Michigan teachers are under the microscope

A new teacher evaluation system isn’t likely to drum many sub-par educators out of the classroom. But if it works as planned, it won’t have to.

House bills 5223 and 5224, would turn Michigan’s much-maligned teacher evaluation system into one of the most rigorous educator reviews in the nation. Teachers would be graded in part on their students’ test scores, as well as on multiple, in-depth classroom observations by school leaders.

The cost: Somewhere between $16 million and $42 million.

It may be worth every penny.

“School leaders have been saying for years we need to get this done,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust–Midwest, a Royal Oak-based advocacy group. “God knows people want schools to get better in Michigan.”

The cost: Somewhere between $16 million and $42 million. It may be worth every penny.

Education is the economic engine of Michigan, and that engine is sputtering. Michigan kids rank 39th in 4th grade math and 30th in 8th-grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. The state ranks 23rd in high school graduation rate and 36th in the percent of adults with a college degree.

“We’ve gone from being a slightly above average state to being a below average state, and new data shows we are continuing to fall,” Arellano said. “Teachers are very important to the learning in our classrooms. We should be investing in them, and one way is to make sure they get fair evaluations that hold them fairly accountable, and offer them feedback to improve their practice.”

Preparation, accountability and support for Michigan’s 101,000 teachers is a major issue for state residents, according to community conversations and polls sponsored by The Center for Michigan involving more than 5,000 citizens. Many teachers have less than five years of experience in the classroom, with an estimated one in six children being taught for at least part of the day by a teacher with one year or less classroom experience.

Historically, principals have performed only cursory evaluations of teachers, with virtually all teachers receiving positive scores. The result was that parents – and school administrators - had little way to identify which teachers were superstars and which were struggling and in need of help.

That would change if the bills now under consideration in the House Education Committee are passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Tying evals to test scores

Under the proposed evaluation system, half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student growth. That growth would be measured by statewide standardized tests, as well as local, district-determined tests. The other half of the evaluation would be based on highly-structured and standardized classroom observations, completed at least twice a year.

Teachers rated as “ineffective” – the lowest of four grading categories – for three years in a row would lose their jobs. That’s not likely to happen often. Mentors will be assigned to struggling teachers to help them improve their skills.

New evaluations aren’t about teachers, but about kids. “Our No. 1 priority should be good teaching in the classroom,” said Grand Blanc High School Principal Jennifer Hammond. “That’s why we’re here.”

Hammond was part of a state task force of K-12 and college educators that released recommendations for a new state teacher evaluation system last summer. The bills introduced in January by Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, and Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, follow those recommendations closely. One change: Student growth will only account for 25 percent of teacher evaluation scores for the first three years the system is in place, to give schools and teachers time to adjust to new standardized tests (the MEAP is being ditched), the new Common Core standards, and the new evaluations.

Hammond said many school districts already have developed their own evaluation systems that include student growth as one factor, but “when you have 500 districts doing different things, we’re right back where we started. That’s why it’s important for the state to take some ownership, so educators are trained properly, and they know what a good assessment looks like, and how to write the assessments.”

The training for observing and evaluating teachers in the classroom – typically done by principals – will need to be completed this summer, so administrators are ready to start the more structured observations when classes begin in September.

Grand Blanc is already performing classroom observations similar to those that would be required by the new state evaluation system. With a school of 130 teachers, all of whom must be observed multiple times during the year, Hammond often conducts three or four classroom observations a day.

“It’s a big change of practice,” Hammond said. “It changes your schedule. But it puts your priorities in the right place: supporting teaching and providing feedback.”

Rigorous teacher evaluations have an impact beyond the classroom. “If we want to improve our 21st century economic outlook, which all members of the public should care about, we must improve educational achievement,” Zemke said in a Bridge Magazine Q&A.

Snyder mentioned teacher evaluation reform in his State of the State address in January, and called for state funding for training.

“It has been a bipartisan, highly-collaborative effort with dozens of stakeholders from the education management community - including both teachers' unions,” Zemke said. “We expect … this legislation to move in reasonable speed through the committee and floor processes. For the sake of Michigan students, teachers and administrators, I surely hope it does.”

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Tue, 02/04/2014 - 11:39am
I wonder how teachers will be evaluated at alternative schools like mine? The vast majority of our students have missed large amounts of schooling, do not have parent/family support, and struggle with various learning and mental health issues. My staff works very hard to just get kids to attend school regularly, so we can try to get them focused on learning for a few hours before they go "home" to a friends couch, unheated camper, etc. I really hope the state will develop a seperate set of benchmarks for alternative education, so we have a fair shot at being recognized for the great work we do with a challenging population.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 12:09pm
Actually, most regular schools face similar issues to one degree or another. Unfortunately, the "student growth" portion of the proposed evaluations will not adequately adjust for things that not only shape where students start but also affect their ability to learn during the year. See my comment on the companion article, the interview with Rep. Adam Zemke.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 12:15pm
Anywhere else, if there was poor performance or poor results, the focus would be on management, not the workers. In schools however, we seem to want to focus almost exclusively on teachers. It looks to me that if improvement is to be made, we need to start with better principals and administrators. If they aren't doing their job and properly evaluating, training and sometimes firing their employees, they are the problem. Somehow I doubt if any state mandate or regulation improves the situation. It's a local problem with local management and requires a local solution. If there are 500 different local solutions, why would we care, so long as the problems get solved?
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 2:19pm
It would be appropriate to hold management responsible for results if they had effective control of the teachers. They do not.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 5:29pm
I served on a school board once upon a time, and I don't agree with the lack of control statement. Principals and administrators have all the control they chose to have, but many chose not exercise that control. Some argue that the union contract interferes with the supervision process. In my view it enhanced it since the negotiated contract very carefully spelled out the disciplinary process and there was hardly any ambiguity. If you did it by the numbers, you could fire pretty much anyone you wanted to fire.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 5:47pm
Well here we are again, allegedly intelligent adults totally oblivious to the fundamental truth that treating the symptoms will not cure the disease. A lot of effort, time and taxpayer dollars ($6.0 million +) went into the sincere and well meaning development of an evaluation system that will only create another maze of bureaucratic rules and record keeping (and large expense). What the state legislature is approving has been tried before in the private sector and has failed miserably. Yes, this type of rigorous and rigidly structured "system" can be effective in a miltary context where blind obediance is mandatory for the success of a military machine. Who is going to train the evaluators and who is going to evaluate them? When will local school administrations and politicians realize they themselves are not qualified in any way to evaluate the performance of another human being? When are all of us going to undersatand that the culture of winners and losers, reward and punishment and the illusion of command and control does not work. Even the military recognizes that in times that need optimum performance the whole enterprise depends upon the performance of platoon non coms. (notice how many people they evaluate - every day - because their survival depaends upon it) Teachers do need support, not fear, intimidation and incompetent supervision. Provide support in the form of frequent meaningful observations with at least weekly feedback from those qualified to assess (i.e. their peers with some training). teachers are in the business of asessing the performance of multiple individuals every day. They are experts at it. Its not hard, just takes discipline, fifteen minutes a day of quiet reflection, a number two pencil and some lined paper (or an iPad). Train administrators in the practice of delegating and understanding spans of control (one principle even considering the evaluation of 130 subordinates is just nuts - honorable motivation but just nuts). Insure that those who 'evaluate" are evaluated themselves by those qualified to do so (those doggone teachers again). To borrow some points from a master: Create constancy of purpose. The purpose of a school is . . . learning. Management should demonstrate leadership, not the ability to "command and control". Management should exist to help people do a better job. Incremental continual improvement - not instant pudding gratification. Training is a continual effort - which evaluation should become a part of, not separate and distinct. Drive out fear and junk the so called management practices that create it (Win , Lose, Carrot and Stick, motivation through fear). Break down any and all barriers to communication (frequent two way evaluations work well at doing this). Eliminate externally appled targets for performance (AKA Standardized test cut scores and 26 member committee designed proficiency criteria). Give those that do the work (teachers, students and parents) the opportunity to take pride in what they do. The lesson. if you are going to lead an organization it is best to gain knowledge of what leadeship really is. Try Drucker, Deming, Jaworski, Max DePree, John Gardner, Wheatley, McGregor, Bill Gore, Peter Senge, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, Dewey, Pestalozzi . . . Then practice, practice,practice. “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.” ― George Bernard Shaw
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 9:19pm
Wow, well after public education I'd love to know then what? There is a clear hypothesis that most don't seem to see clearly. Is it really to improve public school or get a return on investment ? I see the relentless procreation of the useless of all ethnicities contributing to a society that has no respect for anything. Watched this process play out in Detroit during the 70's, 80's and early 90's. As well as in the first and second tier suburbs during the 90's , 2000's and 2010's . White, black, blue or green the governor hates public schools and has continued Englers attacks at every turn. Vote this garbage out .
Wed, 02/05/2014 - 8:58am
I don’t discount teaching, my concern is how do we know what effective teaching is if we don’t know how and why children learn and what the barriers are to their learning. I was told that people (kids included) retain 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they do. If this is anywhere close to what is retained then why all the emphasis on the teachers and none on the students’ learning process? Holding teachers accountable is being pushed so hard and yet we hear nothing about what teaching success looks like. It seems there is an elite that wants to be trusted to hold the teachers accountable, but they don’t seem to want to be held accountable. I wonder why Mr. French included, “Our No. 1 priority should be good teaching in the classroom,” said Grand Blanc High School Principal Jennifer Hammond. “That’s why we’re here.” That suggests that Ms. Hammond places students and their learning, no better than No. 2. Does that reflect how Mr. French’s views education and how he reports ? If Mr. French ,” It may be worth every penny.”, is so sure that the millions it will cost are well worth it, is Mr. French acting as a reporter or is he a ‘lobbyist’ trying to convince the public of something they have not been included in?
Thu, 02/06/2014 - 9:48am
I'm really tired of "Bridge Magazine" being considered a legitimate, mainstream news source.
Fri, 02/07/2014 - 6:54am
Sadly, our government looks only at teachers for success of our schools. 'It takes a village to raise a child" is what it will take to get the results wanted by all. I was told once that poverty is no excuse for poor learning. It has been my experience that a child who lives in chaos will have difficulty learning anything; even society's norms. To use test scores as part of an evaluation is outlandish to say the least. Test scores are a moving target. Let's not forget our special needs and alternative education students in this massive undertaking. Only 1% of special needs students can take an alternative assessment (unless that changes). If that percentage goes over, it is reflected poorly for the school district. As an educator, I fully agree that there are poor teachers out there. There are poor mechanics, doctors, store clerks, lawyers, etc. The difference? Partons do not have to go back if they do not like their services provided. Schools need to do the same (schools of choice), but this evaluation system is not the answer. I wish I could propose a concrete solution, but there is not one. Evaluations like this are like grading papers in an English class. There are very few objective ways to score a student's work (only grammar, spelling, etc). The same is true for the teaching profession (classroom control via discipline, number of sick days, etc). The current system is highly subjective.
Fri, 02/07/2014 - 9:20am
MJP, Is it chaos or is it poverty, can chaos exist in wealthy homes? Those in poverty may have a higher concentration of the issues that are barriers to learning, but to claim it is poverty masks the the real barriers.
Fri, 02/07/2014 - 4:55pm
In this your are correct. Overall? No accountability, no responsiblity as a whole in our country. Sad...
Fri, 02/07/2014 - 8:40am
Yes, I agree they do need to do something! I have a special needs child. 8th grade & doing 4th grade reading & 2-3 grade math! He'll be 16 in a few months & I disagree with the teaching methods! He was placed in a Science class, then pulled out because the teachers said he can't do it, & they gave him art! What a joke! We had him tested in Grand Rapids & they suggested he have a 1 on 1 teacher & aid. But nothings happened yet! Plus they wanted to pass him into 9th grade & skip8th altogether,only saying he needs to be with kids his own age! He's functioning around a 10 year old. We adopted him when he was 4. So yea Our school systems need to be changed! It's so sad to see these kids go to school for 9 months only to learn how to color!