Grading teachers is a tricky assignment.
Studies show that teachers are the most important school-based factor in determining how much students learn, and that struggling students stand to benefit the most from highly effective instructors.
But getting teachers and administrators to agree on how to use standardized test scores to rate teacher effectiveness has proven difficult in states across the country.
Not so in Missouri.
After decades of using evaluations that most educators felt were inadequate, Missouri school districts are rolling out new evaluations this year intended to help make good teachers better while at the same time flagging the bad ones.
They will focus more on whether students are learning by incorporating standardized test scores and other measures into the review. They will use current and previous tests to determine growth — how much students learned under their teacher that year.
That’s been a lightning-rod issue elsewhere. But early signs here suggest that teachers for the most part are OK with Missouri’s approach.
In the Hazelwood School District, for example, of the 818 teachers who voted on the union’s contract with the district last spring, just 20 voted “no” and indicated it was because of the evaluation system. Student growth will make up 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in that district.
Teachers “are always learning, always growing, always changing, and that’s what this evaluation is based on,” said Diane Livingston, president of the Hazelwood teachers’ union.
President Barack Obama’s administration has offered incentives to states to develop more meaningful evaluation systems, ones that rate teachers and compensate them based on the standardized test scores of their students.
But such attempts have prompted educators to take to the streets in Chicago and hold opposition rallies in Baltimore and New Mexico. An outcry in New Jersey led education officials there to modify teacher evaluations to focus less on students’ academic growth.
In Illinois, districts have been phasing in new evaluations required by a four-year-old law, though districts aren’t obligated to make the move until 2016-17. At that point, at least 25 percent of a teacher’s rating must be based on multiple measures of student growth. Eventually, it will be 30 percent.
The biggest concern is the student growth piece, said Susan Sarfaty, superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education.
“Teachers are used to being evaluated on their teacher practice. But the student growth is a whole new component and very murky,” Sarfaty said. “How a student does on a test is influenced by so many things.”
In Missouri, the new evaluations have been able to sidestep controversy.
For one, evaulations won’t be made public. And unlike most states, Missouri isn’t mandating how heavily standardized tests must weigh when teachers are rated. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is leaving that part up to districts.
Missouri is also allowing districts to adopt the state model or come up with their own so long as they align with seven principles, such as providing timely feedback on performance and using measures of student growth to determine effectiveness.
Student growth could be based on a number of different measures, not just state tests, alleviating many concerns teachers have about new evaluations.
“Teachers are not afraid to be held accountable,” said Ann Jarrett of the Missouri National Education Association. “That’s the reason they go to work every day, they want kids to learn. But there’s so much more that we teach kids and want to teach kids that are not measurable on a standardized test.”
Districts such as Francis Howell and Parkway have not yet established how much weight student growth and test scores will carry in their evaluations.
The state education department has set no minimum threshold.
But that kind of flexibility at the local level would be gone if Missouri voters approve a constitutional amendment this fall.
Teach Great, an education reform group financed by investor Rex Sinquefield, wants student growth and performance data to make up more than half of a teacher’s evaluation.
The organization successfully collected enough signatures to ask Missouri voters to decide the issue in November. Amendment 3 also would make teachers at-will employees.
“Education is about student outcomes and how well students are doing, which is a shift on what education has been,” said Kate Casas of Teach Great. “That doesn’t mean other factors aren’t important. There can still be observations and parent and student surveys. But the point of education is to make sure students are getting one.”
‘THE COOKING MUST CHANGE’
The new teacher evaluations are being touted as a way to elevate instruction in the newly formed Normandy school system, which is under the direct oversight of the state education department.
At a training session for Normandy principals recently, Paul Katnik, an assistant education commissioner, talked to administrators about how to give better feedback to teachers and what to look for when dropping by classrooms.
Katnik told principals to quit focusing on just the adult in the room when doing the evaluation, and look more at the students.
If a cook has great technique but no one eats the food, he said, the cooking must change.
“If students don’t receive the teaching and can demonstrate that it happened, the teaching didn’t occur,” Katnik told them.
“It’s about how much you can move the kids,” he said. “There has to be some sort of pre- and post-tests, and tests along the way.”
The mindset is a shift in many districts.
For decades, they rated teachers on their grasp of lesson plans, bulletin board presentations and classroom management skills. Teachers commonly received satisfactory reviews regardless of whether their students were learning.
“They were evaluation systems that didn’t give teachers any useful information about their performance,” said Dan Weisberg, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project, an advocacy group. The old evaluations, he said, “didn’t give principals or districts any information on which teachers were good and which teachers weren’t.”
This had been the norm in the Fort Zumwalt School District for years, until the St. Charles County school system agreed to pilot the state’s new model in 2012-13.
“Before, they came in and got a check check check, you’re either doing well or you’re not, and they left,” said Jackie Floyd, assistant superintendent of curriculum for Fort Zumwalt. Teachers received no constructive feedback, she said. No conversation about how to improve.
Teachers filled out surveys rating the new system last spring.
“The majority reported they felt like the conversations they had with their evaluators were much more helpful and much more meaningful to them,” Floyd said. “The importance is, it’s not whether I taught it. It’s whether they learned it.”
That’s not to say there isn’t criticism or concern.
To use the evaluations effectively, administrators must provide frequent feedback. In some districts, teachers may be responsible for peer reviews. Principals and administrators are having to be trained on how to evaluate consistently.
“There’s some uneasiness out there,” said Mike Wood, associate executive director of education policy for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
The new evaluations require principals to become the instructional leaders of their buildings, not just the managers of their school. It’s a notion that’s widely favored, but not always realistic given how stretched principals can be, Wood said.
“Now they have to find time in their day, in their week, in their school year to spend more time in their classrooms,” he said. “Will there be time to do a quality evaluation?”