Teacher scorecards might sound easy, but good ones carry a price

/ 26 April 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, April 26, 2012 –

Minnesota is in the midst of developing a new teacher evaluation system, one that Republican lawmakers would like to use to make layoff decisions based on performance rather than seniority.

The movement to overhaul how teachers are rated has picked up steam nationwide, fueled in part by President Barack Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition. But as states such as Rhode Island and Colorado are finding out, developing intricate performance measures requires more time and money than they bargained for.

“It’s easy to make broad statements about goals and how this is going to work. But the devil’s always in the detail,” said Rose Hermodson, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education.

“And if the real goal is to improve instruction and teaching, this is going to require a commitment of resources from the state. A substantial amount of resources.”

More than a dozen states have passed laws to have more rigorous evaluations based on classroom observations and improved student performance.

Supporters say effective teachers are the biggest in-school factor affecting student achievement and better evaluations are vital to ensuring schools have those teachers.

But skeptics argue the reviews can be subjective and that using test scores is troubling because they aren’t the best way to judge student performance.

Rhode Island’s board of education approved an evaluation system in 2009. While all of the state’s teachers and principals have an abbreviated version this year, two school districts – Warwick and Jamestown – tested the full system.

“We feel like we’re doing the right thing. But it definitely is a paradigm shift. And there’s not enough time in the day to do it as well as we’d like,” said Stephen Lowery, coordinator for the evaluation committee at Warwick Public Schools.

All of Rhode Island’s 30 districts get the full system this fall.

OVERWHELMED

For Warwick, a district of about 9,700 students near Providence, it hasn’t been easy. Teachers and administrators argue the evaluations required an inordinate amount of time and money.

In a letter to Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist last month, a district committee said school climate and discipline are suffering because of the time demands. It added that educators are stressed and overwhelmed.

Teachers and administrators also say some of the forms are burdensome and note there isn’t enough money to conduct annual evaluations and provide necessary training. They suggest extending the pilot another year to work out the kinks.

The time commitment has been overwhelming, Lowery said. Principals easily spend several hours on each teacher’s evaluation. Principals observe them four times a year – a lengthy visit announced ahead of time and three shorter, surprise classroom visits.

“Providing meaningful feedback is at the crux of this evaluation system. That’s the most important aspect,” Lowery said. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of time schools don’t have built into their schedules.”

Some evaluations were taking 15 hours to do, said Larry Purtill, president of National Education Association of Rhode Island. And the paperwork was keeping teachers out of the classroom.

The state’s education department heeded some of the advice and scaled back on the number of observations and work involved.

STUDENT GROWTH

Teachers are judged on student growth, which could include test scores or end-of-course exams, if applicable, as well as expected student outcomes set by the teacher.

One of the biggest problems states are finding is how to factor student performance – specifically how it’s measured – into evaluations.

Minnesota’s teacher evaluation law calls for 35 percent of a teacher’s review to be based on student performance. Many other states, including Colorado, New York and Florida, also specify that student progress needs to account for a certain percentage.

But many of the laws call for multiple measures to be used to gauge student performance. And even states with sophisticated assessments still must figure out how to measure student growth for teachers of classes, such as physical education and art, in which students don’t take standardized tests.

In Minnesota, Hermodson estimates only about 30 percent of teachers have students taking standardized tests on a regular basis, most of them elementary teachers.

Rhode Island is using goal setting to get around the lack of data as the state looks for other ways to assess non-tested subjects. Teachers set goals for students at the beginning of the school year and are judged on whether they succeeded at the end of the year. In high schools, teachers might gauge success on how many students pass end-of-course exams.

States are also struggling to come up with ways to evaluate growth for students who are harder to reach, like those with special needs or English-language learners.

Colorado, a year ahead of Minnesota in crafting its teacher evaluation system, is still struggling to develop a firm plan for how to define student growth and ways to measure it. And it will count for half of a teacher’s review.

Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness for the Colorado Department of Education, said officials are bringing in experts from around the globe to get advice and research.

DEVELOPMENT COSTS

Developing evaluation systems costs money.

Rhode Island used about $18 million of its $75 million Race to the Top grant to get its evaluation system up and running, with most of the money going to train evaluators, said Elliot Krieger, a spokesman with the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Warwick got $1.5 million for piloting the system over the next three years. That included two former principals hired as consultants to train and help evaluators, as well as substitute costs for teachers when they’re conferencing with principals and some higher-needs school administrator fill-ins.

Rhode Island has 30 school districts with 11,000 teachers and 143,000 students, about one-sixth the size of Minnesota’s school force. That could mean much more time and expense here, Hermodson said.

Anthes said she wouldn’t even venture a guess at how much Colorado’s system will ultimately cost. It all depends on what new testing might be brought in.

“It all depends on what you include,” Anthes said.

FIGURING NUANCES

Minnesota’s teacher evaluation system won’t be developed until 2014. But a task force has been working on it since December and is scheduled to finish its work at the end of this year.

The group will spend its May meeting looking at state models like Rhode Island and Colorado.

“There are all these different nuances here we have to figure out,” Hermodson said.

Though concerns have been raised, it doesn’t mean teachers and administrators don’t see value in evaluations.

In Colorado, 27 school districts are testing the state’s new principal evaluations this year and in the fall some will pilot the teacher reviews. Anthes said it is overwhelming for schools at first, but once they roll up their sleeves and get the hang of it, they appreciate it.

“People are saying for the first time ever, I’m getting feedback of what’s expected of me,” Anthes said. “After they get over the stress of it, they understand it’s a powerful tool.”

Lowery said although it has stressed out people in Warwick schools, teachers also feel more appreciated and valued having their administrators spend time in their classrooms and give them constructive feedback. The dialogue around teaching and learning has also intensified.

“It has changed the tenor in that respect,” Lowery said. “We believe firmly that the point of doing this is valid. It needs to be done.

“Many elements of this particular model are good. But many parts of it are overkill and unrealistic,” he said. “Let’s not rush it. Let’s make sure to get it right.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at twitter.com/meganboldt.

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