Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

What to do with an ineffective teacher? St. Paul starts with support, and moves to accountability

Stories about bad teachers (and archaic contracts that make it impossible to fire them)  make headlines. But the process of getting better or leaving can actually move fairly quickly.

When Paul Rohlfing moved into his office, he disabled the harsh fluorescent lights set overhead and set up a couple of Ikea floor lamps with Asian-style paper shades. The office would be the setting for a lot of tough conversations. The son of two social workers, Rohlfing knew mood mattered.

One of two business agents with the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Rohlfing works with teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs. At any given time, he has a case load of about 20 educators who need help navigating a process that, popular lore notwithstanding, can take mere weeks.

Headlines these days are dominated by stories about bad teachers and archaic contracts  that make it impossible to fire them. Fueled in part by stories like those about New York City’s infamous “rubber rooms,” where hundreds of teachers accused of wrongdoing kill time for years, most people think you can’t get rid of bad apples.

But St. Paul is not New York City, and Rohlfing’s office is lined with sports memorabilia, not latex. If the lawmakers and others who currently have teachers in their crosshairs spent a little time there, they might well change their tunes.

Article continues after advertisement

“If the people making the policy decisions about this could spend even a day with me, here where the rubber meets the road, they would see things very differently,” Rohlfing said.

Accustomed to collaborating
Among Twin Cities school administrators and union activists alike it is praised as a community where organized labor and district brass do an admirable job of collaborating to make sure the caliber of the teacher corps is as high as possible.

Rohlfing can, and will, wax long about the things the district does right when an underperformer is identified. As a result, he said, many more substandard teachers resign — often with benefits that ease the transition — than are terminated.

But because principals are not required to regularly evaluate tenured teachers, Rohlfing often finds himself working with teachers who are hearing for the first time in years, or sometimes decades, that their performance is inadequate, he said.

Tim Caskey is executive director of human resources for the district. In an interview last week, he declined to say how many teachers are fired each year or to say whether SPPS has a policy regarding how often all teachers are evaluated and by whom.

This year, administrators conducted more than 500 classroom observations in SPPS secondary schools alone, Caskey said. Some 900 of the district’s 3,326 instructors teach in secondary schools.

“My expectation from a human resources standpoint is that our principals are in our classrooms working with our teachers, working with our paraprofessionals who are in the classroom working with kids to close the achievement gap,” he said. “We truly believe that the teacher’s performance is essential to closing the achievement gap. We have worked with the union to develop a process to effectively evaluate teachers in the classroom.”

Probation for three years
The process is spelled out in the union contract [PDF]. During a teacher’s first three years on the job, when he or she is on probation, administrators conduct regular classroom observations. New teachers (or veterans new to St. Paul) who are struggling can ask to participate in a peer review program set up by the union.

Once a teacher is awarded tenure, things change. According to the contract, when a principal has concerns about a teacher’s performance, the first step is classroom observation. If the teacher does not meet a set of standards of effectiveness negotiated by the district and federation, they are put on what is known as an informal improvement plan.

Article continues after advertisement

The plan consists of two documents, which the principal reviews with the teacher and, often, with Rohlfing or the federation’s other business agent. The first is a form that looks something like an expanded grid, with performance expectations listed on the left and a description of each standard on the right.

In the middle is the teacher’s rating on a scale of 1 to 4. A “solid performance” earns a 3; anything less than a 2 is below standard. 

Specific problems, goals
The second document spells out specific problems observed, exactly what good performance would look like and how it will be measured, assistance to be provided to the teacher and a timeline for re-evaluation, typically four to six weeks.

“The whole process is one of providing support to our teachers,” said Caskey.

Most likely the teacher will be offered a chance to watch an effective teacher, invite one of the district’s instructional coaches into his or her classroom or watch a coach at work. Another suggestion teachers get is to videotape their lessons and review the footage with a coach.

Rohlfing is a fan of videotaping, particularly when a teacher is convinced that he or she is being singled out for harassment or retaliation. If teachers are the subject of a vendetta, the tape is the best kind of evidence. If they aren’t, and have been resistant to feedback, watching themselves on tape can spark an “ah-ha” moment.

“It’s one of the most sobering experiences you can have,” said Rohlfing. “It’s a really powerful learning tool.”

More than many other professionals, educators’ identities are tied up in their jobs. Because this may be their first performance review years, when they sit down with their principal some are in such deep shock that Rohlfing’s first job is to take accurate, emotionally neutral notes.

“At the time, all they can hear is the buzz of blood in their ears,” he says. “Being a second set of ears in that meeting is important because the principal is usually trying to tell the teacher about specific changes they want to see.”

Article continues after advertisement

Teachers often know that something is off in their classroom, Rohlfing said. But they may have been scared to admit as much or at a loss what to do to identify the problem.

Often their confusion stems from the belief that they are teaching exactly the way they did when they were observed as new teachers. But a weakness not caught then — say, a couple of moments per class period lost to clumsy transitions — may have snowballed over the years into a serious problem.

If intervention helps, teacher stays in classroom
If all of the intervention helps — and both Rohlfing and Caskey are careful to point out that this is the goal of the process — the teacher stays in the classroom. If the person’s  teaching still fails to meet the grade, he or she is put on a formal improvement program, which looks a lot like the informal one.

At this point, Rohlfing begins talking to the teacher about options. Whether it’s the cause or effect of the teacher’s lowered performance, many are miserable and relieved to hear there are alternatives.

Right now, a provision in the contract allows teachers who are 55 or older and who have spent the last 15 consecutive years in the district to resign with health benefits. Teachers who are fired involuntarily are not eligible, so some who disagree with administrators’ assessment of their performance resign rather than risk losing the health-care benefit. This option will not be available to teachers hired after 2014.

Another option: State law also allows something called statutory pension leave. Teachers willing to pay the cost of their own benefits can take up to five years of unpaid leave. For many St. Paul teachers having problems in the classroom, this is a godsend.

Some use the time to change careers or start small businesses. Some take advantage of another tool and contribute 15 percent of their gross wages for a few years to “buy” their way to a full pension. Some split the difference by having the federation negotiate a package where they announce their intent to resign at the end of their leave.

A third option is to seek a medical leave, sometimes using income from long-term disability insurance. “For people who are struggling in the classroom, it’s common to experience depression,” Rohlfing explained. “Struggling to manage a classroom is very stressful. It’s not fulfilling. We see a lot of depression and anxiety.”

Some contest termination
Finally, some teachers, particularly those who plan to sue or file a grievance, contest their termination. Rohlfing doesn’t see many of those — right now his caseload has just two — but if it’s a member’s chosen course, the union will dig in with them. Those cases can drag on and on, but they aren’t the norm. 

Article continues after advertisement

Flawed though this process is, it’s much fairer to teachers and students alike than those in many places. The opportunities for lagging teachers to come up to standard are meaningful, and students and taxpayers typically aren’t forced to pay the price while those who aren’t improving run out the clock in a purely adversarial system.

It’s too bad SPPS’ Caskey declined to characterize the district’s current teacher evaluations, because it seems like there are problems — but also solutions — in the offing. For instance, if the union is to be believed — and Caskey declined to correct them — right now there is no system or policy compelling any evaluation of tenured teachers, regularly or sporadically.

“It’s incredibly unfair to come to a teacher who has not been observed in maybe 25 years, point out three, four, maybe half a dozen issues and expect them to make major improvements,” said Rohlfing.

As a result, teachers who work for principals who view their roles not as building administrators so much as instructional leaders are reviewed much more often than their peers, say Rohlfing and his boss, federation President Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Without regular evaluation, principals may be just as uncomfortable performing assessments as their staffs are undergoing them. Some principals love the interaction and delegate so they can spend enough time in the classroom to provide ample feedback.

Others can call on four “master principals” St. Paul has identified as gifted at providing constructive critiques. These principal coaches can do the observation themselves, but it’s better if the principal who invites them in takes advantage of the opportunity to learn.

Some may never be assessed
In addition to keeping the emphasis on discipline, the lack of universal evaluation protocols means teachers who are deemed effective or even highly effective still may never be assessed. And SPPS has no systematic way of identifying practices used by its best teachers.

Nor is an environment being created where teachers invite each other into their classrooms for constructive feedback. Probationary teachers get peer assistance and review, but the federation would like the practice extended so teachers aren’t working in a vacuum.

“Teachers have always had opinions about their coworkers and right now those opinions are whispered in the teachers’ lounge or in the parking lot after school,” said Rohlfing. “What we need is a meaningful way to help them share their thoughts about areas for improvement and also what they see as strengths.”

SPPS earlier this month announced a strategic reorganization that might deliver many of the changes on the federation’s wish list, although here again, Caskey was unable to supply many details. Over the next three years, the plan also will place more emphasis on teacher evaluation. What that looks like is a work in progress.

As part of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, Superintendent Valeria Silva announced a move to centralize many administrative functions and require principals to begin functioning as instructional leaders.

The district and union have a solid track record of working together to create meaningful policies. And given that both are seeking more accountability — in part to change a culture where assessment is often viewed as a punitive measure, not a ground-level strategy — there’s reason to think change is coming.

“The principal objective of the strategic plan is to close the achievement gap,” said Caskey. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s underneath that, but we are really focused on that.”