Teaching Profession

Teacher Evaluation Sparks Clash in Pittsburgh

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 22, 2014 5 min read
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A dispute in Pittsburgh between the school district and teachers’ union over the city’s jointly designed teacher-evaluation system shows the stark distinction between ambitious policy plans and implementation—a lesson for an active philanthropic community that has invested millions of dollars in rethinking evaluation nationwide.

“I thought we were partners in reform, but the partnership [with the union] has been rocky, let’s just say that,” Superintendent Linda S. Lane said. “In theory, it sounds fine, but when it gets to the execution, it’s tough.”

The disagreement concerns the 26,000-student district’s decision to set the bar so that an estimated 9 percent of teachers would receive the lowest evaluation score. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers insists that that figure is too high.

The new system has largely been funded out of a $40 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which nationwide has put nearly $700 million into grants to reshape the teaching profession. (The Gates Foundation also supports Education Week‘s coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)

With no immediate resolution in sight, concerns are brewing that the dispute could scotch the remaining $15.8 million in the grant, though the Gates Foundation indicates that the funding is not yet in jeopardy.

Scoring Snafus?

The union and district spent four years devising a new evaluation system—the centerpiece of a new approach to teacher promotion and pay in the city. It influenced the shape of a 2010 teachers’ contract, hailed then as a landmark agreement and proof of what a collaborative relationship could yield.

Those paper victories appear to be falling victim to reality.

At issue is where to set the score benchmarks to determine whether teachers pass or fail their evaluations. Ms. Lane said she has twice lowered the bar on the assessment in response to teachers’ concerns.

To be deemed proficient, teachers now need to earn at least half of the 300 total points available on the system, which couples several observations of teachers with data from student test scores and surveys. Those scoring fewer than 140 points would earn a “failing” rating, a designation that can trigger dismissal after two years.

Last year, in a dry run of sorts for the evaluation system, the district gave teachers an advanced look at how they’d fare. Under the score benchmarks set by the superintendent, some 9 percent of teachers would have been in the lowest category. Eighty-five percent would have passed muster, while another 5 percent would have been in the second-lowest category.

The union protested, contending that at that level, the number of teachers deemed failing would be 10 times higher than the national average, thought to be below 1 percent of teachers.

Representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expressed disappointment at the impasse, declaring the evaluation framework “one of best in the country for supporting, developing, and evaluating teachers.”

“It is now time for implementation, and I am frankly puzzled about why there would be objections to this very approach that gives even the lowest-performing teachers intensive support and two years to improve their practice,” Vicki Phillips, the director of Gates’ college and career-ready strategy, said in a statement. “We have not made any decisions about the future of the grant, but we are continuing to watch this very carefully.”

Tension Mounts

It is not the first quarrel between the district and the union over teacher-related policies. In 2011, Ms. Lane scuttled a program for preparing new teachers after she could not get the union to agree that graduates would be sheltered from seniority-based layoff policies in the contract. A year later, the two again sparred over whether the data gathered on teacher performance should be factored into furloughs.

Teachers have received “value added” information on their performance, but while that data now count towards bonus pay and promotion, it only this year began to be factored into evaluations.

Some of the tension might be reflect the changing context in Pittsburgh. Both the superintendent and union chief who negotiated the Gates-funded plan have since moved on.

The national appetite for such initiatives has changed, too, with more teachers criticizing evaluations based on test scores and the role of the Gates Foundation and others in funding those systems.

The leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the Pittsburgh union is an affiliate, has itself been growing gradually more critical of testing. Its president, Randi Weingarten, cited the Pittsburgh situation as one factor behind her recent decision to oppose the use of value-added information in teachers’ reviews.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, could not be reached for comment. In an interview last November, she acknowledged the difficulties the district and union have faced in implementing the grant.

“We had the fun part of creating an imaginative statement about teaching; we inherited the tough part of rolling it out,” she said. “I think we’ve done amazingly well, but not as well as I would have liked, frankly, in implementing this expansive project.”

Even if the dispute results in still more changes to the system, the union will have to stomach the inclusion of some measures of student learning, since Pennsylvania enacted a law in 2012 requiring annual evaluations that factor in such information.

Philanthropy Lessons

It’s not unheard of for philanthropies to withdraw their funding, and if Gates chose that option, it would not be the first time even for Pittsburgh. In 2002, three local foundations suspended funding for the district, citing a dysfunctional relationship between the school board and superintendent.K-12 philanthropy has exploded since then, and funders have become far more deeply engaged in political work, such as supporting advocacy groups that can pave the way for their favored reforms.

Nevertheless, “the funders themselves are at least one step removed, and so the threat to leave is sort of the last straw that they have,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University, and the author of a 2012 volume on education philanthropy. “It does show how they’re not quite at the table themselves, so they have to nudge in different ways.”

For now, Superintendent Lane says she will not back down from the evaluation cutoff points that have been approved.

“I’m still a firm believer that there is a correlation between effective teaching and student learning outcomes,” she said, citing data showing that students making significant learning gains are twice as likely to be taught by top-rated teachers. “Because if we don’t believe that, I think we’re done.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Union, District Clash in Pittsburgh Over Teacher Evaluation


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