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Dallas To Pilot-Test Teacher-Evaluation System

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The Dallas school board has approved a pilot test of a new evaluation system that will take students' academic progress into account in rating teachers.

The system, believed to be the first of its kind, is the final component in the school district's plan for evaluating and monitoring student achievement and improving schools.

The first part of the school-improvement system, in place for the past three years, looks at student performance in individual schools. Schools that show the most improvement receive bonuses from a $2.4 million fund established by the district and the Dallas community.

Principals, in turn, are held accountable for using the information about their schools to create improvement plans and boost student achievement.

The district is the 10th-largest in the nation, with 145,270 students.

Rating the Teachers

Under the new pilot program, scheduled to begin in the fall, the school district will use the same database to rate each of its 8,000 teachers.

The goal, district officials say, is to identify the weakest 20 percent of the teaching force and target staff-development and mentoring programs to help them. The top 40 percent of teachers in the district would be evaluated every three years, and the remaining 40 percent would be evaluated annually.

District officials maintain that they have made the system fair by factoring in variables that affect student achievement, including class size, student mobility, socioeconomic levels, language proficiency, and gender.

The district's teacher organizations oppose tying teacher evaluations to student performance, arguing that teachers will be held accountable for factors they cannot control.

"This program says they can reduce your teaching effectiveness to a number, based on a formula which is supposed to level the playing field," said Maureen Peters, the president of the 3,200-member Alliance of Dallas Educators, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

"No matter what characteristic your student has, he is put through a mathematical-formula processor and comes out homogeneous," she said.

But the new system is necessary, Superintendent Chad Woolery said, because the state classroom-observation system now used to evaluate Dallas teachers takes into account only what a teacher does--not whether it works for students.

"This is a support model, but our teacher groups would make it a test-score model," Mr. Woolery said. "Instead of treating every teacher the same, we'll be investing lots more resources, time, and training to those in high need.

"This is a scary thing for some of our teachers," he said, "because there isn't any place left to go and hide."

Focusing on Progress

The district will set a teacher-effectiveness index for each teacher, tied to the subjects he or she teaches.

Teachers who do not teach core subjects, or those who work with special populations, will not have such indexes. Instead, they will be evaluated based on obser~vations and an examination of how they perform key teaching duties.

The indexes, taking into account students' initial performance levels, will measure teachers' influence on achievement against the results of similar students in the district.

Student data to be examined include results on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a Texas basic-skills test, college-entrance tests, attendance and dropout statistics, and other measures.

Dallas administrators are working with an evaluation center at Western Michigan University to develop additional measures for evaluating teachers, including student surveys and parent interviews.

In the next few years, the district plans to move from comparing students with one another to a system that would compare their progress against a specific set of academic goals.

In the meantime, administrators set the cutoff for the lowest-performing teachers at 20 percent because the district has the resources to work intensively with only 1,600 teachers, said William Webster, the district's research director.

Ms. Peters said she is skeptical that the system will be as fair as district officials claim it will be, and said teachers will need time to work on their skills.

She also complained that the district does not plan to control for disruptive students in class. Such students, she said, have a major influence on how much all students can learn.

Mr. Webster conceded that the program is unpopular with teachers, who have no collective-bargaining rights under Texas law.

"This is probably going to be a tremendous recruitment tool for our teacher organizations," he said. "We have to face that."

"But the point is our kids are not progressing," he added, "and we need to focus on continued progress."

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