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August 26, 2012

‘Unknowns’ abound in teacher evaluations

Most districts, including Vigo, to use Department of Ed rating tool called RISE

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana teachers have many questions and concerns about a new evaluation system that places them in one of four categories — from highly effective to ineffective — and also determines whether they receive a pay raise.

The new law, which passed in 2011, requires that:

• All teachers will be evaluated annually.

• Teachers must be placed in one of four ratings categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective.

(Those in the lower two categories cannot receive a pay increase).

n The evaluation must include objective measures for student achievement and growth, such as growth on ISTEP as well as measures for non-ISTEP subjects.

“There is a lot of uncertainty and there are a lot of unknowns,” said Jim Mann, a Vigo County social studies teacher who also is running for House District 46. In the past, a student’s test scores were never part of a teacher evaluation, he said.

The state doesn’t mandate the system used, although most districts, including Vigo, plan to use an evaluation tool called RISE, which was developed by the Indiana Department of Education.

The intent of the law, according to state officials, it to provide professional development for teachers who need to improve and to reward those teachers having the greatest impact on student achievement.

Research demonstrates that the most important factor in student learning is the teacher, said Caitlin Teague, IDOE training, field support and assessment manager. “The legislation recognizes the importance of making sure all students have a really great, effective teacher in front of them every day,” she said.

How it works

At least half of the evaluation is based on teacher effectiveness criteria that look at four areas: planning, instruction, leadership and “core professionalism.” Core professionalism includes attendance, on-time arrival, policies/procedures and respect.

Principals and assistant principals will conduct extended and short observations as well as conferences as part of the teacher effectiveness component.

But another part of the evaluation involves student learning, which looks at growth on statewide tests (ISTEP) and measurable growth or achievement in other subjects.

For those who teach language arts or math, growth on ISTEP will count for 35 percent of their evaluation. That data will come from the state.

For teachers who don’t teach language arts or math, student learning will be evaluated based on “student learning objectives” that are determined locally and measured using locally developed assessments.

That’s one of the controversial aspects of the new evaluation system, said Terry McDaniel, assistant professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University. “In some cases teachers are setting their own growth model for achievement. In other cases, the state is setting it for them,” he said.

In addition, all teachers will have a component of their evaluation score, 5 percent, tied to the school’s grade in the new A-F accountability model; all teachers in the same school would receive the same rating for that measure.

Much could be at stake. Teachers in the bottom two categories — improvement necessary or ineffective — cannot receive a pay raise. Also, they must have a professional development plan monitored by a school administrator. In the law, it’s called a “remediation plan.”

Teague said there is a misconception out there that a certain percentage of teachers must fall within the two lower categories. The state has no requirements or guidelines to that effect, she said.

Teachers are concerned about the new evaluation system, McDaniel said. Some of the more experienced teachers able to retire are doing so, he’s been told by some principals. They are saying, “I don’t need this anymore,” he said.

He also believes that such quick implementation of a new, complex evaluation system is “too much, too fast” and there’s not enough research on the RISE model to show it’s an effective tool.

McDaniel believes schools should have had more time to phase in the new system “to work out all the kinks that will come about with this.”

He does agree that improvements have been needed in teacher evaluation systems.

Veteran English teacher Carol Nasser retired from Terre Haute South Vigo High School at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. The new evaluation process and other changes at the state level “tipped the scales,” she said. “I loved my job, loved the kids and I enjoyed what I taught.”

Her two children became teachers.

“All of the testing that is to come — not to mention AYP expectations — and the benefits that are being taken away equals poor morale for many beautiful and wonderful people. Teachers cannot teach any more because they are too busy gathering, making and creating data for the powers that be.”  

Vigo School Board considering RISE

On Monday, the Vigo County School Board will be asked to approve the RISE evaluation system starting this school year.

VCSC officials say they’ll make it work.

“It’s an evaluation tool. I don’t know that there ever has been or will be a perfect one, but it’s one we’ll work with the best we can, whether we like or dislike it, and we’ll continue to move forward and make it the best instrument we can for our teachers and our students,” said Mick Newport, VCSC director of human resources.

The administration has been in discussion with the Vigo County Teachers Association and there have been some minor changes adapted to Vigo County. Both the administration and VCTA believe that “if we work together, we can live with it,” Newport said. The intent of the legislation is to improve instruction for students.

“It’s the fear of the unknown. It’s something new,” said Christi Fenton, VCSC director of elementary education. “As we work through it, I think we’re going to be fine and I think we’ll be pleased with the results, because I think we are going to make better teachers and administrators.”

Currently in Vigo County, permanent teachers have been evaluated every three years, or more if a principal had concerns.

One worry is that RISE “will be a very time-consuming tool,” Newport said. Each teacher must receive at least two extended observations per year (one per semester) lasting at least 40 minutes each. There also must be at least three shorter observations of 10 minutes or more (at least one per semester).

Principals and assistant principals will do evaluations. It could be particularly time-consuming at North and South Vigo high schools, which have large numbers of teachers.

Principals will have to restructure their time and will likely have to delegate some duties, Newport said. “It’s all a learning process this first year. As we get through it, we’ll see what worked for them and what didn’t.”

In Vigo County, teacher pay will not be affected in 2012-13 because the district is in the second year of a two-year collective bargaining agreement. Vigo County and other school districts must develop a merit pay system, which would have to be approved by the School Board.

“We haven’t got that far yet,” Newport said. “It will be a long process.”

According to Fenton, the teacher effectiveness component, which looks at planning, instruction, leadership and professionalism based on principal observations, “is very similar to what we’ve done before.”

Newport stressed the goal “is not to eliminate people,” but “to help good people get better.”

He believes that “good teachers really have nothing to worry about.” They may have to do things a little differently, provide some documentation and be more focused in some areas, he said.

“There will always be those teachers that maybe we need to work with a little bit more. There always has been and probably always will be,” Newport said.

VCSC principals have been trained in the new evaluation system and have already begun observations. Once the RISE instrument is passed, they will sit down with school staff to explain it in greater detail, he said.

While VCTA and the administration have worked cooperatively, VCTA President Mark Lee still has harsh words for the new evaluation system.

“It is another supposed, better idea of Tony Bennett, passed into law by Republican legislators that want to destroy public education and take away control from local school boards and the communities that elect them,” Lee wrote in an e-mail response to a Tribune-Star query.

“In reality the requirements of the law are unworkable for all involved and punishing in nature, which was the intent of this Republican governor, legislature and supposed state superintendent of public schools. Administrators and teachers have no choice but to try and work within it, and recommend changes as it becomes clear that it is unworkable and a terrible law,” he wrote.

Perspective on measure

Bloomfield School District piloted RISE this past year. According to Superintendent Dan Sichting, it’s not supposed to be a punitive evaluation system.

“The idea is to identify teachers with weaknesses, provide professional development and improve their abilities — that’s the whole premise,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job in Indiana of doing that previously for whatever reason. We’ve not been doing as good a job as we could in raising teacher effectiveness.”

Last year, Bloomfield schools had fewer student disciplinary issues, better communication between teachers and administrators and improved ISTEP scores, Sichting said. While he can’t say RISE caused the improved test scores, he believes it was a factor.

Rebecca Boehler, a second-grade teacher at DeVaney Elementary, believes “we have to look at the positive side. It is what it is and we have to do what is best for our students. Now, we’re all just working through it together.”

She doesn’t intend to do “anything majorly different than I’ve done in the past. I’ll do what’s best for my students to make sure they get where they need to be by the end of the year.”

State Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, a retired teacher, said he opposes the new system.

Teachers are encouraged to work as a team, he said, but he believes the new, merit-based system is a business approach that encourages competition and “destroys the team concept.”

Some teachers may want the best students in their classes so they receive better evaluations and merit pay, he said. Lower-achieving students in a class may have an adverse effect on a teacher’s evaluation and the teacher’s ability to receive pay increases.

“I don’t think competition and a business model are the right thing for education,” Kersey said. He believes test scores could drop as a result.

He’s also hearing that principals are concerned “they won’t have time to do anything but evaluations.”

Mary Beth Harris, Fuqua Elementary principal for the past 15 years, said the new evaluation system “is very different than what we’ve done in the past,” but the district is providing extensive training.

For every teacher, Harris must do two longer observations and three shorter ones as well as follow-up documentation or conferences.

The evaluation instrument is quite detailed and there are many new elements, Harris said. “It’s just going to take a long time to familiarize ourselves with it.”

She believes an extra year to digest and pilot the new system would have been beneficial. Many questions arise, Harris said, and the state doesn’t always have an answer.

For Nasser, all the “number crunching” and testing “is taking great teachers away from what they do best. Much of my success in teaching had more to do with reaching the heart of the students. Many have such devastating home lives. I had to reach their souls first.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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