determine life opportunities for students.

“If those outputs are on the critical path to our students being able to graduate from college, then we really have to give credence to these things [that] Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth are saying,” Kane says.

Allison Slade, the founding principal of Namaste Charter School, says that school uses a modified version of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the teacher rating system CPS has adapted for its observations.

Teachers receive 12 short, informal observations each year from administrators and colleagues who drop into their room, and two longer, formal observations from their immediate supervisor.

Teachers don’t get an overall rating, however. “I don’t think that is helpful in helping a teacher grow,” Slade says. Instead, they get ratings in each category of the scoring rubric.

Teachers with lower ratings are put on an “Improvement Action Plan,” but three-quarters of them complete it successfully and are able to keep their jobs.

Test scores are a factor in teachers’ raises, along with attendance on the job and at professional development workshops, plus other intangibles like collegiality, communication with families, and observation ratings.

Contributing: Melissa Sanchez