There is a major dispute between teachers and administrators of School District 65 about the newly revised teacher evaluation system. The new system substantially changes how teachers will be evaluated using student growth. One issue that the School Board will discuss at its Dec. 3 meeting is whether or not the Board should vote on whether to approve the new system or put it on hold for this year. We think Board members should vote.
It is important to say upfront that we strongly support the view that teachers should be evaluated and that a significant part of their evaluation should be student growth. This not only makes good sense, but Illinois law requires that it be done in our school system by Sept. 1, 2016. Using student growth as one of several factors is important to assess whether a teacher is effective in improving student achievement. This information is important in making professional development decisions, tenure decisions, compensation decisions and reduction-in-force decisions.
We also think the administration has developed some features in the newly revised system that are creative and that attempt to evaluate teachers on how they are educating students across the entire achievement spectrum – those who are on track for college and career readiness, those who are above grade level, those below grade level, and those in the bottom quartile. District 65 has a diverse group of students in each classroom. Differentiated instruction is the primary means to ensure that teachers are meeting the needs of all students, at all achievement levels. Measuring whether they are in fact doing so is an excellent concept.
As much as we like some concepts of this new appraisal system, we have some concerns. A main one is that by analyzing student growth using four different achievement categories, the appraisals may be based on very small sample sizes. When there are small groups, a teacher’s evaluation may turn on how one or two students feel on the day of a test, whether they are sick or distracted. Or it may be affected by variations in test scores that are expected under the test instrument. Or it may be affected by the percent of students in an achievement category who are low-income, who have a disability or who are English proficient. Or it may be affected by other factors, including those outside the classroom.
Superintendent Hardy Murphy says the appraisal system builds in fail-safes to address these concerns. The administration has included a "Rule of 6s," under which student growth in an achievement category with fewer than six students will not be counted against the teacher. Student groups as small as six, however, will be counted. In addition, a teacher may submit a portfolio of a student’s work to the principal in a year-end review to show that a student has a year’s growth in achievement despite a poor showing on the year-end test. Longitudinal data may also be considered under certain circumstances.
The overriding issue is whether the appraisal system will produce reliable, valid results. Will the system accurately identify teachers who in fact excel, or will it identify teachers who are doing poorly as excellent. Conversely, will teachers who are rated as unsatisfactory in fact be poor teachers, or will it snare some excellent and proficient teachers. Is there research supporting this system? Should there be before it is used to evaluate our teachers and before decisions are made based on its results?
At the Nov. 6 School Board meeting, more than 200 teachers showed up to demonstrate their opposition to the new evaluation system. Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) said imposing the new system on teachers has dragged teacher morale down to an all-time low, and that the system will make it difficult for District 65 to recruit and retain excellent teachers.
We do not think these are idle comments. In a briefing paper, "Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers" (2010) by Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Linn et al., ten leading academics in the field of education said, "Adopting an invalid teacher appraisal system and tying it to rewards and sanctions is likely to lead to inaccurate personnel decisions and to demoralize teachers, causing talented teachers to avoid high-needs students and schools, or to leave the profession entirely, and discouraging potentially effective teachers from entering it."
In a similar vein, "A Survey of Approaches Used to Evaluate Educators in Non-Tested Grades and Subjects," (2011), recognizes that teacher appraisal systems "will likely have long-term consequences for the composition of the teaching force, a factor that will affect students, particularly in harder to teach schools."
The new appraisal system will have a far-reaching impact on the District’s work force – its teachers. If sound, it may be a vehicle to improve the teacher work-force. If unsound, it may imperil it. When everything is said and done, teachers are the ones who are educating our children. It is important that a teacher appraisal system produce reliable, valid and fair results. Given the significance of this issue, we think the School Board, as the elected representatives of this community, should weigh in and vote.