State tackles challenge of judging teachers on students’ performance

NEW HAVEN–Sometime next month, Rob Glassman, like other teachers throughout this city’s public school system, will get his own report card.

He will be rated on a variety of factors–including the progress of his sixth-grade students–under a complex new system that is being watched closely by educators and policymakers from Hartford to Washington, D.C.

New Haven is one of the first districts in Connecticut to link teacher evaluations to student performance, part of an approach to school reform that has been pushed by the Obama administration and will soon be required in other Connecticut districts under a new state law.

“A majority of teachers have issues with it, but a good percentage of teachers recognize it’s a good process,” Glassman, an 18-year veteran and a union steward, says of the New Haven plan. “It just needs to be fine tuned.”

But in Connecticut and elsewhere, fine tuning is proving to be daunting task as educators debate how to evaluate a job that is as much an art as it is a science.

“We’re trying to quantify learning, which is basic human behavior. Our measures for doing that are not very precise,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and a member of a committee developing a statewide model for teacher evaluations.

That committee, the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, is developing the model to comply with a school reform law passed last year. State lawmakers passed a series of sweeping reforms in hopes of winning a grant under the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top incentive program. Although Connecticut did not win the grant, the reforms included a requirement for a more rigorous evaluation process, one that makes teachers more directly responsible for student progress.

Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, said more than a dozen states have passed similar laws linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and others are studying the issue.

“It’s likely this number will increase before the end of the year,” said Zinth. Once chiefly a function of local school districts, teacher evaluation has caught the attention of lawmakers as more states develop sophisticated data systems capable of tying student progress to individual teachers, she said.

In states such as Colorado, Louisiana and Tennessee, student achievement data must account for at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The Connecticut law imposes no such specific quota but calls for evaluations to consider “multiple indicators of student academic growth.”  It also requires evaluations to consider outside factors affecting student performance, such as attendance, mobility and English-speaking ability.

But how much weight should be given to classroom tests or statewide exams such as the Connecticut Mastery Test? Should parent and student surveys be part of the evaluation?  What about music teachers, physical education instructors, history teachers or others whose subjects are not tested on state exams? How should guidance counselors be measured? What are the criteria for a teacher of gifted students, or one who teaches remedial classes?

“How do you define an effective teacher?” said Sharon Palmer, a member of the state advisory council and president of AFT-Connecticut, a statewide teachers’ union.

“You can pretty much get a laundry list of things you want to see,” Palmer said, “but how do you put that all together in a system that says this person is effective, this person is not effective?”

The advisory council is expected to develop model evaluation guidelines ready for pilot testing by the 2012-13 school year and for use in all school districts by the following year.

Much of the debate centers on how to link evaluations to student tests such as the annual  Connecticut Mastery Test for elementary and middle school students or the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for 10th-graders–exams that officials say were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness.

A report last year by some of the nation’s leading education researchers warned against heavy reliance on student test scores to evaluate teachers. Even after adjusting for student and school characteristics, models measuring student growth are not reliable enough to use in personnel decisions such as firing, pay or promotion, said the report by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The report cited research showing wide fluctuations in year-to-year evaluations based on test score growth. “Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year,” the report said.

Nevertheless, school reform advocates contend that teachers should be held accountable for student progress and that new evaluation approaches are needed.

A 2009 report by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group devoted to improving teacher quality, says most existing evaluation systems are broken. “A teacher’s effectiveness–the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement–is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way,” the report said.

In New Haven, the evaluation process grew out of a groundbreaking teachers’ contract in 2009 that drew praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other education reformers.

Under the process, which is being used for the first time this year, teachers undergo periodic observations and can earn ratings as high as 5, or “exemplary,” a mark that could lead to promotion, or as low as 1, a “needs improvement” rating that could put a teacher’s job in jeopardy.

“Most teachers, including myself, would be happy with a 3 or 4,” said Glassman, who teaches at the city’s Ross/Woodward School. “If I had a 2, I’d probably make a big deal about it. We’ll have to see.”

Glassman worries that supervisors may not have enough time for thorough observations.

“It’s subjective in a way. How accurate can it be?” he said. “Let’s say I get one year when the kids are not so good. Should I lose my job because my classroom didn’t perform? A lot of stuff still needs to be worked out.”

As they evaluate teachers, school principals not only consider student progress but take into account factors such as lesson planning, classroom management, use of data, and professionalism. Because many educators teach subjects or work with students not covered by statewide tests, the principals also work with teachers to set classroom goals on which the teachers can be judged.

“The fact that something is not easy to measure on the Connecticut Mastery Test doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t be setting goals,” said New Haven Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, a key figure in developing the evaluation process.

In a preliminary mid-year report, 62 of New Haven’s 1,600 teachers were tentatively given “needs improvement” ratings while 40 were rated “exemplary.” Teachers who received those marks are subject to further reviews by independent observers, and the marks could change when final ratings are announced.

Harries emphasized that the process is part of a larger reform strategy designed to improve teacher quality and bolster lagging student performance, a problem common to high-poverty, urban districts like New Haven.

He said it would be a mistake to view the system only as a means of weeding out bad teachers.  “That’s not the whole story… The foundation is a professional relationship between the principal and the teacher. It’s not only about evaluation, but about coaching.”

Nevertheless, some teachers were nervous about an evaluation system that depends in part on student performance, said David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

“The problem is, a lot of what [students] do is out of our control,” he said. “You can’t make a kid come to school. You can’t make him study.”

Still, Cicarella said he believes teachers became more comfortable after going through the process and receiving preliminary ratings last fall. And he described the new approach as far better than the previous system, which he said gave teachers little objective direction.

“There’s no question this system is comprehensive and much more fair,” he said. “We do have to be accountable, and we should be… We can’t just keep saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do. It’s the kids’ fault. It’s the parents’ fault’… We have to be willing to change the way we do business.”

After New Haven’s teachers receive their final ratings next month, officials will have a better chance to assess how the system works and, if necessary, to fine tune it.

“Whenever you create a brand new system, I think it’s going to take a couple of years of back and forth discussion before we know whether it’s a good tool,” said Cameo Thorne, an English teacher at the city’s High School in the Community. “I’d like to see a couple of pilot years before they start penalizing people.”

Thorne, who was the city’s Teacher of the Year last year, said, “I think the whole idea of reform is good–that we have one systematic way of being evaluated is beneficial to everybody…

“If it delivers what it promises,” she said, “I think it will be a good thing.”