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Why Chicago needs strong teacher evaluations

Updated: September 12, 2012 7:07PM

Let’s think back.

Before the Chicago Teachers’ Union began striking over teacher evaluations and the teacher-recall process and other issues. Before the independent fact-finder proposed a settlement, and before the CTU took a hasty strike vote at the end of last school year.

Let’s go back even before the nationally lauded Senate Bill 7 and the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 passed the General Assembly.

The year was 2009 and the report was the New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect,” which analyzed years of teacher evaluation data, including Chicago’s. The startling finding was that more than 99 percent of teachers were rated as “excellent” or “superior,” which effectively pointed to how meaningless our evaluation systems were then. It was often a thoughtless checklist or a “drive-by” classroom observation, and it was clear that across the country, our education system was not providing meaningful support to our teachers.

On the heels of the Widget Effect and with the incentive of a $400 million U.S. Department of Education Race to the Top grant, education leaders across Illinois came together to revamp our evaluations in a thoughtful, collaborative way. School districts, union leaders, advocates and agencies negotiated the Performance Evaluation Reform Act and signed off on the substantive components of the bill. Everyone agreed that we needed a better system for evaluating our teachers.

Over the two and a half years since then, leaders from all parts of the education community have come together and worked out details of the new evaluations through the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council. On top of that, every district must convene a local joint committee of union and district members to work out specific local issues.

It hasn’t been an easy process, and it won’t be easy to implement across the state. But the reason we’ve all put so much time and energy into implementation is because it is so important.

The quality of the teacher is the single greatest school-based factor affecting student learning — and yet, we were throwing them into a classroom of children, giving them little to no support and expecting them to work miracles. We can’t afford not to support our educators with quality evaluations.

Did you hear that 100 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on a single standardized test score? Or that new evaluations will eliminate art and critical thinking in our schools? Let me just take one moment to ease any such concerns.

In Chicago, 40 percent of evaluations will be comprised of student growth on tests and 10 percent of the evaluation will be based on a student survey. That leaves 50 percent to be based on teacher practice. But this time, it will be a real look at practice. It’s based on the well-respected Danielson framework. It will include a pre-conference between the evaluator and the teacher, observation of a complete lesson, and a post-conference with opportunity for dialogue.

The teacher and evaluator will work together to identify strengths. The evaluator will have informed recommendations for professional development opportunities. There will also be at least one informal observation.

Growth is based on multiple measures or tests. Multiple assessments over the course of the year — not the Illinois Standards Achievement Test — will provide a growth measure that accounts for where students started and how much they learned, not how much they knew already when they got there. That’s key. We won’t penalize outstanding teachers who serve our lowest-performing schools.

In addition, 150 teachers throughout the city came together to help develop performance-based tasks and rubrics to inform 10 percent of the growth measure.

It is true that change can be scary. But what is even scarier is that right now, less than 10 percent of Chicago Public Schools students will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25. If we want to change the trend, we have to improve our system. Teachers were involved in the legislation and the implementation — now it’s time to embrace the system we’ve spent years developing.

Illinois Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia is chair of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee and was a lead sponsor of the Performance Evaluation Reform Act and chief co-sponsor of Senate Bill 7.

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