As the Chicago Teachers strike enters into its fifth day, a few reports this morning* indicate that the Chicago Public Schools’ system for evaluating teachers is no longer one of the biggest sticking points. But even if leaders in Chicago have come to some resolution this week, debates around the country on the wisdom of using student test-score growth to rate teacher competence are not going away any time soon.
So it’s a key moment to look at how the teacher-evaluation debate might evolve so that two key criteria are met: How do we make sure that teachers are evaluated fairly and good teachers are lifted up while also ensuring that poor teachers are identified and put on a path toward improvement or a path toward dismissal? Finding answers to this question has not been easy and the task is made harder by heated rhetoric leading many policymakers to barrel forward without thinking through the implications. As Amanda Ripley, a former Schwartz fellow at New America and a writer who has written favorably about the use of test scores in teacher evaluation, put it this week: “No major improvement can occur in an atmosphere of distrust and animosity.”
How do we solve what seems an intractable problem? Be respectful and careful about what test score data really tells us (see Eric Zorn’s helpful explanatory op-ed in the Chicago Tribune) while starting to look for innovations that can break through the impasse. Dana Goldstein, a Schwartz fellow at New America, notes in a recent blog post on teacher unions, one possibility is “much more rigorous classroom observations.”
Last year, I co-wrote a policy paper with Susan Ochshorn titled Watching Teachers Work that examines how new observation tools could provide a way to differentiate teachers on how well they teach and also lead to systems that can help them improve. As we explained in the Los Angeles Times:
How do we halt the teacher-bashing and still improve the quality of teaching? The answer is to radically change the evaluation conversation. A focus on watching teachers work — on how they actually interact with students — is long overdue.
For those teaching in the early grades of elementary school, this is more pertinent than ever. The question of whether to use test scores is often replaced by the question: what test scores? As is often forgotten, states do not require children in grades K-2 to take state tests (California is one exception, with 2nd grade tests) and the formative assessments that are conducted by these teachers throughout the school year do not conform easily to attempts to use them for teacher-evaluation purposes.
The good news is that some early results from New York City, which is piloting the use of more rigorous observations, show that new observation-based measures are not just differentiating between excellent teachers and teachers who need improvement. The observations, which are based on the Danielson framework that was originally designed for professional development, may also appear to be helping teachers to improve their teaching from one year to the next. Gotham Schools’ bloggers Philissa Cramer and Geoff Decker reported on this news yesterday: “The number with the lowest rating on a four-tiered evaluation system fell by half and the number with the highest rating more than doubled,” they wrote.
In Chicago, the evaluation plan announced this spring, known as REACH for Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students, calls for the use of Danielson-based observations as well** (see this press release and FAQ from Chicago Public Schools). Once the union and city leadership arrive at a deal – for the sake of students, this can’t come too soon – policymakers and researchers around the country will have a good opportunity to look closely at how REACH is changed, how these observations will be conducted and what the prospects are for not just identifying good and bad teachers, but actually improving teaching.
* See Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post, whose report this morning paraphrases a source who says the two parties have agreed to a plan that “decreased emphasis on the rankings based on students' standardized test scores.” An article from Catalyst Chicago shows that a new sticking point may be whether principals who make hiring decisions will be required to give first priority to teachers who had been let go from other CPS schools.
** Catalyst Chicago ran a detailed report on the proposed plan earlier this year.