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

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.

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. 

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/03/2014 - 10:21 am.

    “I digress, but . . .”

    “It is essential that I include some sniping about teachers’ unions, regardless of its relevance to the story.”

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/03/2014 - 12:59 pm.

      That anecdote fit the story perfectly. That blue-collar trade labor mentality is why teaching is not considered a profession. It’s also why true teaching professionals chafe under the yoke of the NEA.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/03/2014 - 04:05 pm.

        Teaching not a profession ? “..blue collar..mentality..” ?

        I guess from your lofty perch, it’s necessary to look down your nose at others in order to maintain the pose. Of course, looking down your nose gives a strange viewpoint on whatever you see – i.e., a good deal of reality doesn’t appear in that distorted view.

        Try looking at these others as peers and you’ll see more of what there is to see.

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/03/2014 - 09:08 pm.

          Anyone that subscribes the the same rules the prescribes the work of widget makers is by definition not engaged in a profession.

          If that sounds harsh, I’m sorry, but facts don’t always lend themselves to gentility.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2014 - 10:31 am.

    Are the poorest administrators

    also in cities with the poorest students?

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/03/2014 - 12:56 pm.

      If that’s true, it’s not because some union boss put them there or made it impossible for someone better equipped to replace them.

      It’s a difference, see?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/03/2014 - 01:30 pm.

    I’m inclined

    …to have the same question, more or less, as Paul Brandon.

    I’d also be interested in just how teacher effectiveness gets measured. I suspect it’s largely through the results of standardized tests, and if that’s the case, then – once again – teachers are being evaluated on the basis, not of what THEY do, but what their STUDENTS, over whom they have virtually no control, do.

    Instead of World War II in Italy, Joseph Heller could easily have written one of my all-time favorite novels, “Catch-22,” about public schools and teacher evaluations. I can’t help but wonder what would be the effect of placing some consequences on the backs of STUDENTS for their performance on those tests. I don’t mean something that finally dawns on said student 30 years down the road: “Well, here I am, making $2 more than the minimum wage per hour. If I’d only paid attention in Mrs. Hawkins or Mr. Schoch’s class, I’d now be an executive, or millionaire software developer, or inventor.” What I mean are consequences by graduation time, including not graduating. I suspect a whole new set of concerns would emerge, and quickly, if it were students who had to succeed, or suffer the consequences.

    As it is now, there’s no motivation for students to do well on standardized tests, though there’s plenty of reason for teachers to lose sleep over those same test results. Meaning no disrespect to Ms. Johnson, her letter is boilerplate administrator-speak. “You’re noble. We support you.” Were I teaching in an MPS classroom, it’s not a letter I’d frame and hang on the wall.

    Let me also suggest that it may not be a case of “understanding” the “hard evidence…” so much as it is “acting” upon that evidence, and that doing so might well involve sending the district’s “best” teachers to its “worst” schools – a prescription that seems to be gaining some traction. Maybe teachers in Minnesota really ARE more noble than those in other parts of the country, but it occurs to me that sending talented professionals into a situation widely perceived as “lose-lose” for them, especially when it’s a situation they would not choose voluntarily, strikes me as a recipe for driving many of those same professionals out of the field.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/03/2014 - 06:39 pm.

      Evaluations

      The article covered that. “Minneapolis is one of the first districts in the state to evaluate teacher performance, judging them on factors ranging from test scores to student ratings to regular in-class critiques.”

      This statement did puzzle me though. “Burroughs Elementary ranked above average in the teacher observation category, but scored far below average among students taking the survey.” I am wondering what this says about the students and the evaluators?

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/03/2014 - 04:29 pm.

    correlation or causation?

    If the allegedly worst performing teachers are all in the schools in the poorest neighborhoods, one must wonder why MPS administrators continue to handicap the students that need the most help by giving them the worst teachers?

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/03/2014 - 06:14 pm.

      Actually…..

      The data shows what we have known for a century. Poverty has almost a perfect correlation to achievement. That is not to accept it as destiny, but to understand where the solutions must lie.

      You could take the entire staff at Edina High school, exchange them with the entire staff from North, and I guarantee the Edina kids scores would still be fine and the north kids would still struggle.

      However, in the world of the great reformers, Edina teachers are miracle workers and North teachers are vile scum.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/04/2014 - 10:58 am.

        Extrapolation

        The article says:

        “School administrators, union and district officials say high-poverty schools often have the least experienced teachers. Those schools generally have the most openings when more experienced teachers move on.”

        How did you extrapolate this to “Edina teachers are miracle workers and North teachers are vile scum”?

        The reality is that seniority allows Teachers to choose where they teach, therefore they move out of the most challenging schools when given the opportunity. And the silly “steps and lanes” comp policies limit the ability of Districts to pay Teachers more to stay in the more challenging schools.

        If districts actually had the freedom to pay Teachers on their performance and the difficulty of the position. Good Teachers at North would be paid more no matter how many degrees they had or how many years they had worked in the district.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2014 - 08:20 pm.

          There is also some data indicating

          that after three years teaching has little effect on teaching effectiveness.
          And while standardized test scores are a limited measure of teaching effectiveness, they still are the best we have. Too little is known (as opposed to believed) about what observable actions constitute effective teaching. The bottom line is still whether students learn, and that can be tested.

          And claiming that there are some inherently unobservable effects that are the really important outcomes of teaching and that characterize ‘really’ good teachers is magical thinking (also wishful).

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/04/2014 - 10:20 pm.

            Deltas

            To your point, I assume the high seniority Teachers control the steps/lanes. I always have a hard time understanding why there is such a huge compensation differential between entry level Teachers and 20 year veterans. The experienced Teacher can make more than twice what the new hire makes, even though they can be teaching the same number of kids in classrooms that are next to each other. And it is even more unfair if the young Teacher is gifted and more effective.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/03/2014 - 06:04 pm.

    Is she the worst superintendent in the state?

    Please answer this question. Why are Edina, Wayzata, Minneatonka, etc. Superintendents far outperforming Superintendent Johnson? The data clearly, clearly shows that the worst superintendents are in the poorest districts in the country, just like the worst teachers are in the poor schools within the district. If the data shows that North teachers are worse than Southwest teachers, doesn’t it follow that Minneapolis superintendents are worse than Edina superintendents?

    Superintendent has more staffing control than probably any superintendent in the sate, firing at least 200 teachers just last year. If staffing really was the problem, she should be outperforming all those wealthier suburbs.

    So, Beth, please answer the question if you would. Why is Superintendent Johnson performing so far below all of her suburban neighbors?

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 11/03/2014 - 06:32 pm.

    Fired

    Beth,
    Excellent coverage !!! What I found most interesting were the following. I am very curious if they “fired” any tenured teachers or just those in the “probation” status. That “catch them early” seems telling.

    “Minneapolis Public Schools fired more than 200 teachers last year over performance issues, more than any other year in recent history.”

    “District officials would not talk about dismissals at specific campuses.

    “We catch them early,” Nordgren said. “We don’t let them go 20 years being ineffective.”

  7. Submitted by Phil Van Schepen on 11/03/2014 - 07:29 pm.

    school board

    I can think of no bettet response to the over the top way this campaign is being run than the fact I have been contacted twice and encouraged to vote for Don Samuels even though I haven’t lived in the Minneapolis school district foru 30 years.

  8. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 11/03/2014 - 07:47 pm.

    Keep knees from jerking, just for a moment

    We all have preconceived ideas about teacher performance and school performance and unions and superintendents and administrators and the rest. There are plenty of things in the Strib story which tend to reinforce things people already believe.

    But the story gives precious little information about the actual methodology behind the evaluations. Asking what students think of their teachers, even if carefully undertaken, seems like an especially poor metric for evaluation. The best teachers are not always the most liked, and the most-liked are not always the best.

    Likewise, test scores (which are notoriously fraught with problems) seem a very poor platform for evaluating teachers, in the same way they are a poor platform for measuring students and schools. (Oh, there’s my bias showing.) And classroom evaluations must themselves be evaluated based on the credentials of the evaluators, the criteria being used, and the extent and frequency of classroom visits.

    In short, none of the three metrics listed in the article offer anything approaching objectivity on the surface, and I will need to be convinced of their validity before placing any credence in these reports. (For the record, my kids attend a school with high poverty but which fared “average” on the data presented in the article.)

    In other words, until we know more about how this data was created, we must withhold judgement on the figures being presented. This is shabby reporting on the part of the Strib, which should have made such an inquiry/explanation the focus of the story, rather than resorting to the sensational headline which may or may not be supported by meaningful data.

    I don’t doubt that evaluating teacher performance is as difficult as it is important. We all live for the day when someone comes up with an objective way to do it.

    But at this point, the article leaves me suspecting that some principals out there will be pressured to make staffing decisions based on this article (and the so-called “data”) which may or may not be in the best interest of the students.

    That is an unacceptable outcome of this media moment.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 11/04/2014 - 01:43 pm.

      Objective

      By the way, I accidentally left you a response below.

      Just curious what performance management process is perfectly objective?

      Also, please remember that the Mpls process identified good and poor teachers in all schools. So they must be adjusting ratings based on the school demographics, or rating teachers against their peers in the same school.

      Typically teachers are not rated on absolute test scores, but on years knowledge growth of the kids on their class, as compared to other similar classes.

  9. Submitted by John Appelen on 11/04/2014 - 12:06 pm.

    How old are your kids and do you speak with parents that have older kids? Some teachers get all praise, some get mixed reviews based on the style of the other parents.

    But sometimes there is consensus that a teacher is just disorganized, communicates poorly, can’t control the classroom, etc. And then you will wonder why the Union puts that employee’s job before the welfare of your kids.

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