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School & District Management Opinion

HISD Races Forward on Teacher Eval, While Union Kvetches

By Rick Hess — May 18, 2011 4 min read
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Houston superintendent Terry Grier has been making some impressive, controversial moves--albeit mostly out of the spotlight. It’s a peculiar truism that giant districts like Houston or Clark County, Nevada, attract far less notice than much smaller districts like Washington, DC, Boston, and Newark. Anyway, last Friday, the Houston Independent School Board endorsed, 7-2, Grier’s ambitious new teacher evaluation system for the nation’s seventh-largest district. (For a terrific news account, check out Ericka Mellon’s Houston Chronicle story here.)

The new system replaces HISD’s familiar “everybody’s-doing-swell” pro forma evaluation system which, one high-ranking HISD insider told me, “rated nearly all teachers satisfactory and gave them zero useful feedback.” Under the new system, student performance (including value-added metrics and other measures of student learning) will count for about half of a teacher’s rating. The other half will be comprised of principal evaluation and a matrix of other instructional and professional factors.

The new process requires all teachers to get at least four yearly, unannounced observations. (Formerly, due to exemptions based on experience and performance, only about half the district’s teachers were evaluated each year.) In addition to student academic progress, the draft proposal calls for teachers to be judged on more than twenty factors related to instructional practice and professionalism. These are expected to include attendance, work attire, communication with parents, participation in professional training, the quality of their lesson plans, and whether they engage students in high-level work and vary instructional strategies. Each year, each teacher will be rated ineffective, needs improvement, effective, or highly effective.

Our earnest Secretary of Education opined, “The new [HISD] system uses multiple measures and incorporates student academic growth in a thoughtful and balanced way. Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”

Given my concerns about potential missteps on value-added and teacher evaluation, readers may wonder how I feel about HISD’s approach. As I’ve said before, I’ve qualms about placing too much weight on value-added scores, so I’d look askance if value-added alone winds up being close to fifty percent of anybody’s evaluation at this juncture. I think the measures of instructional and professional practice look promising, but implementation will be crucial--there’s always the nontrivial chance these can give rise to simple-minded checklists or a bureaucratic morass. And, I support using rigorous observation as an evaluative tool, but am concerned that mandating a slew of annual observations may compromise quality and generate pointless paperwork. So, I’m a big fan of what HISD’s doing in principle, but I’ll hedge my bets until I see how it plays out in practice.

More relevant, though, is that I’m much more comfortable with any of these determinations being made by HISD than by a state legislature. Why? It’s because Terry Grier and the HISD board are running a coherent organization. They’re responsible for putting this policy into effect and for its implementation. They’ll be responsible for how it plays out in practice, and will be in a position to make any necessary alterations. And, they’re designing a policy that need apply only to HISD, with its labor situation, student population, culture, curricular offerings, and so on. This gets us out of debating the “best” way to evaluate teachers and permits school districts to craft systems that make sense for them.

Of course, just because HISD’s efforts haven’t drawn national headlines, doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been the usual local grief. Susan Morris, a Garden Oaks Elementary teacher, complained at a Houston Federation of Teachers meeting, “We all see we could lose our job just because someone didn’t get it right. I feel like I’m being attacked.”

The HFT says that teachers didn’t have sufficient input, despite an expansive collaborative design process that entailed about 250 school-based committees. The final proposal reflects input from 2,600 teachers and 500 principals, as well as parents and community members. About ten teachers and principals who helped shape the evaluation system spoke in favor of it at the meeting, making the case for more regular and useful feedback and expressing their confidence in the use of student performance measures. Margaret Randall, a teacher at Lantrip Elementary, said, “I need to be ready to be valued by what my children are learning and not simply by how much I love them.”

Given the multiple measures and the collaborative process, you’d think the HFT would be celebrating, not kvetching. After all, this is the kind of collaboratively-designed, thoughtful evaluation system that the AFT national leadership has said it supports.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.