Grading teachers is proving difficult for principals

Teachers in school districts where Michigan’s proposed teacher evaluation system is being piloted are generally receptive to the changes. But inconsistent scores and a lawsuit in one district are among the challenges schools are likely to face when the system is rolled out across the state as soon as next school year.

Brian Rowan, professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, is part of a team at U-M’s Institute for Social Research assessing pilot programs at 14 school districts across Michigan. That assessment isn’t complete, but Rowan offered insights into the team’s findings at a conference of education journalists in Chicago in September, and later to Bridge Magazine.

Under the state’s new evaluation system, teachers’ performance will be judged by a number of criteria, with two of the most significant being: more extensive classroom observations by trained administrators, and measurement of student academic growth during the school year.

Pilot programs tested during the 2012-2013 school year included four different classroom observation models, as well as a first stab at using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

The student growth data is still being assessed, but reviews of the observation portion of the pilot programs were mostly positive. “Most of the district personnel were really happy to get a standardized evaluation protocol,” Rowan said. “The teachers were generally positive (and) most teachers in these districts were observed.”

The scores produced from those observations, however, tell Rowan that a lot more training needs to be done.

The number of times teachers were observed “varied tremendously” from school to school, Rowan said, noting that “reliability increases with multiple observations.”

About 10 percent of the evaluations weren’t filled out completely. And teacher ratings were all over the map; in some cases, the scores given by principals varied widely from those of the U-M observers who were conducting parallel evaluations.

“There was very little agreement between principals and our observers about what is relevant,” Rowan said. “It makes you wonder if people are scoring it consistently.”

Consistent scoring, based on common definitions of performance, is critical to the system’s reliability, and credibility, and will help ensure that teachers get the training and support they need to improve. It’s important, for instance, that a highly effective rating means the same thing from one school to the next. Proponents of this reform say better evaluations can also identify truly high-performing teachers so they can be recognized for their work and assigned to the students who need help most.

Rowan said the state needs to invest the time and money for thorough training of school principals, who are likely to conduct the majority of evaluations, to avoid “tons of observation error.”

In Port Huron, teachers are suing the school district over the pilot program evaluation system. In the lawsuit, the Port Huron Education Association claims teachers at one school were all graded "highly effective" because performance data was missing. The criteria used to measure student growth varied from building to building, and observations varied in frequency and scoring method.

“There are severe inconsistencies in how the district is doing the evaluation system,” said attorney Jeff Donahue, representing the teachers union. “And when you have such high stakes, we believe it has to be done correctly.”

Farmington Public Schools had a more positive experience with the pilot program, said Associate Superintendent Michele Harmala. Teachers were involved in the implementation of the system. “It created buy-in from the teachers,” Harmala said. “They set the bar high. They are professionals.

“After a year in the pilot, we realize we haven’t done enough training yet,” Harmala said. “We’re going through another round of training to deepen the practices. I think the training relative to the protocols will be ongoing for a number of years.”

Harmala said the state needs to understand the complexities of scaling up a massive reform like this, particularly in large districts.

“We’ve got over 800 teachers,” Harmala said. “For us it’s a big deal to scale it up. That’s why the training is so critical. Even going in to a year of training, we’re still just reaching the tip of the iceberg.”

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Gene Golanda
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 1:40pm
What ever happened to the idea that teachers should receive both formative and summative evaluations, but the two should never be attempted at the same time? Formative evaluations, without the threat that anything observed would ever find its way into the summative process has been shown to produce superior results in improving teacher effectiveness. Formative evaluations can also be conducted by teachers, not just principals, which is ofter more valued by teachers. Although summative evaluations must include student outcomes, the factors identified in this article must be considered and fairly implemented. A pretest-postest approach, using a test that is related to the subject matter that the teacher has actually taught is a vital part of this process. This is particularly needed in the high schools where a math teacher should not be judjged by how well her students did in social studies, etc.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 12:45pm
Kudos to Dr. Ball and all those that participated in preparing the report on teacher evaluation. Sadly, it represents the typical response to a task assigned by a legislature in within a bureaucratic context whose thinking and perception of the world is stuck in the 1950s. Ranking and rating, no matter how benevolent or cautionary does not work. This proposal represents an overly complex system of arbitrary reward and punishments that will serve to drive even more teachers from their chosen work. It demands that those that do the actual work be evaluated based upon testing that has been shown to be useless time and time again (Alfie Kahn has volumes of data) and periodic observations by individuals unqualified to assess anything since they have less experience in supervision, management and leadership than most part time McDonald’s employees. That’s the bald and unsettling truth. Come on. Drop the academic arrogance and get real. Academic prowess “ain’t” management or supervision. There is a solution, deceptively simple that requires great personal discipline and perseverance by those alleged to be managers in an educational context. It may even require that those in power learn how to delegate. For sure it demands that the legislature stop making detailed rules and regulations and do what they are hired for – set reasonable policy to support future goals and stop trying to put out local fires. (or write job descriptions) A leader observes the behaviors and actions of those who are direct reports on a daily basis. Danielson (one of four chosen) and other pro formas are helpful but care should be exercised to prevent dogmatic instructions from overruling good judgement. Each day a principal (pseudo manager – they have no real training) reflects for fifteen minutes on the observations of those they are responsible for. Not some formal checklist or regimented cycle of observing, but the observations and interactions made on a daily basis during the normal business of being a principal. Share those observations with those being observed on an open book basis. Review those observations at least quarterly with employees. Respond immediately if the employee shares any “observations” on your “observations. The first outcome will be the realization that principals have way too many “direct” reports to do any meaningful performance assessment. Next, the principal will discover that interactions with his employees are few and far between. Then comes the realization that knowledge about the employees is nil, superficial and totally useless for assessment. That is the beginning of effective assessment practices, those focused on continual improvement and sharing knowledge. There is no amount of structured observations and scripted evaluation, that incorporates data derived from events totally beyond the control of the person being evaluated, that can substitute for the human interaction required for honest and effective performance assessment. So instead of the typical throw money at a correcting an ill defined problem using a system of reward and punishment we should let the people that do the work – teachers and students – do the work and observe what is they do with discipline and persistence using our common sense to record what we see – on a daily basis. Teacher led student assessments supported by a common core of learning expectations (not specifications – so MDE – stop writing) and a series of periodic and rapid turnaround common assessments of understanding (SBA) based on the shared expectations will grow learning and that learning will be contagious. Following that discipline, instead of the sincere recommendations of those asked to be creative inside a bureaucratic box, will provide a working environment that is imaginative, creative, positive; an environment that lets children (and their teachers) do what it is they do best – LEARN. We are born knowing how to do that. It is so sad that we persist in schemes that prevent that for so many. Heed these words, "Farmington Public Schools had a more positive experience with the pilot program, said Associate Superintendent Michele Harmala. Teachers were involved in the implementation of the system. “It created buy-in from the teachers,” Harmala said. “They set the bar high. They are professionals." And if you want to know if the children are learning – ask a teacher or a child.
Gerard Spencer
Mon, 11/11/2013 - 9:44am
Let the customers (parents) do the evaluation.
Lawrence Ronglien
Tue, 11/26/2013 - 2:51pm
Mr. Fellows has it correct. The "span of control" for most high school principals is way to large. I have 35 in my small high school and I'm feeling overwhelmed in getting all of these done with fidelity. There are way to many to do and I work hard to be in as many classrooms each week as possible for the formative visits. Mr. Spencer suggests that we bring parents into the process. I would submit that students be involved in giving feedback to the teachers about their performance and class quality. They are the true customers.