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Teacher Evaluations: When Process Makes a Difference

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

The power of collaboration seems, at times, to be the best kept secret in education reform. Despite district variance, efforts to increase student achievement levels often see higher levels of success when all stakeholders work together. Studyville School District (the name has been changed to preserve anonymity) is just one such example. It is a story of collaboration and compromise in which stakeholders came together to design and implement a more effective teacher evaluation system. We live in an era where evaluation and accountability dominate the national education conversation and where student outcomes are being tied to merit pay and teacher performance. It is imperative, given the high-stakes nature of evaluation, that such systems are put in place with fidelity and the buy-in of all actors.

Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress released a report on Studyville highlighting their new teacher evaluation system: Reforming Teacher Evaluation: One District’s Story. Studyville is a midsized urban district in a northeastern state, serving approximately 20,000 students. In 2009, as part of a collective bargaining negotiation, labor and management agreed to reform the evaluation system. Their objective was to increase the instructional quality of the 1,600 teachers in the district. They created working committees to craft the details on evaluation, while the collective bargaining group finalized the issues in the contract, such as teacher pay and pension plans. This separation allowed the working committees a chance to ‘free-wheel’ and brainstorm a new approach and tone for the evaluation system.

The system features a number of unique characteristics. First, evaluations are based on three components: student progress towards specific performance-growth goals (as opposed to value added measures), standards-based observations that follow the district’s teacher-evaluation rubric, and professional conduct. While in the past teachers had few observations, they now happen several times a year, with additional informal visits and more regular feedback.  

Second, evaluations are ranked from 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (exemplary); those identified as needing improvement or exemplary are observed by an independent evaluation from outside the district. Those confirmed as exemplary teachers are eligible for leadership positions, while those who need improvement receive intensive support.  The system also requires annual evaluations for not only teachers but for school and district-level administrators as well, part of an effort to create an atmosphere of ‘top to bottom accountability.'

There are a few interesting outcomes worth noting. Thirty-six teachers were validated as exemplary in the 2010-11 school year, and 66 were validated in the following year. Also in 2010-11, 75 teachers were identified as potentially needing improvement at the beginning of the year, with 58 identified the following year. Some improved, others resigned before their final evaluation. All educators who were notified that they would be dismissed left voluntarily, including 16 tenured teachers. The process went smoothly with no protracted legal battles.

Teachers who were surveyed are mostly in support of the system, with a significant number indicating they are more focused on student achievement as a result of their student learning goals; however, they haven’t necessarily changed their classroom pedagogy. The fact that many teachers are not changing instruction is a concern, although these teachers also indicated that feedback was not necessarily helpful with regards to where and how they could improve. This is an area that Studyville intends to focus on and improve over the next few years.

Studyville’s success provides four key takeaways, but it is important to note that it may be not possible to replicate their exact outcome, as each district is different with a unique context; the lessons are primarily found in the process. First, those surveyed said that the overall context - economic, policy and political - helped set the stage for a successful collective bargaining discussion in 2009, which led to the decision to implement a new system. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, teachers were afraid of losing their jobs and more willing to compromise in contract negotiations. The national focus on policy reforms that were tied to teacher evaluations – such as Race to the Top – pushed districts and unions to work together and provided incentives to states that permitted teacher evaluation based on standardized test scores. Finally, the Democratic mayor was up for re-election, and with education as a focal point of his campaign, he was eager to avoid a high-profile struggle with the teachers union.

The second takeaway is that collaboration was at the heart of the creation and development of this system, especially between labor and management, while strong leadership contributed to the implementation progress. Third, districts should get out ahead of the reform wave and design their own evaluation systems in a collaborative manner instead of as a response to outside incentives. Actors in Studyville all saw the collective benefits of reform and set their own course to move forward in designing a system that addressed some needs for every group. Finally, while collaboration is important, it does depend on the people and context, and challenges are bound to exist.

As education professionals well know, collaboration and stakeholder involvement are key components for any attempts to reform.  However, even beyond the context, and the process, a greater cultural shift must happen across the country.  Teachers need to be more comfortable with observation, and evaluators must commit to using the data first for professional development and improving student learning – removing teachers from classrooms is a last resort. Reform, when done with input and buy-in from an entire community, means that everyone has ownership in the effort to change. Success and failure rests upon everyone’s shoulders, a reality that the Studyville story highlights to great effect.