Coming soon: teacher report cards based on student performance

Years of disagreement have stalled efforts to grade teachers and dismiss those who are ineffective. That all changed Wednesday when a group of educators — including teachers’ unions, superintendent and school board groups — agreed on how to properly evaluate teachers so those who are struggling are identified and put on a path to improve or be dismissed.

pryor ethics request

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor

“Districts are really going to embrace this,” said Diane Ullman, Superintendent of Schools in Simsbury and a member of the state panel responsible for creating an evaluation process districts must follow. “We’ve been waiting for this.”

The plan calls for student performance and testing to count for half of the grade the state’s 50,000 teachers receive. The remaining share will be linked to teacher observations and parent and peer feedback surveys.

“I think we are 100 percent there,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council as he pointed to the presentation on display outlining the plan. “That’s our system.”

Getting to this point has been difficult, as state and education leaders have found it a daunting task to grade a job that is just as much an art as it is a science.

“The question has been what is that right prescription? We want to ensure you have useful measures and feedback,” said John Luczak, who helped start teacher evaluations in Illinois and is currently helping the dozen Race to the Top winning states launch their evaluations. “Useful measures are what is missing in too many [evaluation] systems.”

The group agreed teachers should be evaluated as follows:

  • 45 percent on student learning indicators (things like test scores and attendance);
  • 5 percent on how the school performs as a whole or student feedback survey;
  • 40 percent on teachers’ observation and practices;
  • 10 percent on peer and parent feedback surveys

“Unusual buy-in”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has indicated on several occasions the state needs to give districts the power to identify ineffective teachers and to stop using years on the job as the lone or primary measure when making layoff decisions. And, at a recent education reform summit he convened earlier this month, as he began to get to the crux of his speech on how he plans to tackle the highly controversial teacher evaluation issue, the sound equipment cut out.

His gut response was to ask the room if the teachers unions’ were responsible. It’s not that he genuinely believes they were behind the mishap, but the perception for years has been that the teachers’ unions are vehemently against evaluations and will do anything to make the discussion go away.

That’s no longer the case, as both the state’s teachers’ unions said Wednesday they are on board with this plan.

“This is very robust,” Mary Loftus Levine, head of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said of the plan.

teacher evaluations

“This is a pretty good plan,” agreed Sharon Palmer, leader of the state’s American Federation of Teachers chapter. “Yes, student improvement and growth is playing a huge role, but it’s factoring it in in a fair way.”

Luczak said the fact that Connecticut already has its teachers’ unions on board is a huge step.

“Today was a pretty historic day for Connecticut. This is pretty unusual buy-in,” he said. “There are a lot of teachers’ unions who are fighting this in many other states.”

New York is facing a lawsuit from its teachers’ union challenging its evaluation system in which student achievement makes up 40 percent of a teacher’s grade.

The National Council of Teacher Quality reports that 13 states require teacher evaluations to be tied to student achievement. The State Board of Education still needs to approve this plan for Connecticut to become the 14th state. Pryor also said he intends to include this plan in the state’s application for a waiver to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

In a statement, Malloy called the agreement a “milestone.”

“Connecticut has taken a major step toward a meaningful teacher evaluation system,” Malloy said. “Today’s consensus proposal has real potential to increase teacher effectiveness — and as a result, to elevate student achievement.”

What’s in a grade?

Few states have included student and parent surveys when grading teachers because there is little research to back up how to do it effectively.

“The science isn’t quite all there yet,” said Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try this.”

And because of this uncertainty, the panel decided to have parent and student surveys account for just 10 percent of a teacher’s grade. For the parents’ survey, sample questions discussed by the panel included, “Does your child’s teacher return your calls or emails?” and “Is your child learning?” Final questions have not been determined.

“Parent satisfaction is legitimate and important. This isn’t about encouraging a ‘gotcha’-like outlet for frustration,” said Luczak.

sharon palmer

Sharon Palmer, leader of the state’s American Federation of Teachers chapter: ‘This is a pretty good plan.’

The most controversial component in grading teachers has been how much standardized tests will be factored in the evaluation. While groups like ConnCAN, a New-Haven based reform group, have pushed for tests playing an overwhelming role in evaluations, teachers’ unions have resisted saying that many students don’t do well on tests.

Malloy was actually one of those students who did poorly on standardized tests, but that did not stop his support for including them in evaluations.

“It would be folly” not to include it, he told those who attended his education seminar at Central Connecticut State University. “We are capable of finding the right balance,” he said.

And on Wednesday, the diverse group of education leaders found the balance. The model they approved has student tests counting for 25 percent of a teacher’s grade.

“This evaluation is much more holistic than just test scores,” said Palmer. Another 25 percent will look at other student performance measurements, such as meeting benchmarks or looking at how students compare with their peers in other schools.

“This is an incredible step forward,” said Patrick Riccards, the leader of ConnCAN. “This is the right balance. It uses multiple measures while recognizing student performance is the most important.”

One major obstacle does remain though: the CEA reports 70 percent of the teachers in the state do not teach a subject that has a standardized test. For example, there’s no 11th-grade social studies test.

Pryor said that for those teachers, his department plans to help districts create tests for schools use for various subjects, though many districts already have such tests they’ve put in place.

The remaining 40 percent of the grade will be based on a classroom observation by a team of teachers and principals at each school. Those reviews will be based on strict standards the state will give districts to use based on things like the amount of time a teacher spends on task, if they are following best practices, if they do a good job reaching all their students and how rigorous their lesson plans are.

“This isn’t going to be a popularity contest,” Luczak said.

Full speed ahead

Finding consensus on the major components for an evaluation model may have been achieved Wednesday, but the details for it to become a reality are still a long way off.

Training teachers and administrators to implement these evaluations was the major concern raised by members of the state panel.

“What’s going to come off the teacher’s plate to deal with this new requirement,” asked Bruce Douglas, the leader of the state’s interdistrict magnet school district in the Capitol region.

Pryor assured the group that the state would provide money and expertise to help districts perform these evaluations.

“We will put dollars behind that,” he said.

Other tweaks that still need to be figured out is if a student that comes to a class mid-year should count towards a teacher’s evaluation, what weight special- or high- need students should have and then finally what to do with these evaluations.

Because most districts in the state lack a comprehensive evaluation system, Ullman said it’s made it districts like hers difficult to identify which teachers need help.

“This will change that,” she said.

Luczak said in the other states he has helped implement their evaluations it has taken a year to get it up and running, and estimates the 2013-14 school year is an achievable deadline. State law requires districts to have evaluations in place by July 2013 that are consistent with the model the State Board of Education adopts.