In Anchorage, District Sets Out To Involve Parents in Evaluation

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When Alaska legislators asked all 53 school districts in their state to incorporate parent feedback into their teacher evaluations, the largest district took the message to heart.

Even as most smaller districts chose simpler approaches--taking out newspaper ads inviting parent reactions or putting comment forms in school offices, for instance--Anchorage opted to mail surveys to the parents of all 50,000 of its students.

Last year, officials here spent countless hours and almost $70,000 to shape and mail the forms to parents in the system's first such districtwide initiative. For their efforts, they were rewarded with an average of just three or four survey responses per classroom--not nearly enough to give principals a reliable sampling of opinion.

Undaunted by the meager return, district leaders are trying again this year. They've trimmed forms and simplified questions, and say they're hopeful the mailers they plan to send parents this month will ultimately yield useful information about teacher performance and foster greater parent involvement.

"The school board and superintendent are trying to meet the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law," board member Kathi Gillespie said, noting that the district is soliciting student feedback as well. "It's just like how a restaurant would ask: 'How's our service? Was it good, fair, or poor?'"

Nationwide, about one of every 100 districts has some method of asking parents to assess the job performances of teachers and administrators, said Richard Mannatt, the director of the School Improvement Model Center at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

'Let's Talk'

Florida districts are seeking comment from parents for the first time this year, thanks to a state law passed in 1997 that requires districts to provide some vehicle for parent feedback on teachers and administrators. Alaska legislators passed a similar measure in 1996 as a part of an overhaul of requirements for teacher tenure and evaluation.

Most districts ask for parent opinions on a limited basis by making comment forms available in school offices or on the backs of student report cards, or by surveying a limited pool of parents, Mr. Mannatt said.

Anchorage officials said they decided to go districtwide with their survey, which also addresses administrators' performance, because they recognized the public relations value of asking parents for their views.

People often feel shut out of the decisionmaking process in public education, Ms. Gillespie said. "That's where this is coming from. We're opening the door and saying, 'Sit down, let's talk.'"

And if there is a high enough response rate, school leaders here say they hope to use the parent responses to identify trends in teacher performance, both good and bad, and use the information as one part of a larger evaluation process.

A teacher won't be fired because of one angry parent, said Lee Wilson, the director of labor relations for the district. "But if I have a high school teacher with 135 kids, and 80 or 90 parents say the same thing, that's a pretty good indication of what's happening," he added.

Representatives of the local parents' association here and the local teachers' union remain divided over one aspect of the parent survey: anonymity.

A Question of Anonymity

Parents who answer surveys this month do not have to sign their names to the forms, despite the Anchorage Education Association's contention that teachers should be given the opportunity to defend themselves when faced with parent criticism.

"We should be able to meet our accuser," said Erin Donahue, a 3rd grade teacher at Willowhah Elementary School who served on the union's evaluation-advisory committee. "We should be able to sit down with them and talk things through with them."

The anonymous format also provides greater opportunity for fraud, because a parent with an ax to grind could fill out numerous surveys, added Rich Kronberg, the president of the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

In the 37,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district, where parents took part in the teacher-evaluation process for the first time last spring, the comments were not anonymous. Instead, parents sent their signed survey forms directly to teachers and principals. District officials estimate that roughly one in three families participated in last spring's survey.

When educating parents about the process, Rochester officials emphasized that the survey forms were intended to improve relations between parents and teachers, said Barbara Jarzyniecky, a spokeswoman for the district.

"We did a major campaign to get this message out to parents," Ms. Jarzyniecky said. "I think that's why we did get a good response."

But representatives of Anchorage's parent association contend that most parents would be reluctant to sign such forms for fear that their children would somehow pay the price for critical comments.

Above all else, parents are most concerned about protecting their children, said Dianne Etter, the president of the Anchorage Council of PTAs. "You could never convince a parent that a negative review wouldn't somehow hurt a child," she said.

And while some teachers here complain that parents aren't able to evaluate their work fairly without spending a lot of time observing their classes, Ms. Etter said parents can often determine much of what's happening in a classroom simply by listening to their children and looking over their homework assignments.

"You don't have to see a teacher in action to see that the job's getting done," Ms. Etter argued. "You see what your student is bringing home."

Student Reviews

Using an evaluation model typical of most colleges and universities, Anchorage school officials also are asking students in grades 3 to 12 to review their teachers' performance through survey and comment forms.

Because of the limited number of parent responses last year, most principals found that the student responses were far more useful than the parents', Mr. Wilson, the labor-relations director, said.

In addition to tightening up parent surveys, district administrators this year devised an evaluation form geared to students in elementary school. Last year, teachers found that many of the younger elementary students had trouble understanding some of the language on the survey forms.

Many principals said the student assessments were especially useful when they backed up their own observations of teachers' strengths and weaknesses. Particularly with students in junior high and high school, "more often than not, the kids were on target," Mr. Wilson said.

As a result of the changes to the evaluation system, last year three tenured teachers who were identified as low performers quit rather than undertake the district's lengthy teacher-improvement process. District officials had only been able to fire one tenured teacher for incompetence in the past 10 years, and they point to the resignations as proof that the new system is working.

"When tenured folks who have been in neutral for years realize they're reachable, that's significant," Mr. Wilson said.

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as In Anchorage, District Sets Out To Involve Parents in Evaluation
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