Conversations with teachers: Evaluations

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Pritzker Elementary School teacher Amy Rosenwasser speaks with other CPS educators during a recent roundtable discussion organized by Catalyst Chicago on August 19, 2014.

Marc Monaghan

Pritzker Elementary School teacher Amy Rosenwasser speaks with other CPS educators during a recent roundtable discussion organized by Catalyst Chicago on August 19, 2014.

For most CPS teachers, this is the year the district’s new evaluation system finally means something. And that’s a scary prospect.

When the Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students (known as REACH) system went into effect last year, it only applied to non-tenured teachers and those with lower ratings (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) ratings under the prior, decades -old checklist system.

But starting this school year, all teachers will be evaluated using the new system, which was launched in 2012 to comply with a state law requiring all teacher evaluations to be tied to student growth on assessments.* Under the new system, 30 percent of evaluation scores will be based on growth; 70 percent will be based on principal observations using the Framework for Teaching tool.

Catalyst Chicago asked teachers about REACH, how their own informal evaluations went last year, and their thoughts on evaluations in general during our recent roundtable discussion. Today, for the second part in our series “Conversations with Teachers,we’re publishing a condensed and edited version of the discussion. (Read Part 1 here.)

Participants in the roundtable discussion included included two charter school teachers who are not evaluated using REACH: Monty Adams, a forensic science, health and chemistry teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative school; and Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street College Prep. The other teachers were Kris Himebaugh, a 10th-grade English teacher and union delegate at Orr High School, a turnaround school managed by Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL); Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Catalyst Chicago: Tell us how last year’s trial run with REACH went. The evaluations are finally going to mean something this year, right?

 Kris Himebaugh: We don’t know how we did last year, because we won’t get our evaluation scores until mid-September. I just went to a professional development on REACH, and they told us that.

Hen Kennedy: So how do they use that for staffing decisions?

Himebaugh: Good question.

Kennedy: Sounds disruptive.

Amy Rosenwasser: There are things that really concerned me about the evaluations. Part of our evaluation is based on the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association assessments), and the growth shown between the spring of 2013 and spring 2014. But the NWEA itself was given in a different manner from one year to the next. In 2013, for example, the kids could use a real calculator for anything on the math section. This time, only if the NWEA [system] feels you need a calculator does one show up on the screen, and you have to click on it.

So you have students who may not be able to do the math calculations with a piece of paper or in their head, who a year ago could have gotten the question right by using a handheld calculator. Now they have to use something different and it didn’t always pop up. In that respect, those were not the same tests.

Kennedy: One thing I don’t understand is why they don’t disregard outliers. We had one kid who was having a rough day and [his growth] was minus 24 points. I know he grew last year. I know he was having a rough day. That happens. And once I taught a kid who allegedly grew five levels in math in six months. I think both of those scores – the highest and the lowest — should be disregarded when evaluating teachers.

Catalyst: Does knowing that it is part of your evaluation affect how you talk about the test with your students?

Rosenwasser: Yeah. I don’t say, “Look, I could lose my job if you don’t do well.” But in my head I’m thinking that. And I say, “I really expect you to take this seriously. I really expect you do your best. Take your time.” I do everything other than say “Look, my job depends on this.”

Catalyst: What about principal observations, which account for the bulk of the ratings?

Kennedy: I think I’ve really benefitted as an untenured teacher, because I had four observations last year. And with each observation there’s a pre- and post-evaluation conference. So it became more like, “Here’s another one coming up.” That’s quite a bit of time spent with the principal, which I think helped me get to know her better and get more comfortable. And I have a principal who makes it a real supportive thing, as opposed to an adversarial thing.

Catalyst: For our AUSL teacher, how do you think that evaluations are being rolled out? (Teachers at AUSL schools are also evaluated with REACH, although they must follow an additional protocol.)

Himebaugh: I was on leave last year so I didn’t get to experience the Framework. But in previous years, I was in a constant state of fear during observations. I was constantly fearing what was going to happen, who was going to pop into my room, what they were going to see, what they were going to mark me down on.

Monty Adams: I think what Kris is saying applies to a lot of schools, not just AUSL.

Rosenwasser: For me, last year my principal moved me from special ed, where I’m a National Board Certified Teacher and I had always received superior ratings, to a fifth grade general education position, for no real reason other than I think she wants me to leave. I am not an exceptional fifth-grade teacher, or I wasn’t last year. The whole time I kept thinking, “Oh my God, she is going to walk in. She’s going to see something.” I think my kids were doing very well. They’re very engaged. But you just need that one time where you get a “basic” rating and then you’re done.

Rosenwasser: My unofficial rating last year was done just before my class went to lunch. The principal noted that one kid wasn’t pay attention.

Himebaugh: They were probably starving,

Rosenwasser: That’s when you chose to come, right when we’re going to lunch? That’s not the same as coming in in the middle of a reading lesson.

Catalyst: What do evaluations look like at Noble?

Jamie Cordes: We don’t have a network-wide evaluation tool. We don’t have REACH. We have a campus-specific system. Our principals set up more holistic evaluations, where you’re scored around instruction and leadership. It’s not really tied to hiring or firing decisions. The way it’s messaged to me is, if you’re not a good fit that could be a problem. We’re not tenured. The message is and has been that the EPASS [test score] data is an important measurement but I don’t feel and I don’t think teachers in my building feel it’s the be-all, end-all of the year.

Catalyst: And observations?

Cordes: You have an instructional coach — in most cases it’s a dean of instruction — who’s coming to your room every other week. So it’s an observation one week and a meeting the next, and that sort of cycle continues. And that really does feel supportive and doesn’t feel tied to any sort of evaluation of salary or hiring or firing decisions. Bonus pay is tied to the historic best in the Noble Network growth on your section of EPASS. And I think there’s merit pay if you’re an Advanced Placement teacher.

Adams: People usually do their best work when they feel supported and appreciated. The thing that bothers me the most about these evaluations is it makes it an adversarial process rather than a process to support people. We’re coming to work every day because we like the job. We’re not coming for the paycheck. As [Cordes] said, in situations where a teacher is not a good fit in a school, that’s a different thing. But we’re all out there trying our darndest to help these children and that’s what should be appreciated.

Himebaugh: You know who should evaluate teachers? Other teachers. We want what’s best for our kids. If you’re a friend of mine, I’m sorry but if you’re not doing well then I would like to show you some strategies to help you improve.

Rosenwasser: And we do that in the lunchroom when we’re all sitting there. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do when school starts because I’m going to have an all-boys classroom. Am I going to talk about what’s happening in Ferguson [since the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown]? Where am I going to get information that’s appropriate for fifth-grade minority boys when I’m an older white Jewish woman? This is their life, not mine. So what am I going to do? And how will that affect me if the lesson I’m trying to do is not successful when the principal comes in to do an informal observation? Maybe instead I’ll do something that I know will be successful, just in case somebody walks in. It makes it much harder to take risks.

Kennedy: To me, any good tool can be misused. I mean, if you try to use a snow shovel to rake a yard, you’re going to kill the grass. To me, the Framework presents a lot of opportunities, but if you don’t have the leadership in place it’s a lost opportunity and a negative experience. REACH is now in place and now the district should focus on principal quality, making sure principals have significant classroom experience and leadership skills so they know how build rapport.

 

* A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the 2012 state law required teachers’ evaluations to be tied to growth on standardized tests; the law tied evaluations to student growth in certain kinds of assessments, not necessarily standardized tests.