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New program aims to improve ways to gauge teacher effectiveness

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2012 - Most education experts will agree that one of the most important factors in improving student achievement is a good teacher.

But there’s not always such a strong consensus on exactly what makes a teacher good.

Missouri is trying to move closer to an answer with its new pilot program for educator evaluation, which a growing number of the state’s school districts are going to adopt this coming school year. 

The goal, says Paul Katnik, director of the office of educator quality in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is to give school administrators a framework that is specific enough to reach an objective evaluation but flexible enough that individual districts can focus on what they think is most important -- and won’t be overwhelmed by the effort involved.

“We are trying to keep the parameters pretty loose,” Katnik said. “Districts are pretty stressed financially. They have a lot they are dealing with.”

With a broad range of factors in the mix, coming up with an overall plan wouldn’t seem to be that difficult. But broadening how a teacher is graded, so it moves beyond simply using numbers like a student’s score on a standardized test, isn’t always easy.

“Clearly, given the importance of test scores, they should have some weight,” says Sam Hausfather, dean of the school of education at Maryville University, said. “But it should not be very much because tests tend to be minimal levels of competency, and they tend to be very narrow in terms of curriculum.

“More and more, we want to have curriculum be able to respond to the needs and the backgrounds of students, as opposed to something very generic. As we are looking at the needs of our country, and want to continue to create people who are creative, innovative and think outside the box, that doesn’t mean the ability to fill in little boxes.”

And any system of testing teachers has to take into account how well they are able to deal with the classes they are given, adds Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director for the Missouri National Education Association.

“So many factors affect student achievement,” she said. “One is how students are assigned to teachers: what students you get, what are the dynamics, what are those students going to do outside of school that year.

“Test scores can be good for evaluating programs and larger groups of students, but they are not a reliable predictor of how effective that teacher is. Because teachers have a relatively small group of students each year, particularly elementary school teachers, there is too much error in the numbers.”

From novice to distinguished

The one-year pilot project of the new evaluation system for teachers, principals and superintendents that begins this fall was approved by the Missouri Board of Education last month after lengthy work by a number of school-related groups. During the past school year, 174 districts in the state tested the system, then provided comment that led to refinements. After the upcoming pilot and further adjustments, a final version is scheduled to be available by all districts for the 2013-14 school year.

The system that will be in use this fall is designed to determine how well educators are doing their jobs at various points in their career, starting even before potential teachers enter the profession. From there, they will be evaluated as new teachers, developing teachers, proficient teachers and distinguished teachers who are leaders in their district and their profession.

Along that continuum, the evaluation system looks at three factors:

  • Professional commitment, including a teacher’s credentials and effort in planning lessons
  • Professional practice, including how well a teacher handles students and uses techniques to get lessons across
  • Professional impact, including measures of student performance and results from student feedback and classroom behavior.

Those factors -- based to an extent on research from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- are further broken down into a number of quality indicators, totaling 36 for teachers, 13 for principals and 16 for superintendents.

Finally, the entire system is based on seven principles that are aligned with legislation that directs Missouri school districts to set certain teaching standards: 

  • Clear expectations
  • Differentiated performance levels
  • Probationary period
  • Student performance measures
  • Regular meaningful feedback
  • Evaluator training
  • Use of evaluation results

From program into practice

Obviously, navigating that kind of labyrinth of standards, factors, indicators and other benchmarks won’t be easy for any school district, and it may be particularly difficult for smaller districts that are harder-pressed financially than others. 

Katnik, with the state department of education, acknowledged that “I don’t think you can do improvement across 36 indicators.” He recommended that districts focus on just a few.

But, notes Aaron McPherson, who has just begun a new job as principal of the Highcroft Ridge elementary school in Parkway, one advantage of the system is how it makes clear to all districts what is expected, even if every teacher isn’t necessarily judged by every standard every year.

“The biggest improvement to me is consistency throughout the state,” said McPherson, who helped refine the system to its current version. “It gives a model for all school districts so that they have consistent standards on how they evaluate their teachers, rather than each district doing what it thinks is best.

“It still gives a district like Parkway the chance to develop its own model, as long as it fits into those seven principles. But it evens the playing field. Parkway had a higher developed model because of the resources it has. Now smaller districts that didn’t have the resources to develop a model on their own have one too.”

Jarrett, of the NEA, says that even with the flexibility allowing districts to adapt the model and make some of their own choices, her union appreciates the fact that there is general agreement on what teacher evaluators should be looking for.

“The MNEA has been very active in getting the concept of requiring teaching standards on the state and local level,” she said, “so we can have conversations about what is good teaching and everyone is on the same page about what the expectations are.

“Our biggest concern is the cost and the ability of local districts to have the resources to implement the plan successfully, because there are no additional funds for districts to do this work. It is very time-intensive to do good evaluations. You need three 30-minute observations to do decent evaluations, and beginning teachers need more feedback than that because they are new. Very few districts have the resources to do that for every teacher every year.”

Hausfather, at Maryville, applauded the variety of groups that took part in developing the pilot program.

“The input of different stakeholders in Missouri can vary depending on rural and urban and suburban schools,” he said. “Schools should be a reflection of their communities, to a degree. They should also be a reflection of our state and national aspirations, but that is part of the local control that programs like No Child Left Behind have really threatened.”

Student scores, teacher evaluations

More than half of the states nationwide, including Missouri, have now won waivers from that much-criticized federal program. One of the biggest arguments against its effectiveness has been its reliance on test scores to judge schools and districts, a rating that often comes out more poorly than more general indicators do.

Hausfather said the Missouri plan is “clearly a great improvement on evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their kids. That system is at this point full of problems. As far as scores being able to judge the impact of a teacher on a kid’s growth, I think we are far from being able to do that at this point.”

Jarrett said that test scores in particular should not be used for high-stakes decisions like hiring and firing. “They are too inconsistent,” she said, adding:

“It’s not that we don’t think student performance should we used. We do think you should look at effectiveness of teachers in the classroom, but you need student work samples, observations -- so many things that a teacher does besides prepare students to take standardized tests. The countries that have the best education systems don’t use standardized tests at all.

“There are so many other ways to judge student learning besides standardized tests that are more accurate and better predictors. Teachers should be expected to help students learn. That should be part of the evaluation -- but not just as measured by the test. It should be broader than that.”

In terms of how the evaluation will be used, McPherson, the Parkway principal, emphasized the positive aspects of it, but he acknowledged that sometimes the negative has to play a role as well.

“We always think the goal of evaluation should be improving teaching,” he said. It should not have as its first use something that is punitive. The goal should be to go in and see what a teacher is doing well and what the teacher should do better in, then look for tools to help. You are also looking for growth throughout a teacher’s career.

“But if teachers are consistently showing they are not meeting expected standards, there has to be a component where the evaluation gives data needed to put them into an improvement plan and, ultimately, as part of a termination process if it goes there. That shouldn’t be the primary goal, but you have to use it that way if it comes to that.”

Asked how the evaluations would affect moves like hiring, firing, promotion or discipline, Katnik said those are the kinds of decisions districts have to make regularly, so the results of the evaluation process can be valuable.

“Every year,” he said, “districts have to determine who to offer contracts to. At the end of the day, this helps districts decide lots of things -- which folks can be used in other capacities, or maybe who they are going to think about asking to do something else.”

In the end, he added, the evaluation system is designed to make sure that the teachers in Missouri classrooms are the best they can be.

“The bottom line for any educator is helping kids learn better,” Katnik said.

“The way you help kids learn is that you improve effective practice, so that adults who are leading schools or teaching in the classroom are getting better and better at what they do. What we are looking at is the relationship between the two, so as you improve practice you see learning go on the same upward trajectory.

“All the research points to effective teaching as having the most important impact on successful learning. It’s number one. That’s why we put all the emphasis on the people who are in a kid’s life.”

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