Jun 10, 2011

Teachers speak out: Dispelling fears and myths about teacher evaluations (Chuckle)

Emmy is director of Ohio policy and research and Jamie is senior Ohio policy analyst and associate editor for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Columbus, Ohio.
Like many states, Ohio is struggling with how best to evaluate teachers and how to use those evaluations to inform personnel decisions (like remuneration, tenure, professional development, and -- when budgets or enrollment leave no choice -- layoffs).
In Ohio, roughly half of the school districts are participating in the federal Race to the Top program and as such are committed to developing and implementing robust teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student achievement data and inform personnel decisions. And during the ongoing state budget debate, the Ohio House introduced language that would put in place an evaluation system that incorporates student academic growth and several other key job-related performance factors to determine teacher effectiveness, and would make effectiveness a key factor in determining how teachers are assigned to schools, whether their contracts are renewed, and -- when budgets make it unavoidable -- how they are laid off.
The evaluation model in this bill resembles those developed in a bipartisan manner in many other states. Unfortunately, however, the Ohio Senate has dropped all of these provisions from its version of the budget, preferring instead to maintain Ohio's status as a state with archaic laws that force school districts to consider only seniority when making teacher layoff decisions.
Why? Even prior to this particular legislative battle, myths and fears expressed by educators and policymakers about teacher evaluations have been rampant here. Opponents of overhauling teacher evaluation systems argue they're inherently unfair, arbitrary, prone to bias, focused too much on test scores, ruin collaboration, create competition, etc.
But are they really? We wondered if these allegations rang true in places where teachers are evaluated in rigorous ways. So we reached out to DC Public Schools and went into the field to ask teachers who are already participating in a rigorous evaluation system, called IMPACT, what they think about these matters.
The teachers we interviewed included science teachers, an elementary math coach, a fourth-grade teacher (of all subjects), a special-ed middle school teacher, an art teacher, and a master educator (who conducts the observations on behalf of DCPS). They shared what it's like to be evaluated through observations five times a year and to have part of their performance linked to student test scores.
Overwhelmingly, even despite some concerns expressed by several of the teachers, common themes emerged. Binary rating systems ("satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory") are neither informative about which teachers are effective and which are not, nor do they these systems help teachers improve their practice. Even teachers with significant concerns expressed that IMPACT correctly identifies the worst performers and the top-flyers. And several teachers who have not yet earned the distinction of "highly effective" said that IMPACT motivates them daily to improve their practice.
The responses from these teachers are candid and powerful, and begin to peel back the myths and fears we've heard here in the Buckeye State. Do evaluation systems like DC's IMPACT water down the art of teaching to one set of test scores on one day? No. Frequent and unannounced observations spread out over the year which are based on a clear outline of expectations, along with several other metrics -- like commitment to school community and professionalism and other measures of student achievement growth -- actually capture the measures of effective teaching far better than previous evaluation systems. Teachers in non-tested subjects, like art and science, explained how IMPACT evaluates them fairly even though their scores are somewhat different from those of teachers in tested grades and subject areas. And every single teacher we interviewed could point to specific areas of instruction that improved as a result of the feedback cycle and relationships with master educators (who conduct the observations). In short, while IMPACT isn't perfect -- and neither is any evaluation system out there -- it's certainly far better than what Ohio has in place and should compel us to institute a more meaningful system in the Buckeye State. Hear these teachers talk about their experience in the video below:
As Ohio and other states struggle to reach agreement on how to make teacher policies focused on effectiveness and performance, and more conducive to attracting the best and brightest to the profession, these are conversations that absolutely must happen. We hope that lawmakers, policymakers, and teachers alike find these perspectives from teachers already evaluated by comprehensive systems which place a high priority on student achievement growth valuable and realize that any efforts to improve teacher effectiveness across the state rest on our ability to evaluate teachers and use this data to make key decisions that are in the best interests of students.

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