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Testing Teachers: New Performance Evaluations Implemented, State's Education Community Challenged

T-shirts are sold on the first day of the September 2012 teachers’ strike.
Chicago Teachers Union

Three years ago, Gov. Pat Quinn was preparing to sign legislation that would tie teachers’ performance evaluations to the growth of their students. It was hailed as historic. Part of a national trend spurred by states’ desire to qualify for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top federal education grants.

The plan was to phase it in year by year, starting with Chicago in the fall of 2012, followed by the lowest performing schools across the state, with all schools in compliance by 2016.

But fast forward, and just as that implementation is really beginning, the legislation — and the strength of the state’s education community — are being tested like never before:

  • The state’s finances are in even more dire straits.
  • Teachers’ strikes are cropping up in districts large and small.
  • Attaining — and keeping — tenure is tougher than ever. 

For new teacher evaluations to be effectively implemented, education experts warn that proper support mechanisms must be in place for the reform package to reach its full potential.
“The law has a good intent, but so did No Child Left Behind,” says Marleis Trover, chair of Eastern Illinois University’s education department and a consultant for the Consortium for Educational Change.

“Things in bureaucracy can develop a life of their own. ... How this is implemented is so important: the timing, the details, the rules and regulations.”

The Performance Evaluation Reform Act, commonly known as PERA, requires districts to design and implement performance evaluation systems that assess teachers’ and principals’ professional skills, as well as incorporate measures of student growth. The law, which passed nearly unanimously in both the state House and Senate in 2009, requires that various test results be used for at least 25 percent of a teacher’s rating in the first two years, growing to 30 percent over time.

Classroom observations also figure prominently in the evaluations. Teachers and administrators must now all be rated according to four clear categories: excellent, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory.

While student growth on standardized tests is not yet a factor in a majority of districts across the states, all teachers, beginning this fall, must be evaluated using these categories.

Over the last few years, a majority of other states have adopted similar evaluation systems. According to the Education Commission of the States, 30 states require evaluations that include evidence of student achievement on tests, and more than a dozen use test scores for half or more of a teacher’s rating.

In Illinois, a separate, complimentary piece of legislation to PERA was pushed through both chambers of the state legislature in the spring of 2011, allowing teacher evaluations to be used in decisions about tenure and layoffs. That piece, Senate Bill 7, passed at the time because of “exquisite timing,” says Robin Steans, director of Advance Illinois, an organization that promotes education reforms.

Illinois teachers were still smarting from the way pension reform was achieved the year before, elevating the retirement age to 67 and cutting benefits for teachers hired after January 2011. This time, they were bound and determined not to be left out of the conversation.

After successfully working for reforms in states including , Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, national education reform group Stand for Children had, with a mixture of the right staffers and money, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s ear in Illinois. Madigan then formed an education committee comprising lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to examine reforms.

The state’s 2010 failed bid to win federal Race to the Top education stimulus money had laid the groundwork for future reforms.

“While some states are engaging in noisy and unproductive battles around education reform, Illinois is showing what can happen when adults work through their differences together,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the media at the time.

SB 7, which built off of PERA, requires districts to prioritize teachers’ performance, instead of seniority, in layoff decisions. It also makes tenure tougher, requiring high ratings on the last two years of a teacher’s evaluation before the privilege is granted. Teachers with exceptional reviews could be placed on a fast track to earn tenure within three years instead of four. In turn, teachers with two unsatisfactory evaluations during a seven-year period could have their certificates revoked.

“That piece is so significant,” Trover says. She believes that threatening teachers’ tenure and seniority is a “game changer” that could eventually open up the state to lawsuits from teachers who feel they were unfairly demoted.

“Adult learners need to learn in an unfearful environment,” she says. Still, there has been an attitude among those in the education community, she says, “to make the best of [the new evaluation system],” something, “we do every day as teachers.”

As mandated by law, Chicago Public Schools began this fall, for the first time, to use student growth as part of its teacher evaluation rating. The district, says Sue Sporte, director of research operations for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, got a “late start” — and made some late changes to its implementation process because of the two-week-long teachers strike in September. “It wasn’t like a two-week interruption because people were planning in August [for the strike],” Sporte says, and therefore were not as communicative with one another.

Certain parts of that implementation, Sporte says, were renegotiated, though the end result “ended up being very, very close to what was [initially] determined.”

Tenured teachers were originally going to be observed during the first year of the new evaluations. That was slid back a year as part of the district’s agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union. Over the summer, in response to pressure from the federal government, the State Board of Education sent out a survey to districts across the state asking which might phase in the new teacher evaluation program earlier than expected.

That survey, state board spokeswoman Mary Fergus says, “didn’t yield any hard results.” Still, she says, “all your districts are now working on some phase o the implementation.” Despite varied implementation times, other districts in the suburbs and downstate, whether high- or low-performing, are required to have trained evaluators in place and to have written or adopted new performance evaluation standards for principal evaluations by this fall. With the state requiring all evaluators to complete a majority of training modules for the new evaluation system by November 1, Fergus says, “training this summer made things very real.”

Vicki Phillips, division administrator at the state board, says that while there is no research data available as to how the training is going at this point, she’s received “quite a bit of anecdotal-type feedback. For the most part, it seems like it’s gone pretty well,” Phillips says. “Certainly, there are questions of ‘How should I do this?’ or ‘How should I do that?’”

The training, which cost a total of $2.5 million, has been paid for by Illinois’ receipt of federal Race to the Top funds. Individually, she says, it costs about $300 per principal evaluator and $650 for teacher evaluators to learn the new evaluation systems. All evaluators are also required to attend regular “re-training” sessions.”

“One of the really great dynamics here is that the state board has really been able to collaborate with the [teachers’ unions] and the Illinois Association of School Boards and School Administrators,” Phillips says. The evaluation training courses — conducted through webinars — take roughly 90 hours and conclude with what Trover calls a “very comprehensive test.”

Roughly 85 percent of all evaluators have gone through the training so far, Phillips says. “It’s absolutely amazing that that many people have gone through this program,” Trover says.

The training for teacher evaluators is based on economist and educational consultant Charlotte Danielson’s “Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching,” an evaluation model that the Illinois Education Association largely regards as one of the best. While the Danielson method is used in training, state rules only require districts to adopt an instructional framework, not that a specific one be used. But several suburban districts, including Elgin Area School District U-46 and Naperville District 203, have already put into place evaluation systems based around the Danielson framework. That’s proof, officials say, that their hard work is being recognized and validated.

Phillips calls the new evaluation system for the state “definitely a step in the right direction. There were some places that didn’t evaluate principals in the past. Or it was such a perfunctory duty that it really had no meaning.” The required training for anyone who’s conducting evaluations worked to provide a common language across the state, Phillips says. “We now have a common language with some common understanding of what academic language really means. That has changed the conversation from district to district.”

While critics across the country have looked to the Chicago teachers strike as evidence that teacher evaluations are becoming too data-driven, Trover says many of the state’s teachers support the inclusion of test scores in their evaluations — as long as students are tested multiple times throughout the year. “You’re looking at the student when they come in, where they are, and where they’re going,” she says. “It’s so much better in education than saying everyone has to be at a certain point on one test, one day of the year.”

As a longtime superintendent in downstate Vienna District 55, Trover says the first time her students had to take the Prairie State Achievement Exam as part of federal No Child Left Behind, she was “sick for my students. ... They understood it was high stakes. They were really working at it.” While she says some teachers are fearful of Senate Bill 7’s effect on tenure, “it’s up to the person who’s providing the message to influence how do the teachers feel about it. That has to do with the preparations.”

As with anything else, it is the support systems around the new system that will prove important, over time. “Sometimes, state cuts to education funding have probably been a stressor that adds to the pile,” Phillips says. “But really, when you get down to evaluating a principal, the cost of that is time. It’s not so much dollars. Time really is allocated as according to priorities.”

Still, funding is inadvertently in play when tight school budgets force the school administrators doing the evaluating — and the teachers being evaluated — to juggle more and more.

“It’s not free,” Sporte says. “If the principals are going to need to be spending a lot of time doing observation and coaching ... obviously that’s a good thing. There’s still school management stuff that has to go down. If all of a sudden, I need to make room in my life to observe these teachers and talk to them about their craft, that takes time.

“Something else has got to give. They all had full plates before this initiative started.”

Kerry Lester is political editor/projects writer for the Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald.

Illinois Issues, January 2013

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