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New CPS teacher evaluations: Mixed reviews from CEO, principals, teachers

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  |  Sun-Times files

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 19, 2013 7:13PM

The first year of the new teacher evaluation system at the heart of negotiations during last year’s Chicago teachers strike worked better than expected, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said, releasing individual results Wednesday to teachers.

But as smoothly as the first round went, with teachers and principals reporting they believed the observation process was fair and could help learning, instructors also worried about how much of their evaluations would be based on standardized tests, and principals lamented the time each evaluation required to do it right, according to new findings also being released Tuesday by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The new teacher measuring tool called REACH — Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students — evaluated just the 4,000 teachers in 2012-13 with no more than three years experience using four formal observations. And since 2009, when 23.6 percent of them were rated the top “excellent” and 1.5 percent at the bottom “unsatisfactory,” they formed more of a bell curve in 2012-13 with 9.6 percent achieving excellent and 2.9 percent unsatisfactory.

This year, the districts will add the tenured teachers with average ratings to the group measured and count formal observation as 75 percent of their score, and student growth on a standardized test and a specially designed performance task as the remaining quarter. The rest of the highly qualified tenured teachers join in for the 2014-15 school year, when student growth rises to 30 percent of scores.

“REACH was designed to support teachers in their growth,” Byrd-Bennett said on Tuesday. “Many teacher evaluation systems during my career have been the ‘I gotcha’ kind of thing, ‘You didn’t do well, you didn’t do this, you didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t,’ ” Byrd-Bennett said. “The system provides teachers with pinpoint areas of improvement and strength so you can really capitalize on what the strengths are, and to focus our professional development growth opportunities districtwide and to inform principals schoolwide for what the template should be for future professional development.”

The schools chief said the consortium’s report “underscores what we believe are the positive results. And it’s not necessarily identifying anything that’s a surprise for us, but it’s validating to us.”

The consortium report found that an overwhelming number of teachers and administrators believe REACH can improve classroom instruction, saying that in the past, teacher evaluations in Chicago failed to provide principals with a way to tell any difference between strong and weak teachers, and teachers with useful feedback they could use to improve. And a large majority of teachers felt their evaluator was fair and able to assess their instruction accurately.

The consortium diverged from CPS’ sunny findings in reporting that a majority of teachers surveyed who believe that student growth still counts for too much of their evaluations, and that principals worry about the time it takes to conduct evaluations correctly — up to six weeks total at high schools, for example. Some administrators said they had to give up other duties of working directly with parents or participating in departmental meetings to get their evaluations done. Schools also said they needed more communication and support from the district, too.

“Challenges clearly remain for CPS, which must improve communication and training around teacher evaluation and also grapple with teachers’ concerns around the fairness of their ratings,” said Sue Sporte, author of the consortium’s report. “Nevertheless, it is promising that teachers and administrators believe the system has the potential to improve instruction, particularly considering that the 2012-2013 school year began with the first teacher strike in CPS in over 25 years, and teacher evaluation was a major point of contention.”

The Chicago Teachers Union, which negotiated some of the evaluation system’s terms during the strike, also worried about concerns of special education and bilingual teachers in its own report, Teacher Evaluation in Practice.

“This is what we’ve been saying all along — the evaluation system is deeply flawed,” CTU president Karen Lewis said in a statement. “Teachers don’t like the REACH testing being part of their evaluations not because we think that student outcomes are unimportant, but because these tests do not indicate how teachers are contributing to learning. The test is just a snapshot — classroom observation is still the best way to measure teacher performance.”

The CTU also said there’s “much room for growth in the ability of principals to properly evaluate teachers,” adding that principals who haven’t been trained in coaching teachers may not be able to help their staff improve.

And overall, there’s a lack of trust between the district and its employees, the CTU said, after a tumultuous year that started with the strike, ended with a record number of school closings and layoffs and segued into budget crisis.

The budget crisis could endanger what Robin Steans called “a pretty hopeful picture about this work.”

“Principals are going to need a lot of help,” said Steans, head of the education policy group Advance Illinois, which helped author the 2010 state law requiring the evaluations. “It’s going to matter how this rolls out to their tenured teachers, it matters that CPS keeps the supports and the training coming.

“Clearly based on these results, it’s an investment worth making.”


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