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Unpacking the Strib’s teacher-eval story — and a puzzling MPS response

There is a tremendous amount of chatter on the interwebs. If you can tear yourself away from the election, I commend you to it.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson

Did you see the Star Tribune article over the weekend showing that teachers in the poorest Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) buildings on average have lower evaluation scores than teachers at wealthier programs?

There is a tremendous amount of chatter on the interwebs about the merits of everything from the way the paper handled the story to the need for teacher evaluation itself. If you can tear yourself away from the election, I commend you to it.

To me, the most remarkable paragraph in the whole piece was this one:

“It’s alarming that it took this to understand where teachers are,” Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said Friday. “We probably knew that, but now have the hard evidence. It made me think about how we need to change our staffing and retention.”

Perhaps I misunderstood the quote, but I find it amazing that the superintendent implied that MPS did not have this data until the Star Tribune filed its public information request and that changes are being contemplated.

Scratch that. Let me tell you what I believe to be true. The superintendent 18 months ago called for changes to staffing and retention when she announced her Shift initiative to create the conditions that would support the transformation of those same impoverished schools. And most of the community applauded her forthrightness and the vision she communicated.

MPS’ data system

For the better part of a decade, MPS has been building an amazing system of taking in and analyzing data that is the envy of school districts all over the state. The current regime of widely lauded teacher evaluations has been in process for three years.

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But since long before that, the district has been able to discern which classrooms are posting strong gains for impoverished learners, and for that matter which wealthy classrooms are seeing so-so learning. The only thing that’s likely “new” here is whether the data generated by the evaluations jibes with the rest of the information the district takes in.

Fear-mongering notwithstanding, I’ve been hearing that teachers have been warming up to the evaluations, precisely because parts of the process yield information they can put to immediate, practical use.

And the administration’s ability to put highly effective teachers where they are needed most has been at the heart of the ugly, hard-fought contract negotiations of the last decade.

True story: In reporting one of the first MPS stories I ever wrote more than 10 years ago I sat down with the then-president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), Robert Panning-Miller. He told me emphatically that every licensed teacher who belonged to his union was equally qualified.

Data collected, but hard to get/analyze

I digress. My point is this: In national circles, Minnesota is known for having Cadillac data collection systems but being fearful of letting the information gleaned see the light of day. And maybe that’s because as long as we make the data hard to get or difficult to analyze we don’t have to “understand” the “hard evidence.”

Having now kicked the superintendent in the teeth, I think you should have a chance to hear from her. In a letter sent last week to MPS teachers, Johnson quite rightly seeks to reassure them that the district’s largest priority is to use the aforementioned data to help teachers grow.

Here’s the letter:

Colleagues,

I believe one of the most critical factors in improving student achievement is through the continued development of our teaching force. You are doing the highest-impact work in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), and it is my job to ensure that you have the tools and resources you need to excel in your role.

I want you to be aware that the Star Tribune recently requested and received aggregate teacher evaluation data. We are required by the Minnesota Data Practices Act to comply with the data request.

MPS’ General Counsel was in communication with attorneys from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) to determine the level of information that we were required to release in accordance with state law. We expect the Star Tribune to publish its story in this Sunday’s paper.

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I know you are working extremely hard to prepare our students for their futures. Teaching is a selfless profession that takes heart and demands greatness, and you deserve credit for choosing to dedicate your lives to our students. We all know that a strong education is a gateway to infinite possibilities. I visit many classrooms throughout the school year, and I am inspired by your quality work and commitment to our students’ futures. Our interest is to support you to be the best possible teacher you can be.

Throughout the data request process, we made it a priority to protect our teachers’ privacy. I want to be clear that individual teachers cannot be identified in the data, and that only school-level data was provided to the Star Tribune. 
The data provided to the Star Tribune represent information generated for school reporting purposes from Standards of Effective Instruction (SOEI) observations and student surveys. These reports, along with school-level aggregate value-added data, represent a good-faith effort to fulfill the Star Tribune’s data request.

It is my understanding that the newspaper may publish a map that displays average teacher performance by school, which will show that schools in high-poverty areas have lower average teacher performance. This type of map does not accurately reflect the diversity in skill and performance of our teachers. The story will likely include the status and significance of teacher evaluation at state and national levels.

The newspaper does not represent MPS’ interests or my personal views, so I want you to hear from me about why our teacher evaluation system is important to the success of our teachers and students.

The system is one of several components needed to make the appropriate systemic changes to accelerate growth, but more importantly, it’s in place to support all of you. The teacher evaluation system helps us:
· Identify teachers who are making significant gains with all of our students, especially our lowest-performing students so that we can learn about and replicate your practices.

It also helps us identify teachers who are not making gains with students;
give you meaningful feedback to strengthen your teaching and provide you with targeted professional development to support your professional growth;
 recruit highly-effective teachers to coach and mentor colleagues; and 
build stronger and more effective teacher teams and schools.

I hear from many of you that you welcome the opportunity to develop and strengthen your skills. You take pride in your work, and you want to be the best teacher possible for your students. This is the type of mindset and expectation I have of all of our teachers.

On occasion, there are teachers who struggle, and we provide help for them to improve or transition them out of the profession. 
Many MPS teachers have been involved in the creation and implementation of our teacher evaluation system. We couldn’t have built this system without your engagement and input.

As with any big system change, we continually adjust and improve the system to ensure it is beneficial to teachers, leaders and ultimately, our students. I appreciate hearing from teachers about this system’s successes and challenges.
Thank you for choosing Minneapolis Public Schools as the place to make a difference in the lives of students—they deserve you.

Bernadeia Johnson.