Grand Rapids races ahead of state on teacher evaluations

The old system of evaluating a teacher’s performance – a principal observing in a classroom – was not particularly effective, school administrators and teacher union leaders agree.

The challenge is in coming up with a better system.

A committee of education experts – the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness – has been working since 2011 on a statewide standard for judging teachers’ effectiveness and is expected to issue its report later this month.

But Grand Rapids Public Schools’ administrators aren’t waiting.

“Everyone would agree the way we were doing it was not rigorous enough, not consistent enough,” Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said.  “We’ve been very methodical in how to approach this new system.”

Getting a grip on teachers’ work

This school year, Grand Rapids administrators began using a statistical model to evaluate teachers that includes students’ test scores, as well as each teacher’s effort to improve their skills. The district’s principals and other administrators have been trained in the Danielson Framework for Teaching, a tool to bring consistency and objectivity in how they observe a teacher’s classroom performance.

“This is a dramatic shift in how things were done in the past,” Helmholdt said. “I think we’re onto a model here that really could become a statewide model.”

Some teachers and their union leaders don’t share his enthusiasm.

Relations between the Grand Rapids Education Association and school board, never cordial, have been strained in recent years, particularly since 2011, when the Legislature weakened the state’s teacher tenure law, and last December, when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law making Michigan a Right-to-Work state.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s been a history that has led to a level of distrust,” said Paul Helder, president of the GREA, the union representing the district’s 1,400 teachers.

In revising the state tenure law, the Legislature decreed that the method for evaluating teacher performance no longer would be subject to negotiations between the union and the school district.

“When people have been excluded from the process, there’s a natural suspicion,” Helder said. “The question is how do we resolve this?”

The union is considering a lawsuit to block the new evaluation process on the grounds that the Grand Rapids Board of Education never adopted a formal policy on teacher evaluations, he said.

“There are a number of problems with that process,” Helder said. “The association’s concern is how can the rights of our members be protected?”

Some Grand Rapids teachers are concerned that the district is funding development of its evaluation method with a grant from the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation. Some members of the DeVos family supported the state’s right-to-work law, Helder noted, and Dick DeVos, the Republicans’ unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2006, was a strong advocate for vouchers that would have given tax money to parochial schools.

In amending the state’s teacher tenure law, the Republican-controlled Legislature required public school districts to conduct annual performance reviews for each teacher, rating them highly effective, effective, minimally effective or ineffective. An ineffective teacher, whether tenured or not, can be fired after being given repeated chances to improve.

Beginning next school year, 25 percent of each teacher’s rating must be based on students’ growth, particularly their improvement on test scores, the new law requires. By the 2015-2016 school year, at least 50 percent of a teacher’s rating will be based on student test scores.

Evaluating a teacher based on students’ test scores can be tricky, particularly in deciding which teacher gets the credit when test scores improve – or the blame when they don’t. Students move from classroom to classroom and often change districts.

“It’s a huge challenge to figure out whose growth should be attributed to which teacher,” said David Stuit, a consultant at Basis Policy Research, hired to help the Grand Rapids schools develop its new rating system. “It can really have implications for a teacher’s growth results.”

Evaluation debate remains heated

Over the past five years, about 20 states have included test scores in teacher evaluations. Florida teachers recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state for basing evaluations on test scores, a move the Michigan Education Association is considering, said spokesman Doug Pratt. The MEA favors a program to improve teacher performance, as long as it’s fair, he said.

“It shouldn’t be about punishing or labeling teachers,” he said. “It should be about helping teachers do better.”

MEA leaders, he added, are hopeful that the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, created by the Legislature to recommend a new standard for rating teachers, will come up with a fair system. The council, chaired by Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, has been piloting different methods of evaluating teachers in 14 Michigan districts this school year. The council is expected to release its recommendations to the State Board of Education, the governor and the Legislature in June.

Administrators in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, the state’s fourth-largest district, assume the Legislature will keep to its timetable, phasing in test scores as half of each teacher’s evaluation. The students’ scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the Northwest Evaluation Association and other standardized tests will provide the statistical basis for judging each teacher’s performance, Mary Jo Kuhlman, the district’s assistant superintendent, said.

The district will combine the data with classroom evaluations. It also will survey each teacher on how well they think they are performing, and then will compare that with how the students rate their teachers.

Under state law, any teacher rated ineffective must be given an “individual development plan” and must be repeatedly re-evaluated. Ultimately, a teacher who fails to improve can be fired.

“There are teachers who fear it’s an ‘I gotcha’ moment,” Kuhlman said, which she denied. “We’re building a system for the 95 percent of teachers who do perform, who do their best, versus a system for the nonperformers.

“Not everyone will go with us,” she conceded. “We’ll give everyone a chance. But we must first and foremost meet the learning needs of our students. Bottom line, that’s all that matters.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

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Tue, 06/04/2013 - 9:56am
Reform is in the air! It is long past the time when the MEA's draconian efforts to block accountability by teachers should be exposed. Accountability is central to every system of excellence. As we spend to the point of municipal bankruptcy across our country the sandbagging of the public unions needs to be overcome. Nothing motivates a professional worker more than having her performance measured before her peers and the public. It's time to put the interests of our children first. The unions know this and they will attempt to rally the public against those behind this effort while deflecting attention from the real issue, teacher accountability. Don't be fooled, Michigan! Demand what you are paying through the nose for!
Tue, 06/04/2013 - 10:54pm
I have 3 children attending school, but "No Student Left Behind" is a little out there. Unless YOU are a teacher and know the score what gives you all the right to pass judgement on the teachers if somethings are not going as well as people that don't have a teaching degree expect. Their are lots of families that help their children out and you will find those students do better. Then you will find other families that don't help their children and then blame it on the schools. The schools keep cutting staff and put more children on the teachers load, and lets face it when you have 20, 30 and maybe even 35 students in a class and you times that by how many different classes they have it makes it virtually impossible for the teacher to do what they are asked to perform. And lets face it the main factor is: If the child doesn't do the work and the parents don't help them or even make sure they do the work how can the teacher be held liable? It isn't their fault and they can't force the child to do the work. So lets get some of the factors out there before we put the blame on the Teachers.
Chuck Jordan
Tue, 06/04/2013 - 10:51am
If standardized test scores become the basis for teacher evaluations, then teaching to the test will become the norm. Centered on the common core curriculum, teaching to the test will become the national norm. The more testing we have and promote, the less critical reading and thinking we have. Unless something can be done to make these tests meaningful for students (tie them to passing grades/diplomas), grading teachers on students' grades will be unfair. Attention should also be given to the socio-economic conditions of the district. Poor school districts students do less well on these standardized tests. Having said all this, teacher evaluations are needed, but first we have to have a better way of measuring success for our students that includes critical thinking and reading. If we base teacher evaluations on the whole impact they are having on their individual students and the progress they are making using multiple measures judged by competent educators, we would have better students, teachers and schools. It is doable, just not as easy and cheap as standardized testing, nor as profitable for the industrial-testing complex.
Jennifer Greve
Tue, 06/04/2013 - 12:57pm
You put it very well Chuck. Teaching to the test undermines some of the best aspects of the American education system but it seems destined to be the chosen path because it's easier to implement. If we allow this to proceed we'll be doing a great disservice to generations of children--I can see it happening already with mine. There are exciting ways to engage kids in learning but too often teachers are discouraged from experimenting because of the extra time it would take or because of the fear that it could negatively impact test scores. There are certainly teachers who don't have the right skills or experience for today's schools but the lack of respect given to the profession right now means that the individuals best suited to the classroom will be driven away from it if everything is geared around the tests. Teachers need a system (like you described) that provides accountability but allows teachers the opportunity to be creative and find the teaching methods that work best for each group of kids who enter their class. And they need to be respected and rewarded as the professionals they are.
Tue, 06/04/2013 - 3:08pm
it is grossly unfair to use student test scores in teacher evaluations. an evaluation should be 95% objective measures. there are too many unquantifiable variables that may affect a student's performance. teaching to the test stifles creativity in the teacher and the student.
Wed, 06/05/2013 - 10:48am
"The district will combine the data with classroom evaluations. It also will survey each teacher on how well they think they are performing, and then will compare that with how the students rate their teachers." Students rating teachers, from that we can expect only the most thought out and reasoned responses right? LOL
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 06/09/2013 - 12:46pm
I have to say students' feedback should be considered as part of the multiple measures, IF controlled for "easy" teachers and "hard" teachers (teachers who don't care and teachers with high expectations). Of course that is a big if for the current types of "reformers" we've seen so far.
Wed, 06/05/2013 - 7:57pm
I'm just wondering when we will start testing the parents.....
Tue, 06/18/2013 - 3:05pm
If we're going to evaluate teachers by how well their students perform, then why not carry that idea over to other professions? -- Let's evaluate police officers based on the crime rate in their cities. If the crime rate goes up, local police officers lose their jobs or have their pay docked. -- Let's evaluate doctors and dentists and other health professionals based on their patients' health. If a patient's health worsens, the treating professional should not be paid by the insurance company or the patient, and if enough of their patients get sicker, they should lose their credentials to practice. -- Let's evaluate everyone who works in the courts and the prison system based on recidivism rates. If these professionals have failed to properly rehabilitate an offender, then we must either start docking their pay or firing them. -- And let's not forget our beloved MI Legislature. Their pay should be based on the quality of life enjoyed by the state's residents. Have our roads gotten better? Have our schools gotten better? Has our air and water quality improved? Have poverty numbers gone down? Has per capita income or the state's median income increased? Has the unemployment rate fallen? If the state's numbers are not moving in a direction that makes life better for the bulk of its residents, then our lawmakers should not be paid, right? And what do all of these proposals have in common? The professionals involved have just about as much control over these outcomes as a teacher has over a child who (if it has perfect attendance) the teacher sees for 180 days of its entire life.
Tue, 09/10/2013 - 3:23pm