New budget threatens progress

Last year the Ohio Legislature adopted a budget that slashed public education funding and mandated an expensive, unfair and potentially damaging system for evaluating teachers. The legislature is not fulfilling its responsibility to ensure that all children achieve, yet it is ready to punish teachers if they don’t produce high test scores.  

Currently, all untenured teachers are evaluated annually and tenured teachers are evaluated every three years. Each school district designs its own evaluation system. Starting in 2014, every teacher will be evaluated every year, and student achievement data will account for half of the teacher’s evaluation.

It is hard to understand how more frequent evaluations, based on measures over which teachers have only partial control, will produce a higher quality teacher corps.

The legislature’s policies will make evaluation more time-consuming, and less fair and meaningful. This blame-oriented approach has the potential to set back teacher quality in school districts like ours that use evaluation to grow teachers.    

“Our kids deserve the best. That means the first thing we must pay attention to is teacher quality,” said Dr. Nylajean McDaniel, director of human resources for the CH-UH School District. She is in charge of hiring, mentoring and evaluating the district’s 600 teachers.

Tom Schmida, Cleveland Heights Teachers Union president, believes a reliable evaluation system is crucial to having great teachers. According to him, “Evaluation should help each person be the best he or she can be. It’s a chance to improve.”

While there is little argument that high-quality teaching is crucial, determining who is up to snuff is more problematic. What does an effective teacher do? What system for evaluating teachers is equiped to make fair judgments about a teacher’s effectiveness when the consequences of failure are so significant for both teacher and students? 

McDaniel and Schmida are members of the Assessment Review Committee (ARC), a team of four teachers and four administrators created in 2004 to update the district’s evaluation system for new teachers. Since then, ARC has transformed the system from a checklist with minimal feedback and an emphasis on hiring and firing decisions, into a nuanced assessment used to guide the professional growth of all teachers.

In 2004, the district adopted a framework for defining quality teaching based on the work of Charlotte Danielson, author of Teacher Evaluation to Enhance Professional Practice. It captures the complexity of the work by breaking teaching into 23 specific behaviors that research indicates are most clearly tied to student learning. The behaviors are grouped into four domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities.   

Evaluators use a matrix that describes four different levels of teacher effectiveness, from unsatisfactory to advanced, for each skill. The framework, which may be seen on the district’s website, is the basis for all district initiatives to promote quality teaching.  

“When people lose their jobs it is very upsetting,” said McDaniel. While her goal is to guarantee that students are served by quality teachers, she insists that the evaluation system must be fair, and believes the system is more objective because the framework means everyone knows what excellent looks like.

Each evaluation is based on evidence that the principal collects from the teacher through written submissions, classroom observation, and conferences that focus on the core unit of teacher practice: a lesson. This evidence-based approach, while time consuming (about three hours per observation), contributes to greater objectivity.

It takes experience for teachers to become expert in all four domains. The detailed feedback contained in each evaluation report provides a personalized roadmap for growth. All teachers are expected to advance their skills based on the evaluation.  

A negative evaluation, one that concludes that the teachers is “at risk” of nonrenewal, triggers an intervention plan and support from a coach. If this process fails to bring about adequate improvement, termination is the likely outcome.

The intervention process pays off. According to McDaniel, principals are more likely to be critical knowing help will follow, and intervention usually produces growth. Last year only one of the six teachers put on an intervention plan lost his job.  

One of Schmida’s responsibilities as union president is to represent teachers who disagree with their evaluations. He investigates whether the evaluation process was followed, and helps teachers determine if they have a legitimate complaint.

“I spend a lot more time helping people depart with dignity than challenging the decision,” said Schmida. In fact, in his 20 years as president, no one has used the appeal process that is mandated by the contract. “We’ve got good tools. The system works,” said Schmida.

The system is fair, but change is coming. It will be a serious setback for students if our evaluation system focused on improvement is lost because the legislature needs someone to blame

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 30-year resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and recently joined the board of trustees of the Home Repair Resource Center.

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Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 10:51 AM, 04.04.2012