Teacher Reforms Linked To Evaluation Systems

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On Jan. 26, a Thursday, Robert C. Graeff, the principal of Morgan E. Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, Fla., sat in the auditorium of a Tampa high school, craning his neck with 500 others to see one of four television screens placed on the auditorium stage.

The previous Friday, the state had directed its school systems to select administrators to help evaluate applicants for incentive pay under Florida's new master-teacher plan. Because of a tight time schedule, those chosen, the state said, were to take a preliminary test of their ability to rate teachers the following Thursday. Mr. Graeff wasn't asked to volunteer to be an evaluator until Tuesday, two days before the test.

In the auditorium, he spent an hour straining to focus on the videotape that was shown of teachers at work in a classroom and trying to analyze their teaching strengths and weaknesses. Then he took a one-hour examination on teaching skills. Mr. Graeff and others will soon take a second two-part test to determine whether they qualify to be certified by Florida to evaluate master-teacher candidates.

Mr. Graeff called the state's handling of things in January "haphazard," an opinion shared by others.

"The whole thing was done so quickly that we weren't sure who to send to Tampa to take the exam," said Sylvia Anne Wilson, an official of the Pinellas County school system, where Mr. Graeff works.

Pinellas County decided to select volunteers at different grade levels in each geographic area of the school system who had experience with Florida's new system for evaluating beginning teachers.

Few Effective Systems

Calls for rewarding talented teachers with higher pay and opportunities for promotion have gained widespread attention during the past year as policymakers struggle to find ways of raising the caliber of teaching in the public schools.

Although it was just a year ago that the terms "career ladder," "master teacher," and "merit pay" began to draw national attention in the wake of a dramatic proposal by the governor of Tennessee, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell recently reported that master-teacher plans are under consideration or in development in 33 states.

And as of last October, the Education Commission of the States had already published a "Pocket Guide to Rewarding Teachers for Performance" that outlined proposals under development in a number of states and included "Ten Do's and Don'ts" for establishing career-ladder systems for teachers.

But scenarios such as the one in Florida are unsettling, say those who study the teaching profession, because teacher evaluation is the key to workable master-teacher plans. The success of current efforts to redefine the way teachers are rewarded depends directly on the ability of states and school systems to find fair and reliable ways of selecting the teachers who are to be promoted and paid more.

"All of the reforms are only as effective as the appraisal systems they're based on," said Jeffrey S. Kane, professor of management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "If they are based on feet of clay, they will crumble."

Creating such systems will be a daunting task, experts say, largely because schools have paid so little attention to the evaluation of teachers until now. As a result, they contend, policymakers may be dooming their efforts by rushing to put master-teacher plans in place without adequately thinking through the evaluation issue.

"The standard evaluation drill is a short classroom visit or two a year by an inadequately trained principal who is looking for neat desks and clean blackboards," said Gary Sykes, a doctoral student at Stanford University who has followed the teaching profession closely. "It is next to worthless and it certainly wouldn't be able to support the kind of reforms being discussed today, with their requirement that good teachers be distinguished from excellent ones."

"In the vast majority of school systems, evaluation is strictly pro forma," added Arthur Wise, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation. Mr. Wise and a colleague, Linda Darling-Hammond, are completing a study of evaluation systems in 32 school districts.

Difficult to Assess

Observers offer a number of reasons that few effective evaluation systems exist today. For one thing, they say, the characteristics of a good teacher are hard to measure.

Although many who support the career-ladder concept--including the Secretary of Education--suggest that school policymakers look to higher education for the model of how such systems could work, the fact is, some researchers argue, that teachers cannot be ranked as scholars are. Evaluation of professors, they point out, is largely based on such tangible criteria as their research and their published books and articles, and very little on classroom performance. But a diametrically opposite situation pertains for classroom teachers--and judging the act of teaching is far more difficult, they say.

"Many of the goals that teachers strive for are inherently difficult to assess," said Mr. Sykes. "So it is difficult to be sure if what a teacher is doing represents good practice or not. We focus on what we can assess, but in doing so, we are guilty of mistaking the part for the whole."

Added James A. Fleming, an assistant superintendent in Dade County, Fla., where a new, more rigorous evaluation system is being tested in 32 schools: "We used to have a tally sheet with eight categories and a ranking scale of 1.0 to 5.0. If you asked me what a 4.4 meant, I couldn't tell you. Teaching and learning are just very hard to capture objectively."

Joseph Vaughan, who studies the teaching profession at the National Institute of Education (nie), noted that while researchers have over the past decade identified a number of the basic elements of good teaching, they are just beginning to find ways of measuring a teacher's ability to impart more complicated skills, such as critical thinking. The widely used checklists emphasizing the way a teacher dresses and the cleanliness of his or her classroom reflect this lack of research, many say.

A Low Priority

Many educators also acknowledge that the evaluation of teachers has been a low priority. It is costly for school systems to train evaluators. Principals, especially those in large schools, say it takes an inordinate amount of time to evaluate a teacher properly--time they do not have.

Teachers' unions have traditionally not pressed for stronger evaluation procedures because they have considered evaluation a "management" responsibility. And because stricter evaluation measures could make it easier to document cases against ineffective teachers, and thus increase the likelihood of their dismissal, they conflict with the unions' responsibility to protect their members, others note.

An official of the United Teachers of Dade said the union was "biting the bullet" when, in the face of strong public pressure, it agreed 16 months ago to endorse the new evaluation system in the Dade County school system.

"Rarely is anybody doing anything to ensure evaluations are being done well," said Jon Schaffarzick, a former nie official who as a consultant is designing an incentive-pay and evaluation plan for the Fairfax County school system in Virginia. "Only in the case of gross incompetence do teachers not get satisfactory ratings. Evaluations don't matter much in most places; they often just get filed."

Paying and promoting teachers strictly on the basis of seniority and academic credentials and granting them tenure automatically at the end of three years of service, practices followed in almost all school systems today, contribute to this situation, many note.

Reflection of Standards

Poor performance in teacher evaluation reflects, some critics suggest, a lack of accountability and low, poorly focused standards in American education today.

"If we don't attend to performance, we are sending a signal that performance is not important," said Philip C. Schlecte, a special assistant to the superintendent of schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., who is implementing the widely publicized master-teacher plan there. "Evaluation is crucial. It is the most important way for school systems to communicate expectations and standards. The problem is that a lot of school systems don't have any idea of what they are trying to accomplish."

Approximately half of the states have laws or regulations requiring the evaluation of teachers. But they are not vigorously enforced, educators say. The evaluation issue has already been controversial in states that have begun to implement changes in the way they reward teachers.

Failure to Agree

In Florida, a task force appointed by the legislature last year to implement the state's new master-teacher program has not been able to agree on how to screen applicants, prompting Governor Robert Graham to draft his own set of eligibility requirements.

Unhappy with the Governor's criteria, the 4,000-member Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association began a boycott of the master-teacher plan and is encouraging other teachers' unions in the state to follow its lead. Under the 1983 law that cre-ated the plan, the three-person teams that will evaluate master-teacher candidates must include teachers. The first group of candidates must apply for master-teacher status by April 2; they are scheduled to be selected next fall.

Garfield W. Wilson, a Florida education official who is coordinating the selection of master teachers in the state, said, "a lot of the [selection criteria] were picked up from various plans around the country without finding out how valid they were."

To become a master teacher under the Florida plan, a teacher must have four years of teaching experience, have no "unexcused absences" in two of the past three years, pass a subject-area examination, hold a master's degree, and then pass the three-person evaluation.

Pressure in Tennessee

In Tennessee, a consultant hired by the state's department of education to review the evaluation procedures that will be used under the state's master-teacher plan, resigned in December because she felt the state was moving to implement the procedures without first ensuring that they were reliable.

"Because of the political pressure they are under from the Governor and the commissioner [of education] to get the system in place by September, they haven't been able to proceed with any kind of scientific rigor," Susan J. Rosenholtz, the consultant, said last week. "It will be virtually impossible to develop reliable evaluation standards between now and then." Ms. Rosenholtz is an assistant professor of education and sociology at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville.

Key Questions

Those addressing the evaluation issue are still struggling to answer the key questions.

First, on what basis should teachers be evaluated? Representatives of the business community on the Florida master-teacher task force have insisted that teachers should be judged on the performance of their students. The Houston school system pays its teachers incentive bonuses on this basis.

But others note that many factors other than the teacher influence a student's academic development, and as a result it is unfair to evaluate a teacher's performance on his or her students' test scores.

"Test scores should be viewed as corporate profits," said Mr. Schlecte of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. "You hold the chief executive officer responsible for them, not the first-line people."

a controversial move, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas earlier this year announced his intention to evaluate the state's teachers on the basis of their performance on standardized tests in the subjects they teach.

Criteria Should Vary

Many suggest that the criteria used to evaluate teachers should reflect the particular goals of school systems and therefore should vary from school system to school system.

"Some will want to encourage individual goal setting among their teachers; others, especially where the caliber of teachers is low, will want to be more prescriptive," said Mr. Sykes. "You certainly don't want to use student test scores in districts where teacher initiative is prized. Along the same lines, you'd probably want to evaluate experienced teachers on the basis of their accomplishments, while with new teachers you would be checking to see if they had basic competencies."

Role of Evaluators

There is also disagreement over who should do the evaluating.

Principals, after receiving training, will continue to conduct evaluations under Dade County's new evaluation system. On the other hand, the Toledo Public Schools three years ago initiated an unusual program for new teachers and those not performing well that relies on senior teachers to evaluate novice teachers and to decide whether they should be rehired.

But, as in Florida, most of the evaluation systems being developed to support new master-teacher experiments call for teachers to be judged by teams of evaluators.

"The days of the principal sitting in the back of the classroom are over," said Jay Robinson, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where next September some 250 new teachers and a few veterans will be the first to participate in the system's new career-ladder plan. "It's absolutely too critical an area to leave in the hands of one person, no matter how much we train him."

Extended Evaluation Period

In an effort to eliminate the arbitrariness of most existing evaluation schemes, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Florida, Tennessee, and elsewhere, teachers will be promoted on the basis of a series of evaluations over an extended period by a three-person team consisting of a principal, a master teacher, and a specialist in the teachers' subjects.

According to the architects of those plans, the evaluation teams will judge teachers' classroom performance on the basis of new, more comprehensive sets of criteria--ranging from knowledge of subject matter to the construction of test questions--that have been linked through research to higher student achievement.

"You can't remove subjectivity from teacher evaluation, nor can you solve that problem by coming up with strict numerical standards," said Mr. Sykes. "The perfect evaluation system for a test and measurement person would be a nightmare for school systems to implement."

"But by pooling the opinions of those with a lot of experience and good judgment, school systems can make dependable employment decisions," he said.

Several states, including Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma, have in the last few years set up similar teams to work with and evaluate first-year teachers. And teachers who have been through the programs seem to appreciate them.

Said Christy Robinson, a 2nd-grade teacher from Oklahoma City: "Having people in your classroom all the time--especially another teacher--during your first year is a lot better than being left to sink or swim on your own. I'm a better teacher for it. When you are starting out, you need all the help you can get."

Teacher Involvement Still Rare

Few school systems currently provide teachers a role in evaluating their colleagues. In fact, in many states collective-bargaining laws prohibit teachers from participating in employment decisions concerning other teachers.

But most of the new evaluation plans call for master teachers, as part of the evaluation teams, to make such professional judgments. The rationale is that this approach will reduce the favoritism that many teachers complain of under existing evaluation procedures, will encourage the profession to assume a greater responsibility for policing its ranks, and will offer teachers evaluators who are more familiar with the material being taught.

The Florida master-teacher law was written to supersede the state's collective-bargaining law.

Secretary of Education Bell advocates teacher participation in the evaluation process in a model master-teacher plan he is circulating to educators across the nation.

Unions Shifting

Even the teachers' unions, under intense public pressure since last summer to ease their resistance to modifying the traditional single-salary schedule and to help upgrade their ranks, now support a role for teachers in the evaluation process.

"To the extent that teachers can be involved, the process can be made richer," said Sharon Robinson, director of professional development at the National Education Association. "The traditional labor-management relationship precluded a role for teachers. But we now have a chance to see if that relationship can be changed."

Help Welcomed

Many teachers say they would welcome the helpful feedback that Ms. Robinson, the Oklahoma City teacher, spoke of. They say the inability to share ideas and seek mutual solutions to classroom problems is a major frustration in their work.

But, as the boycott by Pinellas County teachers in Florida suggests, they are skeptical that the new evaluation systems being developed to support master-teachers plans can be made to work.

"Most teachers here are very nervous," said Olin T. Flowe, president of the Charlotte Federation of Teachers, of the master-teacher plan soon to be implemented there. "They know they've got to do something to win the public's confidence, and they would like the plan to work. But they know from experience that it very well may not."

One common element of the new evaluation systems is a greater commitment of resources to the task.

In Dade County, where principals participating in the pilot project are expected to conduct a series of carefully documented evaluations of each teacher in their schools with a lengthy evaluation instrument, Bessie Gibson, principal of North Miami Beach High School, said she would spend 136 hours in teachers' classrooms and 45 hours filling out evaluation forms this year under the new system.

"It's time consuming, but it has to be a priority. Principals will have to adjust," she said.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system will spend $400,000 this spring to train nine new evaluators and pay their salaries, according to the superintendent, Mr. Robinson.

"The bottom line is cost," said Mr. Schaffarzick. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to do the job right. But if you don't put much into it, as is the case in most school systems, you won't get much out of it that you can use. The question is, 'Will school systems begin to commit the needed resources?"'

Incompetent Teachers

Some are enthusiastic that the greatly increased amount of classroom observation envisioned in the new plans will result in far fewer incompetent teachers receiving tenure.

In Dade County, where the school board will vote in April whether to expand its pilot evaluation project to all 251 of its schools, the new evaluation procedures are designed specifically to make it easier to build an effective case against incompetent teachers.

Between 1981 and 1983, the school system tried to dismiss 280 teachers for inadequate performance, but two-thirds of the cases were thrown out of court for procedural violations, officials said.

The courts are overturning an increasing number of such cases across the country on the same grounds, others note.

"If we are effective, the odds of getting tenure without having an ability to teach ought to be darn small," said Mr. Schlecte of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where teachers will receive almost weekly classroom visits and nine formal evaluations during their first two years and will not receive tenure until at least their fourth year. But where more rigorous evaluation procedures are applied only to senior teachers seeking incentive pay--such as in California, where a "mentor teacher" plan went into effect in January--the chances of unqualified people remaining in the profession are greater, observers say.

Cautious Enthusiasm

Proponents of stronger teacher evaluation say they are encouraged by the fact that the current interest establishing master-teacher systems is forcing educators to pay attention to the evaluation issue. But as the first experiments with supposedly more sophisticated evaluation procedures are launched, they remain cautious about the potential success of the systems.

"Do we have a plan that will work?" said Russell French, director of the master-teacher program in Tennessee, where new models for evaluating teachers will be field tested beginning in April. "That's a good question. Ask me again in about four months."

Vol. 03, Issue 26

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