Once upon a time, in an unlikely corner of exurbia, a school district and its teachers’ union were engaged in the timeless contract negotiation ritual of finger-pointing. Awash in red ink and humiliating test scores the district, St. Francis, complained that teachers called in sick too much.
Hogwash, the teachers countered. They were devoted to their students.
As time cards were reviewed, both sides lined their trenches.
Sixteen years later, in an era where tying teacher evaluation to student performance is as inflammatory as a topic gets, it’s clear it was a watershed moment. The impasse gave birth to a teacher development and evaluation program that has drawn national attention for its success in driving student achievement.
Serendipitously, the moment took place in 1995, the year the Minnesota Legislature passed a law earmarking 2 percent of education funding for teacher professional development. The HR review showed that the main reason teachers were absent was to travel to conferences in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 40 miles south.
Continuing education close to home
Chief union negotiator Randy Keillor had a thought: Would the district give the money to the union to provide continuing education right there in St. Francis and outside the school day? Drowning in red ink, administrators were only too glad to turn over responsibility for training.
It took a few years to flesh out, and no small number of leaps of good faith, but the conversation begat a Teacher Academy [PDF], which birthed a peer-review process — which, when Minnesota waded into merit pay, was tweaked slightly to become a full-fledged teacher-evaluation system.
Keillor kept an eye on test scores, which marched steadily up: By 2005, students had gained an average of more than 10 points in reading and nearly 13 points in math.
College attendance grew from 60 percent in 2000 to 76 percent in 2006. In 2008, St. Francis made the state’s list of 20 most-improved districts. Its high-school graduation rate is now 96 percent.
The district is hardly a pocket of privilege. Some 28 percent of its 5,400 students qualify for subsidized lunches and 9 percent receive special-ed services.
90 percent of teachers participate
Just as impressive, teachers love the Teacher Academy. Ninety percent participate, half have taken on mentor roles, and turnover has plummeted to 2 percent. New teachers can work their way to the top of the salary scale in eight years.
Popular courses fill up so fast that one year they actually handed out a T-shirt that said, “I was first to register for my Teacher Academy class.”
“It was clear teachers had a real need to talk to other teachers about teaching in a meaningful way,” said Keillor, who has since retired but was hired back to coordinate the larger district-union collaboration that has grown up around the training program, the Student Performance Improvement Program.
In connection with their Teacher Academy work, teachers are observed four times a year by two different peers who are looking for competence but also for evidence of growth. Among other things, the teachers being reviewed must demonstrate that they are trying new things in their classrooms as a result of their continuing education.
Teacher and reviewer present results together
After the last observation, the teacher and their peer reviewer will present their results in a meeting with an administrator and a specialist teacher. The teacher is responsible for generating evidence of student growth, which they also present at the meeting.
“Part of the design is that teachers at some point in their career have pretty much mastered the deal,” said Keillor. “Other professional people who are really highly effective are hitting their prime at about 55. Teachers are dropping out at that point. Before our baby boom teachers leave us, how can we pass on what they know to the next generation? And re-engage them because there are new things to do, new things to try.”
Contrast this with the norm in many Minnesota school districts, where a teacher being singled out for evaluation means one of two things: The teacher is new and still in the process of earning tenure, or the teacher is in trouble.
With 38 years on the job, Mark Bender is clearly neither. His most recent review was conducted in April by colleague Carol Hanson, herself a 30-year veteran, during a rhetoric class in which 11th– and 12th-graders earn college credits from Southwest Minnesota State University.
Class structured like a play
Before the class, Bender outlines his lesson plan for Hanson and then tells her what he’s trying that’s new and what he’d like her to watch for. On this particular Wednesday, students will be revising reviews they’ve written of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Bender has structured the class like a play, with acts and intermissions, during which students will discuss their critiques of one another’s work.
His personal goal is to step up the impact he has on his students, and he has saved six weeks of student work to present at his evaluation along with Hanson’s observations.
Some students have yet to move beyond simply retelling the play, and Bender’s goal is to get them to write about Ibsen’s broader message. To that end, he proposes to ask higher-order questions and get them to draw on their prior knowledge.
“I want you to look at my intermission questions,” he tells Hanson. “Are they engaging in higher-level thinking? Are they reflective? Synthesizing? Those kinds of things.”
Looking at evidence of student growth collected by the teacher being evaluated is important for several reasons, according to Keillor. It’s a vivid illustration of a teacher’s impact, and it’s more meaningful than trying to figure out a teacher’s share of the blame or credit for standardized test scores.
“That we would look at math scores to determine whether a music teacher is doing their job?” Keillor scoffed. “I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that the school nurse has something to do with reading scores, but it’s pretty far out.”
Reviewing one another’s work
Nor would basic proficiency scores say much about Mark Bender’s students, as they read one another’s essays in search of clear thesis statements, relevance and appropriate literary devices.
The modern American high school isn’t exactly a controlled environment, and it turns out that a little more than half of Bender’s rhetoricians can’t get to class because they are tied up in a performance of the woodwind ensemble. As the 10 who are present arrive, many without their essay partner, Bender quickly rearranges them.
During the class’ second “intermission,” he asks a young man whose bangs hang over his top lip what Ibsen’s message was.
“Um, Christmas?” the boy supplies after a painful pause.
“Why would the playwright set the play at Christmas?” Bender asks. (“I was looking for choices for him,” the teacher explained later. “He had some possibilities, but he was stuck.”)
The question elicits lots of discussion. Because it’s a time when on the outside protagonist Nora’s family looks happy and united, a young woman chimes in.
With their secret contents, Christmas presents could be a metaphor for the secrets inside the home, another adds.
Halfway through the class, the cadre of missing students pours into the room in formalwear. Bender quickly rearranges everyone again, orienting the latecomers to where they are in the lesson.
Ratings and suggestions
Laptop open, Hanson is watching the clock and listening to the exchanges, which she rates according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a scale used to categorize the level of abstraction of questions. She gives him high marks on virtually every one of his goals, but suggests he might put the lesson plan on the board next time so he doesn’t have to stop and repeat it.
Bender’s harder on himself. He didn’t get all the way through his plan, he tells Hanson during their post-observation session.
“So what are you going to do about it?” she asks.
“Cut down on the front end,” the period before the first intermission when students essentially proofread each other’s work, he replied. “I really want them focused on the larger issues. Are women still treated as second-class citizens? I want to get them reflecting on the relevance.”
“It’s really easy to fall into the role of being a presenter and not a teacher when you don’t have a whole lot of new things to do,” Hanson explained. “It’s going to be messy, trying to get students to be active learners.”
St. Francis has earned praise from the U.S. Department of Education, from scholars at Rutgers University [PDF], and from the American Institutes for Research and the American Federation of Teachers [PDF].
In 2006, the state House Education Finance Committee held a hearing in one of the district’s eight schools to take testimony on the program. And earlier in the current legislative session, Superintendent Ed Saxton met with Rep. Sondra Erickson, a Republican from St. Francis’ neighbor, Princeton.
Not on lawmakers’ radars
But for the most part talk about teacher assessment among state policymakers has centered on how to link evaluations to student performance. Not only is the St. Francis solution not on lawmakers’ radars, there’s a very good chance that the 2 percent set-aside that funds the program won’t make it into a final education finance bill.
It’s not clear the Education Minnesota’s St. Francis local would allow budget-cutters to chop its innovative baby, or that the district would be willing to let the program go, either.
For their parts, neither Bender nor Hanson is prepared to contemplate a return to the feedback-free past.
“We’re not just going through the motions,” says Hanson. “This is my 31st year of teaching and I have yet to teach something the same way every day. We move ahead every day and we try to take as many students as possible with us.”