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Teaching Profession

Contract Yields New Teacher-Evaluation System

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 15, 2011 12 min read
Fourth grade teacher Melissa Rhone leads students in a grammar lesson. She calls the new teacher-evaluation system being used in the New Haven, Conn., schools a "reality check."
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When Melissa Rhone returns to her 4th grade classroom in the Brennan-Rogers School after a brief interruption, her students greet her jubilantly.

“Ms. Rhone, look how many compliments we got!” they say, pointing to eight lines ticked on the whiteboard by a substitute teacher, each one representing an instance of good classroom behavior.

The ticks mean even more to Ms. Rhone: They’re evidence of her growth and success as a teacher.

Last November, she received a preliminary rating of 1, the lowest level, on the district’s new teacher-evaluation system, primarily because of classroom-management issues that sprang up after a co-teacher quit early on in the school year.

But over the course of the school year, with support from instructional coaches, her principal, her husband, and some hard work, Ms. Rhone improved her performance to a 3—a good rating on the 5-point scale.

“I think maybe I used the fact that the co-teacher had left as a crutch,” Ms. Rhone said. “Getting that 1 was the reality check I needed. I couldn’t float by, not getting things in order.”

Outlined in a new contract in 2009, delineated in the 2009-10 school year, and implemented in 2010-11, TEVAL, as the system is known, requires at least three “professional conferences” between an instructional leader performing classroom observations and each teacher. The conferences help to home in on areas on strength and weakness and provide a path for improvement. The system also integrates student-achievement results.

TEVAL is only part of the district’s three-pronged improvement efforts, but it’s emblematic of New Haven’s commitment to reform in partnership with its teachers’ union.

The first data from the system were released this year. Of the system’s 1,850 teachers, 73 percent scored in the top three categories. Seventy-five teachers had scores that put their jobs in jeopardy. Thirty-four of those teachers ultimately resigned, including 16 who had tenure; others, like Ms. Rhone, improved enough to keep their jobs.

“I expected a lot of crying and weeping and [teachers saying], ‘Let’s give this person another chance,’ ” said Superintendent Reggie Mayo about the first year of results. “But the union was pretty adamant that there was no place for incompetence in New Haven.”

Of the changes in the 20,000-student district, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, David Cicarella, said simply: “It needed to be done, and it was the right time to do it.

“The public was upset about things in New Haven,” he continued. “We had to deal with the problem of ineffective teachers, of poor instruction.”

Indeed, the year-end data from TEVAL reveal what many educators find to be the best part of the system: professional learning that facilitates better teaching.

Rebecca Gratz, a high school history teacher at the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquacultural Center, is one of the “instructional managers” permitted to perform observations under the system—a category that includes principals, assistant principals, and some teacher leaders.

TEVAL, she said, has “created a structure for having really rich conversations about teaching and learning.”

Mr. Mayo and Mr. Cicarella had a cordial working relationship before the contract, but they agree it wasn’t particularly close knit. The rapport that led to TEVAL and other district reforms crystallized, like a diamond, only under the right combination of heat and pressure.

Those elements came largely from the city’s mayor, John DeStefano Jr., who had begun in mid-2008 to prod the district to consider several initiatives.

Among the ideas he circulated were a school-rating system, a metric for teacher performance, and the expansion of a “portfolio” approach to school management.

Using a new contract as the basis for advancing those reforms wasn’t the first stop on the train, though. Initially, Mr. DeStefano sought state legislation that would permit the three schools to be reconstituted—and potentially staffed with nonunion teachers. “My initial thought was that we didn’t need to change the whole system,” he said in an interview at City Hall.

Though some lawmakers initially seemed receptive, the mayor recalled entering a second meeting with legislators in Hartford, and coming face-to-face with the legislative director of aft Connecticut, which had some serious concerns about that proposal. “You walked into the room and understood the reality,” Mr. DeStefano said.

Lawmakers encouraged the district and union to work out something on their own. Ultimately, the district hired a mediator from a Chicago law firm specializing in labor issues, as it considered negotiating for changes directly with the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

Teasing Out Policy

Union leaders, too, were interested in a third way forward.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten had promised in the fall of 2008 that her union’s affiliates would consider anything except vouchers in education reform—only to watch the District of Columbia chapter become mired in a contract dispute over tenure and compensation proposals. New Haven offered a tantalizing opportunity to start afresh.

Mr. Cicarella also wanted to advance changes to the teaching profession—and despite a looming internal union election, was willing to challenge his membership to think differently.

“I did not come [to union leadership] to do the status quo,” he said. “Look, there will always be people calling about their prep period or their lunch period. But I wanted to do something different, and this was it.”

One of the earliest breakthroughs between district and union: Separating the negotiation of the policy changes from bread-and-butter issues like wage increases.

“Quite frankly, those issues are easy. Whether we get 4 percent, 5 percent, no one’s life changes because of it,” Mr. Cicarella said. “We put it aside; we had a negotiating committee do that,” while a separate team worked out the details of the reforms.

The completed collective bargaining agreement, ratified in October 2009, committed to establishing three categories of schools, with the bottom tier eligible to be operated by outside parties but still subject to the contract; a new teacher-evaluation system; and a plan to conduct annual surveys to gauge teachers’ perceptions of the school climate and atmosphere. Many of the details were to be filled in by committees of teachers, administrators, and parents.

Approved overwhelmingly by the teaching force, the contract received generally favorable reviews from pundits, a commendation from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and write-ups in major newspapers, among them Education Week.

It was met with skepticism in other quarters, though. To some observers, leaving so many aspects of the reform plans open-ended looked an awful lot like kicking the can down the road.

“We knew we did not want every single detail of the evaluation in the contract. What a nightmare—you would never get anything done,” said Joan Devlin, a senior associate director of educational issues at aft appointed by Ms. Weingarten to aid contract negotiations.

But as a consequence of that decision, Ms. Devlin added, “people assumed that this was just a joke, that we were punting it to a committee.”

Scrutinizing Principals

The process of putting meat on the contractual skeleton was not an easy one, officials acknowledged.

“What was important was a commitment that the system was set up for the development of all staff. That was easy,” said Garth Harries, an assistant superintendent brought on board to help oversee the reform committees’ work. “The hard part was building a system that met that goal, was developmental and thoughtful, but also consequential.”

Growing trust on both sides, plus a degree of pragmatism, helped get the parties to the finish line.

For instance, though teachers were very concerned about the use of test scores in evaluations, Mr. Cicarella decided that opposing that element in the system would not be productive.

“I said to everyone, ‘Forget it, that ship has sailed, we’re not pushing that back,’ ” he recalled. Instead, he pushed the parties to “make sure it’s done properly.”

Another important piece came from the district agreeing to a top-to-bottom review of performance, including principals and administrators. That element was driven partly in response to a perception, at least among the teaching force, that some of the system’s principals owed their jobs to patronage rather than talent.

Commonly held education archetypes, like the image of an aggressive, dictatorial principal, can interfere with teachers’ ability to trust an evaluation system, Mr. Harries said. “We had to include a process for addressing those issues.”

The finalized teacher-evaluation system contains several checks and balances. One unique feature requires the assignment of a jointly selected third-party “validator” to observe, along with the instructional manager, those teachers identified by November of each year as on track to receive the highest or lowest rating.

Teachers in jeopardy of getting the lowest rating, under which they can be dismissed, get an improvement plan and supports, such as coaching provided by building-level reading and math coaches, in addition to district-offered professional development.

After a full year of planning, during which district and union leaders alike met with the staff at each school to explain the complex system, the district—in an unusual move—put it into full-scale operation in the 2010-11 school year.

Though many teachers wanted a pilot, doing so risked sending the wrong message, Mr. Cicarella noted. “The public would have said we were stalling.”

Coach and Boss

Educators say that the power of the system lies in its ability to spur conversations about professional practice.

“There’s nothing [in the evaluation framework] teachers don’t aspire to or can’t improve upon,” said Daniel Wajnowski, a second-year English teacher at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, or Co-op, who attributes improvements in his ability to engage students in group work to the conversations he had with his principal, Frank Costanzo.

A challenge of performing the reviews, said Mr. Costanzo, is balancing the coaching role of supporting teachers with the understanding that a failure to improve brings consequences.

“The most important challenge was getting that ‘needs improvement’ teacher to believe in me as an instructional manager, someone who is really a coach, when you are also an evaluator, and termination is at the far end of the line,” he said.

The student-achievement component of the system, though not popular with all teachers, has won some supporters. Each teacher, in consultation with his or her principal, sets two goals for student achievement and identifies assessments to measure progress toward those goals.

“You’ve got to look more honestly at each kid in your room and to ask yourself if you’re really reaching every child,” said John Laub, a data coordinator and history teacher at Coop. “The data allows you to look at it objectively.”

Karen Lott, the principal at Brennan-Rogers, says it also helps her track how each teacher is contributing to the overall school’s progress.

Leaders are aware that the evaluation system can still be improved. The strength of the student-achievement goal-setting, as well as the quality of instructional conferences, varied somewhat by school and leadership capacity, they note.

“There are schools where it has been less thorough, or the process less developmental,” said Mr. Harries, the assistant superintendent. “Those are the schools we’re focusing on.”

And the three professional conferences also take up a lot of time. “I don’t think anyone disputes how valuable the process is, but it is time-consuming,” Ms. Lott said.

Ms. Rhone, the 4th grade teacher at Brennan-Rogers, believes that the district could improve the support system for those teachers scoring in the middle range. Colleagues who scored between a 2 and 4 were sometimes unclear about what those ratings meant, she said.

TEVAL also has room to grow for teachers who earn the highest scores. Those teachers are supposed to take on additional roles in their buildings mentoring their peers, developing curricula, and contributing to the culture of learning, though the exact avenues for doing those tasks haven’t quite been worked out yet.

“I think over time it will create more opportunities,” said Ms. Gratz of the Sound School. “In year two [of implementation], it’s hard to say.”

Playing All Innings

As efforts in New Haven mature, Mr. Mayo and Mr. Cicarella have agreed to keep the lines open, even when they have disagreements.

“I’ve said to my members, there’s two things we’re not doing. We’re not marching on City Hall and we’re not calling the media,” Mr. Cicarella said. “Some members don’t like that, but my feeling is that it’s counterproductive.”

And while neither man is sentimental about their rapport, it has evolved to include a degree of genuine affection. “This process has really made it closer, more open, more honest,” Mr. Mayo said. “David [Cicarella] is almost like an additional arm.”

As for student results, it is early yet to attribute results to the changes in the district, but it hasn’t stopped observers from making connections.

New Haven’s scores on state tests continue to tick upwards. There are also pockets of impressive gains. Co-op High School effectively eliminated the black-white reading gap in the “reading for information” part of the state test.

Leaders are frank that gains need to accelerate across the board. Mayor DeStefano notes that last year’s improvements weren’t on a trajectory to meet the district’s admittedly ambitious goal to close the black-white achievement gap in five years. But the strategy of collaboration makes sense and seems to be helping, he added.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” he said. “You’ve got to play all nine innings.”

Persistent Effort

For the future, the district plans to increase efforts in certain areas, particularly in working with community partners to provide wraparound services, boosting parental involvement, and in reinforcing a college-bound culture, notably through a scholarship program, Promise, that rewards students who maintain good grades, attendance, and behavior.

As for the teacher-evaluation system, the district will focus on monitoring progress and ensuring fidelity of implementation.

Some obstacles, inevitably, loom. New Haven has traditionally struggled with principal talent, and perhaps a half-dozen principals plan to retire at the end of the year. Not all the assistant principals are ready to take their places, Mr. Cicarella opines. Superintendent Mayo acknowledges that training those individuals is a top priority.

The mayor, meanwhile, wants the culture of collaborative reform to continue to flourish.

“Persistence of effort,” Mr. DeStefano said, when queried about the district’s biggest challenge. “Eventually, mayors will change, superintendents will change, principals will change, union leaders will change.

“I think it is the climate of change that matters,” he continued, “that it’s not dependent on a group of people or an individual, that we are able to create a ‘new normal’ of academic excellence.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher Support at Core of Affiliation


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