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Creating report cards for teachers

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Posted: Saturday, October 29, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 3:11 am, Fri Nov 11, 2011.

Most local teachers are only reviewed once every two years. It is a simple and sometimes swift process: A principal schedules an observation, fills out a form, and that’s it.

A small number of evaluations lead to teachers getting more direction or help.

Virtually none of these evaluations lead to termination.

It’s been this way for years, but it is changing. A pitched battle over teacher evaluation is playing out across the country.

Critics such as Michelle Rhee, featured in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” say teachers, with their union clout, have resisted rigorous evaluations. She and a growing number of reformers say such laxity is hurting kids, and they believe teacher quality could be improved if teachers were evaluated more frequently and given stronger feedback.

In some schools, such as the Aspire charter schools affiliated with Lodi Unified School District, test scores are now used as a partial basis for reviewing teachers.

In schools in Washington D.C., bonuses are being tied to academic performance, and in New York, they’re changing the way teachers instruct certain students based on their scores.

Lodi Unified’s board president believes a “360” evaluation, which would include peers, parents and administrators, might be useful.

Teachers counter that their success goes well beyond test scores. It depends on student demographics, school resources and many other factors that aren’t easily measured.

Still, in Lodi and Galt, the process of building a new report card for teachers is underway.

“Evaluations have to be retooled, because they’re not telling us what we need to know,” said Eric Lerum, national policy director for education advocates StudentsFirst. His organization promotes a process that compares one year’s annual standardized test scores from students to their previous scores to measure a teacher’s contribution. Such so-called value-added assessments would be used to award bonuses to top performers and fire those with the lowest ratings.

“Why not look at test results as part of evaluations — where students are starting and where they ended?” said Superintendent Karen Schauer, of Galt Joint Union Elementary School District.

Gaining momentum

The California Teachers Association has opposed use of a value-added method, saying that students’ test scores don’t accurately reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. In mainstream public schools, evaluations fall under collective bargaining agreements.

Last September, the state Board of Education took up teacher evaluations and unanimously voted to create an online database to share information about local, state and national efforts to measure educators’ effectiveness.

The board also asked the Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno school districts to propose specific ways the state can support more meaningful evaluation tools, including the value-added method. Lodi Unified teachers’ union president Jeff Johnston declined to discuss the issue. He said value-added assessments may become part of upcoming contract negotiations, which cannot be discussed publicly.

Currently, employees are evaluated by an administrator. The frequency is based on the number of years they’ve worked for the district and whether they’ve received an unsatisfactory evaluation in the past. Under state law, those with more than 10 years experience are only required to be reviewed every five years.

Teachers who receive one or more “unsatisfactory” or “needs to improve” recommendations on their previous evaluation are placed on a professional improvement plan — but rarely does that progress to termination.

“If a teacher gets an unsatisfactory mark, he’ll go back into the classroom the next year and his get his (salary) increase,” Lerum said.

In Lodi Unified, principals have the chance to include test results in discussing teacher performance, though that is not a required, according to Assistant Superintendent Catherine Pennington.

“If teachers are really open to using the information we can get out of our data system ... and challenge themselves as educators that it’s their responsibility to ensure a students grows while under them, I do think it’s very adequate — if teachers are willing to discuss that with their supervisor,” she said.

Clairmont Elementary School Principal Susan Hitchcock admits there are limitations with the current evaluation process — especially when it comes to frequency. For example, if a teacher was reviewed by an administrator at one site and then transferred elsewhere where they did not excel, the current administrator is unable to review him or her until the next year.

“For teachers who are ineffective ... you can’t put them on an improvement plan. Your hands become tied in the year that’s not their evaluation year,” she said.

Currently, 1 percent of the district’s 1,350 teacher workforce are on an improvement plan.

State laws dictate discipline

Four percent of Galt elementary teachers are receiving formal assistance to become more effective teachers through a Peer Assistance and Review program. The next step is termination, although that has not happened in the last decade.

In fact, it hasn’t happened in either Lodi Unified or the Galt districts. No tenured teachers have been fired because of poor performance or for anything short of criminal activity.

But in Galt elementary, staff is taking a harder look at the link between teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

Currently, nine of the 209 teachers are on an improvement plan. It is part of this school year’s district goal to strengthen instructional quality by improving the evaluation process, according to Schauer, who believes an effective teacher evaluation in necessary to achieve that.

“We need to make sure our evaluation process is in line with research ... which recognizes the importance of good classroom instruction,” she said.

Aspire Public Schools, a charter school organization, is already moving in that direction, shifting teacher evaluations to include student test scores to measure whether a teacher is effective. As a result, five teachers have been released based on performance since the organization opened its first charter in Lodi Unified in 1999, according to Carrie Douglass, Aspire’s corporate director of talent strategy.

“I understand teachers are worried about being ranked,” said Dawn Drake, third-grade teacher at Aspire’s Vincent Shalvey Academy. “They’re for the teacher to find out how she can get better — and that’s what we all want, to be at the top of our craft. The goal of Aspire is to make better teachers.”

“It’s not about pointing out the bad ones,” she said. “If someone has some weaknesses, we want them to get better. That never happened in public school.”

The Galt elementary district is also trying to get away from what Schauer terms “a dog and pony show,” where an administrator comes into a classroom on a set date.

“You can go in and watch a teacher any time,” Schauer said of the changes the district began working on last school year. She refers to it as a “balanced shift,” but insists the district wants to work with struggling teachers to get better.

Those on an improvement plan and close to being terminated may receive a different type of evaluation with varying sets of expectations, she said.

If the steps to improvement are not followed, Schauer said the district will move forward with dismissal. “Should we need to go there, we will be better prepared,” she said.

Per state law, any teacher can be released without cause in the first two years of teaching in a district. It becomes much harder to fire an educator after that.

With an annual average teaching workforce of 95, there are currently two Galt Joint Union High School District teachers on improvement plans.

Things done differently

Although he recognizes it’s not a popular viewpoint among his peers, school board president and former teacher George Neely supports value-added assessments, so long as the process is fair, he said.

This could include omitting scores of students who leave the state for Mexico once a year, because teachers did not have an opportunity to teach during that time.

Neely cannot bring the idea to the school board for discussion because it is a negotiable item. However, he would like to see changes in how everyone is evaluated, although trustees play no direct role in annual reviews.

“I’m a big believer in the 360 evaluations where you’re not only evaluated by your administrator, but your peers and your observers,” he said turning his attention to teacher evaluations. “In this situation, that could be the parents.”

At Aspire Public Schools, both student and parent surveys are used. Principals also make formal and informal classroom observations.

Schauer is actively using peer mentors to help evaluate Galt elementary’s teachers.

At Lodi’s Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School, principals make unannounced informal walk-throughs regularly, no matter how seasoned a teacher is, according to Audie Silber, a teacher at the school.

The national movement to add student achievement to teacher evaluation started years ago.

But it wasn’t until shortly after the documentary “Waiting for Superman” was released last year that the public got a front-row seat to the discussion. The movie contended that students in public schools suffer because unions block meaningful teacher review and discipline.

The documentary cites Florida State University research in 2010 suggesting that a student who has even a single poor teacher over the course of their grade-school education can suffer longer-term academic challenges.

Rhee now heads up a Sacramento-based StudentsFirst. Among its top priority policies:

  • Evaluating teachers up to five times a year based on evidence of student results rather than arbitrary judgments.
  • Using peers to perform the assessment.
  • Separating teacher evaluations from the collective bargaining process.
  • Evaluating principals on their ability to drive student outcomes, and to attract, retain, manage and develop excellent teachers.
  • Paying teachers substantially more for effectiveness.
  • Eliminating tenure, and making teaching a profession based on respect and performance.

“What’s important is how a student is learning,” said Lerum, who works closely with Rhee. “The only way you truly know is to look at test scores.”

He said most states are now shifting toward value-added assessments.

In California, legislation is currently in the works that could vastly change how teachers are evaluated. Assembly Bill 5 would require that all districts adopt teacher evaluation systems as measured in a combination of ways, including evidence of teacher effectiveness on student achievement and regular observations.

Although it was approved by the Assembly, the legislation has been shelved for a year.

Author Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-San Fernando Valley, told a Senate Education Committee earlier this summer that the proposal is not to weed out the bad teachers, but to help the others with “real-time feedback” to enhance classroom instruction.

However, the bill is silent on a number of key issues, such as how long a district would have to wait before dismissing teachers with unsatisfactory reviews. It also reduces the frequency of evaluating tenured teachers to every five years.

Lerum doesn’t feel the proposal goes far enough in addressing the issues.

“Evaluations are the critical foundation to effective teaching,” he said.

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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