Update: Shortly after this article was published, the governor and Democratic legislative leaders sent a letter to the state panel overseeing the teacher evaluations asking it to significantly scale back implementation of the teacher ratings.
“We have heard from teachers and administrators voicing their concerns that too much change is hitting their classrooms at once. This confluence of changes jeopardizes the success of our teachers, and thus our students. We’ve heard their concerns loud and clear, and understand,” the leaders wrote the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council Tuesday.
Elementary school teacher Blaise Messinger spent hours in front of his computer at the beginning of the school year filling out his new evaluation forms and documenting how he aims to improve in the months ahead.
But when he hit the save button, an error message popped up.
“I had to go in an redo the entire thing,” the teacher in Cromwell recalls. He still had hours of work left to do to prepare for class the next day. “The intent may have been to have a meaningful process to improve student outcomes, but it’s become a data management requirement.”
Messinger — Connecticut’s 2013 teacher of the year – is hardly alone.
Hundreds of teachers from across the state have flocked to the forums hosted by the state’s largest teachers’ union to air their grievances about the new teacher evaluations.
“The teachers are making their concerns known. We ought to listen very carefully to what the teachers are saying,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said during an interview.
“They are upset,” said Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, after attending one of the events. There was a universal agreement that “we have taken the fun out of being a teacher,” he said.
The majority of the state’s 45,000 teachers are being evaluated for the first time this school year based on new state standards that require multiple in-class observations, improved student performance and parent or student feedback. Beginning next school year the state will require that every teacher be evaluated under the new system, and it will also begin using student test scores on standardized tests as part of the ratings.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – whose administration shepherded these new evaluations into reality in 2012 as part of an education reform package – has routinely said it is important for people to be held accountable for student outcomes, including teachers.
“What’s so very important is that we win teachers over on this, who are quite frankly afraid of it,” the Democratic governor told the American Enterprise Institute last month. “I understand that people think they are drinking out of a fire hose right now in the state of Connecticut. And it’s not easy… Once we get through this, we are going to have a very clear road to higher achievement in our schools.”
But many of the teachers who have spoken during the Connecticut Education Association’s forums in Killingly, Bolton, Cromwell, Winchester and Fairfield doubt these evaluations will improve how they teach.
“I am not seeing the value,” Ken Daly, a high school English teacher in Wallingford, said of the hours he’s invested so far this school year filling out the required paperwork for his evaluation. “The more time we spend spinning our wheels, the less time we have improving.”
Researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education report that the first year of the evaluations (the 2012-13 school year) increased the amount of time most teachers were spending on completing evaluations.
“Because of the rigors of learning and implementing a new system, most educators viewed [the state evaluation] as a system focused mainly on their evaluation as opposed to their development,” they concluded. “Very few participants reported the presence of professional learning opportunities linked to evaluation outcomes. Almost no teachers reported that they had received specific recommendations of professional growth opportunities.”
Of the 533 teachers surveyed by UConn last fall about their first year of being evaluated under the new system, more than half found no added value in the time they spent on their evaluations.
State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said he plans to tackle the situation.
“The state can make implementation even better through continued and improved supports provided to teachers, schools and districts,” he told reporters earlier this month. “Given proper supports and training, [the evaluation system] has the potential to improve teachers’ practice and student learning – that is the heart of the matter… We need to invest evermore in professional opportunities.”
Forty-two percent of teachers surveyed by UConn agreed that given sufficient resources — such as time and staffing — the new evaluation system would lead to improved teaching at their schools.
Time vs. value
John Dodig, principal of Staples High School in Westport, sees as a hindrance the requirement that administrators conduct significantly more observation of their teachers.
“It pains me to think that we will now bury our noses in spreadsheets, ProTrax software and the like keeping track of how many times we have seen each teacher. The time spent doing, what amounts to, nothing more than bean counting will reduce the time available to continue our focus on 21st century skill building and will, in fact diminish the quality of the outcome,” the longtime educator recently wrote the state’s education commissioner.
And it seems many principals and school leaders agree.
According to the UConn study, the number of teachers an evaluator is responsible for observing multiple times throughout the year ranges from six to 56, with the average load of a principal or evaluator being 25 teachers.
“Almost all principals reported struggling to complete the required number of observations,” UConn researchers concluded.
The state guidelines that teachers have at least three announced and unannounced observations throughout the year was established by a diverse panel to ensure the observations are a true reflection of a teacher’s ability, rather a single point in time, and to get principals in the classroom more.
“It’s just part of the culture now,” Sam Galloway, the principal of Bloomfield High School, told the governor during his recent visit to his school. Galloway supports the increased observations.
But for other administrators and teachers, the implementation means staff isn’t as available for the other important tasks they used to complete.
“The administrators have become like ghosts in our buildings. They are stuck in front of a computer,” said Messinger, from Cromwell.
And the state’s lowest-achieving districts, the UConn researchers found, are struggling the most with implementing these evaluations and a host of other initiatives all at the same time.
“We further found that schools with the greatest challenges seemed to have the most difficulties in using the model to drive improvements,” they concluded.
Stephen McKeever, vice president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime teacher in Middletown, said the routine crashing of the computer programs teachers must use for their evaluations isn’t helping.
“It is very, very time consuming,” he said. “We would like to see that time go toward professional development.”
The chorus of teachers upset with the rollout of the evaluations has captured the attention the Democratic governor, whose re-election is heavily dependent on organized labor, including teachers.
“We have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with professional organizations of all types to try to accommodate. We are always open to good ideas and always working on trying to make this transition as smooth as possible. We will continue those discussions,” Malloy said last week.
But for now those discussions have largely taken place in secret, as the state panel legislators tasked with creating and overseeing the evaluations has met just twice since adopting the evaluations in June 2012. State law requires the panel to meet quarterly.
As a result, says Tom Marak, a teacher at North Haven High School, the state requirements for evaluation are quickly becoming a disaster.
“It’s just not working. If Obamacare was rolled out poorly, well this was worse,” he said. “It’s a lot of paperwork to satisfy a bureaucratic need… I think it can be fixed, but we have to make it less cumbersome.”
Legislators seem supportive of making some changes.
“I think that there should be a better way,” said Williams. “I think that we can all agree that having consistency in evaluations is good for teachers and good for education, but in this day and age, we have go to find a user-friendly way of doing this.”
Concerns have also been raised about the outcomes of state standardized tests being included in a teachers’ rating starting next year. Districts throughout the state are in the process this year of implementing a new state standardized test aligned with new Common Core standards.
“We are rushing though this process to get the evaluations going,” said Fasano. “If you don’t have buy-in from those directly impacted, I don’t know how you ever reach success. Gov. Malloy and his commissioner of education made a huge misstep with this. They need to sit down with the teachers who want to do the best for kids and say ‘Help us.’ ”
On Wednesday, the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, the state panel overseeing the evaluations, will meet for the first time in nearly seven months.