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Editorial: Better than a meaningless teacher checklist

Updated: September 18, 2013 8:08AM

A key issue driving last year’s Chicago teachers strike was a new teacher evaluation system, one that for the first time judged teachers in part on how much their students learned.

Teachers still have grave concerns about that change, a new University of Chicago study has found, with some justification. But the early marks for the broader evaluation program, which launched last fall, are encouraging.

The evaluation system — specifically the part where principals frequently observe teachers and offer feedback based on a framework grounded in research — can actually help improve instruction, teachers and principals said in surveys conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Seventy-six percent of teachers said the evaluation process encourages their professional growth.

And most teachers, 87 percent, also rated their evaluator (usually their principal) as fair and unbiased, citing the detailed, objective rubric principals had to use and the clear evidence they had to present in assigning a rating. In the first year, only non-tenured teachers were rated, scores they were to receive Tuesday and Wednesday. Lower-rated tenured teachers also will receive ratings next year as part of a three year phase-in.

After years of a meaningless evaluation checklists that consistently rated the vast majority of teachers as excellent or superior, this is good news.

“I do think there is a potential here for improved instruction,” Susan E. Sporte, the lead researcher on the report to be released Wednesday, told us. “At end of first year, [teachers and administrators] were generally, genuinely optimistic, even the more negative ones we talked to.”

But the work has only just begun — and could easily unravel.

The researchers identified several problem areas. The most pressing is the burden the evaluations place on already overworked principals, who are also responsible for hiring, budgets, overseeing custodians, even ordering toilet paper. Last year, with the focus mainly on non-tenured teachers, observations alone took two to three weeks. This year, when lower-rated tenured teachers are added, observations in high schools will take six and one-half weeks.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former principal, says she takes this concern seriously and is working to relieve principals of some administrative jobs. There’s little doubt she is sincere but we wonder just who is available to take over these responsibilities.

The worry, of course, is that the evaluations and follow-up feedback will get short-shrift, undermining the promise of the whole enterprise of trying to improve teaching.

The U. of C. report also identified deep unease among teachers over using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness. This year, 25 percent of an elementary teacher’s evaluation is based on student growth, jumping to 30 percent next year. This is reason for concern. Researchers have noted great variability in this measure, showing how one teacher can produce great student gains one year and modest ones the next. There are also concerns about fairly rating special education and teachers of non-core subjects.

But the early results here in Chicago do not suggest that test scores are unfairly hurting probationary teachers, the group rated this year. With 75 percent of their ratings based on observations, their ratings did not change significantly from last year. Just 2.9 percent were rated unsatisfactory, up from 0.7 percent the previous year. Fewer teachers also ranked in the top tier than under the old system. We wonder, in fact, why there wasn’t a bigger change in the rankings of teachers from last year. It’s something to keep an eye on.

Next year, when CPS will begin rating tenured teachers, early data suggests significantly fewer teachers will earn the top ranking and more will cluster in the middle two categories, called “proficient” and “developing.”

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