The fight for teacher evaluation reform

The complicated process by which policy makes its way into law is often referred to as “insider baseball”. It might be confusing and often boring, and it certainly won’t get big headlines, but it shouldn’t ever be overlooked. Effective insider baseball wins lots of ball games.

Case in point: Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign an important teacher evaluation bill into law this Thursday. That marks the end of a four-year struggle to put into place a tough, results-oriented system of rating teacher performance that focuses on how much kids actually learn. It’s a big step toward improving Michigan schools that are now ranked 41st in the nation in reading and well below the national average in math for fourth and eighth grades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Here’s the inside story of how that happened.

Surprise! Study after study shows that teachers have the biggest role within the school’s walls on student learning. Kids learn much, much better if they have good teachers. But before the Legislature started looking at teacher evaluation in 2011, some districts hadn’t looked at teacher effectiveness in years. In many districts, the process consisted of a principal dropping by classrooms for a few minutes and ticking boxes on a checklist. Virtually all teachers were rated “effective,” even while Michigan students were falling behind others around the country.

In 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed teacher tenure and evaluation reforms. But the bill set up a very general evaluation system, with the important details to be worked out later. “Later” took two years, when finally a group of education experts, led by widely respected University of Michigan School of Education Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball, submitted its recommendations to the Legislature in 2013.

The subject drew bipartisan interest, particularly from state representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) and now-Senator Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage), who pulled together an unlikely coalition of teacher unions and charter school organizations. Their bill almost made it into law in December 2014, but was halted by Senate Education Committee Chairman, Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), who felt it gave up too much control to the state Department of Education.

Sen. Pavlov introduced his own bill this spring. It loosened the rigorous statewide standards recommended by Dean Ball’s team of experts, based on his belief that local school districts should have more control than the state in deciding how their teachers should be evaluated. The bill also ran counter to the findings of the Center for Michigan’s community conversations, as published in “The Public Agenda for Public Education” and “The smartest kids in the nation”, a series of articles published in Bridge Magazine. Pavlov’s bill passed the Senate in May and looked as though it was going to sail through the House without much trouble.

At which point, insider baseball became the core of the game.

House Education Committee chairwoman Amanda Price (R-Holland) had quiet doubts about Pavlov’s bill, but faced an upward haul against a measure that had already passed the Senate. Rep. Zemke, the minority vice chairman of Price’s committee, worked tirelessly with Sen. O’Brien in pointing out that a patchwork of loose valuation systems is worse than no system at all. Gov. Snyder’s chief education advisor, Karen McPhee, the former superintendent of the Ottawa County Intermediate School District, began to have second thoughts about Sen. Pavlov’s bill and indicated the Administration’s skepticism in testimony before Rep. Price’s committee.

Dean Ball, who was troubled that the legislature was ignoring her expert task force’s proposals, weighed in, together with Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust – Midwest, who was firm in calling for tougher standards. The business community, including Business Leaders for Michigan, expressed concern about poor teaching resulting in poorly prepared workers. And as the tide began to turn, even education groups and teachers unions that had previously supported minimalist reforms changed position.

A much stronger and now bipartisan teacher evaluation bill last month passed by wide margins both the House and the Senate and is expected to be signed by the governor this Thursday. The bill will subject approximately 100,000 Michigan teachers to evaluations based on student academic improvement as measured by test scores and on classroom observations by principals and others trained to observe teaching performance. The policy calls for four ratings: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective. Teachers rated as “ineffective” three years running will lose their jobs.

“The most important element to a child’s education inside a school building is a teacher,” says Rep. Zemke. “Teachers can’t be successful without good support.” Michigan’s new teacher evaluation is “soooo much better than where we were,” Dean Ball says, adding, “This is an area that states are all having trouble with. It’s a step forward in a state that could exercise some real leadership.” Sen. O’Brien says, “Now that we have an evaluation system that sets criteria for a quality evaluation system and student growth tools, we can focus on student learning.”

That will be a long process, especially since Michigan schools that used to be ranked among the best in the country have been losing ground for years. “We are building a system to hold teachers accountable and training evaluators on how to evaluate and the Department of Education is developing a delivery plan – and all that work has to be done simultaneously,” says Ed Trust’s Arellano.

That, in turn, will require plenty of insider baseball. But that’s how many important things get accomplished around here.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 11/03/2015 - 9:53am
Will the results be available for parents, et al? Or will we still be in the dark?
Ned S. Curtis
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 10:10am
Local school boards, sadly, are becoming "ineffective" Perhaps, local control is a dinosaur, as state control will eventually be, given the current political trend. Holding teachers accountable for academic improvement is a dicey thing. So many variables impact whether young people learn, when they learn, and what they learn. Teacher effectiveness is absolutely critical, but so are parents, personal health, and society. If ever there was a slippery slope, it is here. Since local control by school boards no longer matters on this important function of our local schools, let us resolve to keep this open discussion alive.
Donna Anuskiewicz
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 11:03am
A real problem in teacher evaluation is the amount of time it takes. If administrators in a high school with 100 teachers spend two hours observing each teacher, 50 hours actually preparing the evaluation, and another 25-50 hours discussing it with teachers, they'll spend up to 300 hours in evaluations alone. That's close to 50 school days! Must every teacher be evaluated every year? I don' t want to return to the "bad old days," but principals are already overworked. Have we forgotten the work of W. Edwards Deming? Concentrate on processes rather than results. Involve everyone at every stage in improving the process.
Sun, 11/08/2015 - 10:33am
I agree 100%! I am not opposed to better evaluations or more accountability but reduce the duplicate reporting that is required of principals so we can be in classrooms. In a small district like mine we have four administrators and that is including the superintendent, only two can do the teacher evaluations. The students are most important, we sometimes forget that as we get wrapped up in the red tape.
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 12:19pm
While I have no argument with Rep. Zemke's statement, the truth is that all school effects individually and collectively pale in comparison to SES. They always have and they always will. Bring more students to our schools from middle-class families whose parents are educated and school results will be dramatically improved, without having to resort to teaching the test and losing many students in the process. It would also help to allow teachers to have more time to teach by reducing the amount of time they spend on testing.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 5:33pm
Performance evaluation? As one comment pointed out, have we forgotten Deming's Total Quality Management? How about lessons from Peter Drucker or our own Max Depree? Those who have crafted this "solution" to an imagined problem are very intelligent, hard working and woefully ignorant, locked into an old style management paradigm unable to hear or see the consequences of what they propose, or the fact that those being evaluated have absolutely no skin in the game being foisted upon them. What teachers face now with this legislation is another set of requirements handed down from "the all knowing above." Teachers have not played a role in the design and development of the system of education in Michigan for a long, long time. The form, content and structure of the classroom reflects the perception and beliefs of professional academics, test and textbook publishing companies, psychometricians, and politicians with little educational or classroom experience. Given the current environment of standardized testing, accountability and metric mania local control is a myth and has been for some time. Yet teachers are going to be held accountable for a process they had no input to, a process they have no ownership of, a process completely disconnected from the infinitely variable audience of children who are there to share in a learning journey with their teachers. Teachers will become more disenchanted, demoralized and punished by a system of evaluation reflective of beef cattle sorting on slaughter day. The solution: Evaluation of human behavior must occur every day and therefore requires common sense spans of control, daily reflection on interactions with subordinates and peers and a constant dialogue throughout a school building. Do we really only sit our children down twice a year with a checklist to review their performance? Do you expect the person you work for to wait until a date on the calendar to discuss how you are doing? yet that is what we expect teachers to gratefully accept. Before anyone accepts this legislation please ask yourself if you would be willing or even able to work under such conditions?
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 9:11pm
Well stated! Prediction, this evaluation system will have no impact on student achievement.
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 5:58pm
"within the school’s walls"... well, doh! You mean as opposed to cooks, custodians, clerical staff and building administrators? Yup. I agree. Who wouldn't? What parent would say, "My kid is not getting all A's ... must be his teacher's fault!" ? "Michigan students were falling behind others around the country." --- look at the historical record for the past 20 years of ACT scores and try running that by me again. And you don't even have to look at all 50 states and the District of Columbia... just look at those states which mandate ALL (college-bound and non-college bound) students take that test. As for the NAEP scores - you'd be wise to look more closely at that data. All in all I rate this article as INEFFECTIVE.
Mon, 11/09/2015 - 9:12am
A good teacher evaluation process supports the ongoing development of a teacher. I agree there are many variables which affect a student's success and an excellent teacher is one of them, but not the only factor. The skill set and support of the administration is critical as well as social service support for families as needed. I am pleased to read that the administration will be trained on how to effectively evaluate a teacher. As a teacher, I am looking forward to a holistic approach of teacher evaluation. Kudos to Representative Adam Zemke and Dr. Deborah Loewnberg Ball.
Elvis Costello
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 3:12am
Administrator evaluations? Are you kidding? In my wife's district there are 3 grade schools. One Principal not only went to observations, she made critical notes, reviewed them with the teachers, and gave suggestions. One Principal never went into the classrooms for observations, and rated every teacher in his school, "Highly effective". One principal gave "higly effective" to the teachers he liked, and "effective" to the teachers he did not like. When layoffs came this fall, guess what the district used as first criteria? Yep, your effectiveness rating...There were very good teachers who had issues with a pricipal, and were laid off, and not good teachers who worked for the Principal who handed out blanket "Highly effective" ratings who kept their jobs. Oh yeah, all the Principals were rated, "highly effective" by the Superintendent. Let's talk test scores as a percentage of the teacher review process. When you have teachers who "pick and choose" the composition of their classrooms, and take the "cream of the crop", their kids make adequate progress. When my wife gets kids who can't read, have behavioral issues, no parent support, no parents at home, and she brings up their scores, but they are still below grade level, is she ineffective? You linked in another article to a Rand report that "When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to haveTWO to THREE TIMES the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership." However, in that report Rand recognized that "Some research suggests that, compared with teachers, individual and family characteristics may have FOUR TO EIGHT TIMES the impact on student achievement. But policy discussions focus on teachers because it is arguably easier for public policy to improve teaching than to change students' personal characteristics or family circumstances." So as we figure out how to evaluate "good" "highly effective" teachers, maybe we should take into account where those kids are coming from, what their support is, and truly how far a teacher can take them. How do you hold teachers to the same metrics, when all the variables are so different?