July | August 2017

Testing Teachers

New Evaluations Focus on Educators' Needs to Make Them Better

by Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
Teacher evaluation and tenure laws sit at that rare intersection where both the federal and state governments agree changes are needed.
The quality of a teacher in the classroom is commonly regarded as one of the most important factors in a child’s education. One 1998 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that a difference in teacher quality could account for at least 7.5 percent of the achievement differences between schools.
The federal government has strongly encouraged states to revamp teacher evaluation laws by making it mandatory to qualify for programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers. States have embraced that idea of change in recent years.

The National Perspective

States have long relied on degrees and certifications to ensure teachers were qualified, said Angela Minnici, deputy director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Teacher evaluations usually were of a cursory, check-the-box type.
That didn’t work, Minnici said.
States are changing to a new kind of evaluation, she said, that “identifies the needs of teachers and leaders and makes sure that those who don’t belong in the profession, whether it’s teaching or leading, are ushered out. The major focus is on improving everybody’s skills in all phases of their career.”
The new laws generally extend the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure, changes ratings to a four-tiered system—ranging from highly effective to ineffective—and increases the amount of time observers spend in a teacher’s classroom. One common area of contention is how to measure student achievement. Using just standardized test scores presents a problem, Minnici said.
Most teachers—including those who teach performing arts, physical education, most high school subjects and early elementary—teach in an area without a standardized test, she said.
“So it’s usually somewhere between roughly 60 to 70 percent of our teachers that we don’t have a valid and reliable measure to include in a teacher’s evaluation,” she said.
“A test score is only a test score and it will only tell you so much, but it often doesn’t tell teachers or principals how to actually improve their practice. They may know what they’re doing isn’t working, but they don’t know how to change that. That is by far right now the biggest challenge across the states in trying to figure out how to include student achievement in teacher evaluation systems.”

Out in Front

Delaware and Tennessee, the first two Race to the Top winners, are the furthest along in redesigning their teacher evaluation systems.
In Delaware, equal weight is given to planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities in a teacher’s evaluation. But teachers cannot be called effective or highly effective if they don’t receive a satisfactory rating on student growth.
Both Delaware and Tennessee use student growth testing models, which gauge how far students should progress in a year and are used to compare against actual test scores. In nontested areas, both states are working on setting up other measures to gauge student progress. Alison Kepner, public information officer for the Delaware Department of Education, said more than 500 teachers last year were involved in setting up growth measures in nontested areas.
“Their insights and expertise have helped us develop pre- and post-tests, many of which were assessments they were already using in the classroom, that our technical advisory committee then vetted to ensure they are statistically valid,” Kepner said. “These will be used next year.”
Sara Heyburn, assistant commissioner for teachers and leaders at the Tennessee Department of Education, said a big challenge has been ensuring student test data and observation scores match up. A state evaluation of the program showed “observers systematically failed to identify the lowest performing teachers.”
Heyburn said in districts that had strong leadership and training, the observations aligned well with test scores. This shows the need for continued training and coaching, she said.
“Quickly, we’re seeing implementation of these measures across a whole state is really hard work,” Heyburn said. “It takes commitment at every level. … It’s a cultural shift we’re making. Teachers, in the past, were not getting rich feedback to inform their practice. This is a new set of skills.”

Working Together

New Jersey accomplished a feat almost unheard of in this day and age. It passed a major overhaul to the nation’s oldest teacher tenure law with no dissenting votes in either chamber.
Sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, S1455 expands the amount of time teachers need to work in the state to earn tenure from three to four. The first year is spent in a mentorship program and the teacher has to have two positive reviews within the first three years to be offered tenure. Educators may be fired after two years of negative reviews. The bill also says standardized tests will be used to gauge student progress, but “shall not be the predominant factor in the overall evaluation of a teacher.”
The New Jersey Education Association supported Ruiz’s bill and had a seat at the table during its drafting. Ginger Gold Schnitzer, director of government relations for the group, said teachers were willing to move to binding arbitration instead of going to the court system to fight a dismissal, but they weren’t willing to surrender what’s known as last in, first out, where newer teachers are laid off first.
“I think we got something nobody was entirely happy with, but everybody can live with,” Schnitzer said. “I don’t think we should say, ‘OK, tenure reform is done,’ and we dust our hands off and say we’re done with this. I think education reform is a bigger topic than that and this conversation should continue. We have to be willing to provide resources and talk about things in a broader way than ‘let’s get rid of bad teachers.’”
Ruiz said conversations regarding teacher evaluations may start out with how to make it easier for districts to fire ineffective teachers, but the needs are much greater than that.
“This isn’t a silver bullet,” she said. “We’re not going to change this and all of the sudden, have tremendous outcomes. … We need to look at teacher preparation and how we’re developing the next generation of professionals. We need to look at teacher licensure for the profession. We need to have an in-depth discussion about a longer day, longer school year. There’s a lot more to be had here.”