Hundreds of thousands of the nation's teachers will return to class in coming weeks to find their profession moving toward new forms of scrutiny.
In a move supported by both key conservatives and liberals at the local, state and federal level, schools are rapidly redefining what constitutes an effective educator.
Under the changes, teacher performance would be rated not just on qualifications and classroom demeanor, but on cold, hard data of how well students are performing.
It's a philosophy viewed as the next natural step toward an increased reliance on student standardized exams and accountability.
And while critics question whether the concept can work, the idea of tying those tests to teacher evaluations has inserted itself deeply into federal policy of the administration of President Barack Obama.
Billions of dollars in federal grants — as well as flexibility under the stringent No Child Left Behind Act — have been tied to states rating teachers based on student exams.
Meanwhile, a host of states, including Missouri and Illinois, say they were already on board with the concept before the federal push.
Illinois, in particular, passed a teacher evaluation law in 2010 that reinvents teacher evaluations, eventually using student performance as a factor. The Legislature followed up last year with a law that uses the evaluations as the basis for defining who gets tenure protection. Some have called the legislation a stunning political compromise that could be copied elsewhere.
"Other states have called us saying, 'How did you actually accomplish this?'" said Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch.
Koch said even the nation's education secretary praised Illinois "for the fact that we had broken the logjam on tenure, and that we now had moved forward in a very meaningful way."
But agreeing to a new teacher evaluation approach — in Illinois and elsewhere — may prove easier than actually implementing it.
Nationwide, states and school districts have faced a host of obstacles in connecting student performance to teacher evaluations.
Among the hurdles are determining how much weight those scores should have on a teacher's review. Skeptics doubt whether any statistical measure — no matter how intricate — can sufficiently zero in on a teacher's true role in a child's test performance.
Some point out that teachers have differing batches of students each year. As the students performance fluctuates, those differences can undermine the credibility of an evaluation based on standardized exams.
Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director of the Missouri National Education Association, said the group generally supports Missouri's plans for new teacher evaluations, but fears some school districts will fixate too heavily on state exams that were never designed to be used as a yardstick of teacher performance.
"They only test a small slice of what teachers are expected to do," she said.
And then there are logistical headaches, such as training thousands of school administrators to rate faculty in a new way.
All that has Illinois and the federal government locking horns over how quickly a plan can be set in place, with Washington pushing for a more accelerated adoption of the evaluations.
"It's hard to do things around these artificial time frames that are handed down from the department," Koch said. "It doesn't make sense to rush forward."
Yet despite the hurdles, the new evaluations have taken hold at select school districts, with some being rolled out this coming school year.
Kate Clooney, a second-grade teacher in the Hazelwood School District, knows firsthand what the future of her evaluation may look like.
For more than a year, Clooney and other teachers, administrators and school board members have been developing a new system that will factor in student performance and streamline evaluations for the entire district. The old system, which focused on traditional models of an annual classroom evaluation by a principal, had not been updated since 1999 and has been interpreted differently at the 29 schools throughout the district.
While some teachers may have bristled at a new evaluation, many have seen the change coming.
They have helped create the new system, so that has helped ease concerns, Clooney said. And the tailoring of professional development to focus on an individual teacher's weaknesses is good, she said.
"We did not want it to be a 'gotcha' tool," said Clooney, who teaches at Walker Elementary. "The main goal here is student achievement. That goal has never changed. Now, it's just put out into the spotlight."
The district is ahead of most in the St. Louis area in its creation of its own new system. That's partly because the district has three schools that received federal School Improvement Grant dollars. In exchange for $2.64 million during the next three school years, the district agreed to try new reforms at the persistently low-achieving schools, including revamping teacher and principal evaluations. They could roll out the new system as early as 2013-14.
Other districts in Missouri, such as Normandy, plan to sign on to pilot the state education department's new model for evaluations, developed not only for teachers, but also principals and superintendents.
It places educators into categories. For example, a teacher would have to show evidence of "commitment, practice and impact" to progress from new or developing to proficient or distinguished.
A part of that evidence would come from how much their students learn, or even student and fellow teacher surveys.
This past year, 174 Missouri districts gave feedback on an initial version of the system. The state plans to have a version complete by next summer, but even then, Missouri districts will not be bound by law to sign on to such a system.
Provisions that would have set up a teacher evaluation system based in part on student performance were early to go in a bill that ultimately died during the last Missouri legislative session. It is still up to local school boards on how to evaluate their teachers' performance.
"The primary focus of the system is, how do we get everybody better?" said Paul Katnik, director of the state's Office of Educator Quality.
THE ILLINOIS PLAN
Some say the strength of Illinois' approach is that it spells out the teacher evaluations in statute. That gives the plan more teeth than in states such as Missouri. For example, Illinois sets specific deadlines that all districts must meet as they revamp teacher evaluations.
The first piece occurs this year as administrators are trained and tested in their ability to evaluate teachers. Initially, student performance will not be a factor as teachers are rated as excellent, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory. Those ratings will weigh into granting tenure and determining which teacher might be the first to lose a job during layoffs.
By 2014 the state would complete a study on how to incorporate student test scores into the teacher evaluations. The measures would first be used at low-performing schools in 2015, followed by all schools the following year.
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said the teachers union supports the slow approach. "The right thing to do is to take the time to do it right," he said. "They should be done really thoughtfully, based on research and other work people have done elsewhere."
But the U.S. Department of Education wants an evaluation system in place that includes student performance by 2014-15.
And federal regulators may have the leverage to get their way.
For starters, low-performing schools that have accepted federal School Improvement Grant funds are expected to adopt teacher evaluations that use student performance. That applies to half of Chicago public schools this year, and the remaining half next year.
More broadly, Illinois may have to speed its teacher evaluations statewide if it wants to be freed from other federal regulations.
That's because Illinois, like most states, has sought a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, allowing for it to be exempted from the law's more austere provisions in exchange for reforms. And those reforms include overhauling teacher evaluations to include student performance.
More than 30 states, including Missouri, have already received such waivers.
Illinois is still in the application phase, a process that will ultimately settle when the new evaluations must be in place.
"We've been wrangling with the Department of Education for months," said Koch, the Illinois school superintendent.
Meanwhile, Illinois is moving ahead on its own schedule — but not without glitches.
This summer, the state's effort to train administrators in the new evaluations has been stymied. Many have reported technical difficulties with online training, and complaints that the training takes so much time, it might cut into administrators' back-to-school work.
"It is an extremely challenging training to go through and very time-consuming," said Mike Chamness, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Administrators. "And as everybody heads into the start of a new school year, that's obviously challenging."
Koch acknowledged that the training for principals and other administrators requires many hours. He said that thousands of those required to take the training have completed several components of it but that his office has heard its share of complaints about it.
"It's a heavy lift — and not everybody's even going to pass the training," he said.
But in the long run, Koch says the trouble is worth it.
"It focuses everyone on what we want them to focus on, and that is good instruction, kids learning, and having real discussions about how we best know that happens," he said.
"If it were easy, it wouldn't necessarily be accomplishing anything."