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Minnesota hopes to avoid Chicago’s pitfalls with teacher evaluations

Whatever its final recommendation, the Minnesota group’s proposal is likely to be much more nuanced than the one at issue in Chicago.

One of the thorniest issues for striking Chicago teachers is the Chicago Public Schools' plan to tie teacher evaluation to students' test scores.
REUTERS/John Gress

Like a growing number of states enticed by the prospect of federal grants, Illinois and Minnesota both have new laws on the books mandating the creation of teacher evaluation systems that take student performance data into account.

In Chicago, the proposed evaluation system is behind the thorniest of the impasses in the week-old teachers strike. The tests, Chicago Teachers Union leaders insist, will not measure teacher effectiveness yet will cost up to 6,000 teachers their jobs over the next two years.

The angriest among them have accused Chicago Public Schools of wanting to shed the jobs as part of a move to close dozens of schools and funnel the displaced students into non-union charter schools. Not true, CPS leaders counter, noting that for decades virtually all teachers have been rated satisfactory.

Minnesota teachers nervously watching

Minnesota teachers, quite understandably, are watching nervously. By 2014, they will be evaluated annually, with student test results making up a third of their score.

The evaluation systems called for in both places are built around so-called value-added tests, which measure how much a student learned during a given year, and in theory anyhow, by extension can identify the most and least effective teachers.

So does this mean the Chicago strike is a harbinger of what could happen here?

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No, education policymakers, district leaders and union officials agree. So far, Minnesota has avoided the potholes that ignited the issue in Chicago.

The biggest difference is the stakes, said Dave Heisted, director of research, evaluation and assessment for Bloomington Public Schools and a member of the state task force assigned to create an evaluation system Minnesota districts can adopt.

Under the system proposed in Chicago, underperformers could be fired after two subpar evaluations. Teachers in areas where standardized tests are not given will be evaluated on building-wide scores. And if union brass are to be believed, no accommodations will be made for influences such as student poverty, special ed status or ability to speak English.

Brenda Cassellius

In Minnesota, the task force has recommended to state Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius that the evaluation system under construction be separate from decisions about tenure, compensation and firing.

“There’s no proposal to hire or fire on the basis of value-added tests,” said Heisted. “Our recommendation to the commissioner is to keep to low-stakes use of data.”

Past evaluations inconsistent

In the not too distant past, schools were woefully inconsistent about evaluating teachers. Frequently they were assessed at the start of their careers when their status was probationary but rarely, if ever, after that. Those evaluations that have taken place have too often been a single short “drive-by” observation by the principal, who often knew little about discerning effectiveness.

And the student tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act only added a layer of paranoia. Schools and districts were judged to be failing if too few students scored as proficient, giving administrators and politicians a cudgel to wave at teachers who didn’t bolster the bottom line.

The advent of the value-added tests, which measure an individual student’s growth over time, promised both to help teachers pinpoint kids’ skills gaps and to make it possible to identify teachers who consistently achieve more — or less — than a year’s progress at a time. Barack Obama and his education secretary, onetime CPS head Arne Duncan, offered cash-strapped states big incentives to start using the data.

The best use of the data, in Heisted’s opinion and that of other local assessment experts, is to identify both student skills gaps and highly effective teachers whose practices should be emulated. Teachers will need time to come to see the data stream as a tool for growth instead of a punitive weapon.

To that end, Minnesota is moving more slowly than Chicago in part to give educators time to see that properly implemented evaluations can be used to help teachers improve their performance, he said.

Illinois lawmakers voted in 2010 to require that student achievement data make up at least 30 percent of teacher evaluations by the 2016-2017 school year and to streamline the process of firing underperformers. When Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in January of 2011, he announced plans to roll out the evaluation in his city this fall, four years early, and to base 40 percent on test scores.

A few months later, Minnesota lawmakers voted to require 35 percent of evaluations, made mandatory for the first time, to be based on student performance. Because the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton deadlocked on all but the biggest policy prescriptions, a task force was appointed to work out the details.

In addition to Heisted, the panel is populated by teachers, administrators, union leaders, parents and others with a broad range of views. Minnesota school districts are free to come up with their own evaluation systems provided they fulfill the law, or they can use the system it is slated to recommend in January.

Consistency a key for Minnesota group 

The group is likely to insist that unlike the Chicago model, all evaluators receive training to ensure consistent results and that all teachers, not just underperformers, set goals for professional development and document their progress. Also, it is likely to want mechanisms to assess student growth in non-tested subjects, such as music or phys ed, so that teachers are evaluated on their own work and not their peers’.

Whatever its final recommendation, the Minnesota group’s proposal is likely to be much more nuanced than the one at issue in Chicago. Heisted and the Bush Foundation have been working with the Madison-based Value Added Research Center for several years to find meaningful ways to tie student data to districts and schools, individual classrooms and teachers and even the teacher’s training program.

In the process, assessment experts here have figured out how to adjust the data to account for such variables as student poverty, special education status and English-language ability. So far, they have learned that accumulating information for three years makes it possible to identify outstanding teachers whose practices merit study.

Crucially, in some districts the teachers union has been in on the whole process. This will be the second year where Minneapolis teachers are observed by trained, certified assessors using a series of standards of effective teaching developed with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

The observations were piloted by 1,000 teachers last year, with the MFT soliciting feedback that was used to tweak the process going forward. This year, all teachers will be observed and given their own students’ test scores to study in private [PDF]. Administrators will only have access to school-level data.

Students will be surveyed, and their opinions shared with teachers only. If things go the way MPS leaders hope, teachers will decide to compare notes and share useful strategies, said Maggie Sullivan, administrator of strategic planning.

“We really want to make sure this is useful to teachers,” said Sullivan. “The MFT has been a great source of feedback for us because they hear from a lot of teachers.”

Trust issue important

Lynn Nordgren

And a lot of what they hear, according to MFT President Lynn Nordgren, is fear of a “gotcha model” and hunger for meaningful feedback. “It’s partly an issue of trust,” she said.

“We’re interested as teachers in having this flattened out so it’s not top down,” said Nordgren.  “We know that if we have a model that’s not based on fear, people will be more accepting. In order to get there, we need multiple means to get that data.”

So far, principals have had more struggles than teachers with the evaluation model under construction in Minneapolis, she added. The sheer number of hours required to conduct good evaluations is one issue.

Nordgren is concerned that MPS’ and Minnesota’s collaborative works-in-progress could still become gotcha models. “It’s not a done deal,” she said.

Helen Fisk is head of Global Academy, a high-performing Columbia Heights charter school where she can hire and fire at will. “How our students do on standardized tests is, of course, very important to us,” she said. “But I actually haven’t ever had to have a conversation with a teacher about test scores.”

Her teachers meet in teams and talk about the scores as part of an ongoing conversation about student performance. But low scores are never the first sign that there’s a problem with an instructor.

“If a teacher has trouble getting kids to perform well on standardized tests, there are other issues,” she said. “They can’t manage their classrooms, they have discipline problems. It’s kind of a package deal.”