River Oaks Elementary Principal Lois Yount opens the door to classroom 9 unannounced. She's got a notebook in hand and a list of items she wants to check that the teacher is working on. She quietly stands in the back of the room, observing the teacher for five to 15 minutes, before moving on to the next two to four classrooms she planned to visit that day.
The process might be played out several times a semester and result in a short handwritten note from the principal followed by both a more meaningful conversation and a traditional 30-minute formal evaluation later.
It's part of a new teacher evaluation system in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District aimed at nurturing stronger instruction by each of its 216 teachers. The new mini-observations are a drastic shift from typical teacher reviews. In most school districts, such evaluations take place every three to five years, and only after a traditional observation on a set date.
"I don't think it's radical; it's more meaningful," Superintendent Karen Schauer said. "The system that we were using wasn't really meaningful for everyone who needs to be a part of the process to improve instruction."
Galt elementary's ultimate goal is taking a harder look at the link between teacher effectiveness and academic achievement for its 3,027 students. Schauer believes that improving the evaluation process will have a direct effect on instructional and classroom quality.
The major areas principals review follow the state's teaching standards including student engagement, supporting effective learning environments and instruction including planning learning experiences.
"The frequency is important because it gives me a clearer picture of what's going on in the classroom and how I may be able to better support teachers who are working to make changes with their practice," Greer Elementary Principal Emily Peckham said. "It also provides more feedback to teachers more often."
A collaboration with teachers
The pilot program was collaboratively developed by both teacher union leaders and district management.
"The evaluation is research-based, tied to professional teaching standards, and will help us elevate teaching performance with greater attention to ongoing face-to-face feedback," Schauer said.
Principals prioritize providing feedback face-to-face, but also include written feedback each time. The complete evaluation process for each teacher depends on experience — probationary or permanent — and performance
Visiting several classrooms daily may seem like a lot of extra work, but Yount said she feels she will be able to get into more classrooms this school year with the new process. Additionally, she said she is spending less time on paperwork related to the observation process.
"The ability to stay in a class for five to 10 minutes and leaving an informal handwritten note has its time benefits, and I am also giving feedback to teachers more often," Yount said.
She plans to keep a log sheet to record how many total minutes she has spent in each classroom.
"I am hoping this system will keep me on track for the 60 minutes needed for each teacher who will be evaluated this school year," she said.
Peckham admits there's a bit of a learning curve when you change the way anything has been done.
"It takes practice and a shift in thinking," she said.
But she said it helps that the district and teachers union not only developed the program together, but are also supportive of the changes.
Teachers union president Brian Meddings also believes it helps students.
"(They) will see the administrators more as their visibility will increase throughout the classrooms. Kids may become more familiar and less anxious when the principal walks into a classroom," he said.
Last fall, when the shift was already underway, Yount said the district was trying to get away from what she termed "a dog and pony show," where an administrator comes into a classroom on a set date for a teacher's review.
"Many of the teachers I work with would rather an observation be unannounced so we see a real picture of what is going on in the classroom on a regular basis," Yount said. "Some teachers have told me they get too nervous before an announced observation, and this new process takes away that pressure."
Steps in a process
Under the new evaluation process, those on an improvement plan and close to being terminated may receive a different type of evaluation with varying sets of expectations. If the steps to improvement are not followed, Schauer said the district will be better prepared to move forward with dismissing a teacher, if needed.
They will know it's working, she added, by talking to teachers directly, and indirectly when student achievement improves based on instructional support.
Once they determined the direction they wanted to move in with evaluations, district administrators examined books written on the topic to get a sense of how it could work in Galt, according to Schauer.
The new system was voted on and approved by the union last year. During this school year, teachers and administrators will provide feedback, and modifications will be made based on this feedback, according to Meddings.
The issue became a statewide discussion last summer when a bill to overhaul California teacher evaluations was introduced. It would have added one performance level — excellent — to the current satisfactory and unsatisfactory categories. And instead of being required, state standardized test scores would be optional in measuring teacher performance.
However, it was scrapped before gaining enough support to become a law.
"Effective teachers are those who have the capability of understanding where their strengths and weaknesses are, and that only happens if you have a comprehensive evaluation system," bill author Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, said.
His bill would have reviewed teachers more often, used more yardsticks to probe more points of expertise, but collective bargaining would have determined which measurements to use and how much weight to give them. Student test scores would have been required as one measure of teacher evaluation; others could have included pupil grades, projects, portfolios, performances and classroom participation.
"I firmly believe that you need the buy-in from your teachers if you're going to be developing a system that evaluates them," Fuentes said.
"I have always had teachers tell me that they would rather have more frequent observations that are unannounced than the more formal observations we have had in the past," she said. "Teachers provide wonderful learning experiences day in and day out. They love talking about the instruction they provide and they want to know what they can do better."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.