How should we evaluate teachers?

September 13, 2012

With our office in downtown Chicago, members of the Century staff are becoming used to the drifts of red-shirted teachers moving about the streets, some with placards, some with their families, most looking energized and purposeful—though that may well change if this strike continues. On the fourth day of the strike, the power play between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis is wearing thin on many Chicagoans as they weave their way around rallies to delayed and rerouted buses and trains.

Lewis says that 43 issues are keeping the strike unresolved; the school board claims that only two issues remain. One is the protocol for rehiring teachers who have been laid off. The knottier one is teacher evaluation. In a panel discussion on PBS affiliate WTTW’s show Chicago Tonight, Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, notes that the current evaluation system is 40 years old—and adds that it doesn’t work. According to data on teachers’ evaluations from 1997, says Knowles, 99.7 percent of the teachers in the Chicago Public Schools were rated “satisfactory or distinguished.” 

How can almost all of a district’s teachers fall into this category? How do we build a system that improves teacher quality? The controversial proposal would rate teachers based on three factors: principals’ observations, student test scores and student feedback. (Some peer observation is also included.) The grating point with teachers is the word “tests,” tests that would evaluate student growth. 

The union doesn’t disagree that we need a mature evaluation system, says Bob Bruno, professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But teachers are worried about tying teacher performance to student performance in a “sorting measurement” that feeds into job insecurity and feels to teachers like a weapon. 

Do the tests really reflect a teacher’s performance, or are they too elaborate, too contrived to be a realistic measure of student growth, let alone of a teacher’s performance? How does one allow for the different beginning skills/situations of a particular student?

By the fourth year of implementation, the test score would would count for as much as 40 percent of the evaluation. With a margin of error that can be as high as 50 percent, teachers are understandably anxious.

But Heather Anichini, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund, argues that these are not just standard tests but were designed by teachers considered to be “good teachers.” The new process actually began a year ago with a trial run, says Anichini, and a committee of CPS members is in place to evaluate and make modifications. In other words, teachers have been and will be involved in an ongoing process. And the school board has used multiple factors—not just tests—for this very reason. 

But it’s too much, too soon, says Bruno. We should take needed time to figure this evaluation piece out, and relieve the fear that CPS is not just using a dramatic strategy to get around what they see as an obstructionist union.

I’ve taught in the public schools, and I’ve seen how slowly wheels turn when major change is involved. My vote is to get started ASAP on some kind of change in evaluation. Put in the assessments of the new process; involve teachers; leave room for revision and improve communication.

Perhaps I’m too impatient. As Bruno points out, if 26,000 teachers are agitated about a process, then we have to slow down and address their fears. But why didn’t the union itself propose more dramatic changes in the last 40 years? Is the union prepared and capable of initiating change of this magnitude?


The "U" Word

It’s a conversation that I bet many of us have had from time to time.  There I was Sunday morning prior to church, socializing with an old friend of mine before the service.  He asked me how the beginning of school was going, how my students were, that kind of thing.  I reminded him that I would not be in the classroom this year, but would instead be serving as the President of our union.
That’s all it took.  Suddenly the expression on his face changed from one of happy encouragement to a puzzled, questioning look.

The first thing he wanted to know about my new position was whether those “bad teachers” were getting fired. “Does anyone ever get fired,” he asked? (They do, but that’s a subject for later on)   He went on to expound upon the importance of teachers and their unions being about the kids and not about themselves. 

This would have been easy to dismiss if my friend could be simply pigeon holed as a far conservative, anti-public education individual, but he can’t.  I’ve worked with my friend on a variety of social justice related issues.  I know he cares deeply about immigrant rights, ending homelessness, providing equitable and effective support for the mentally ill, and the list goes on.  What’s more, he knows me as an activist in this vein as well. 
But the “U” word, that word union, tripped him up, as I suspect it may do for some of us as well. 
There are strong and well-organized voices out there that have expounded on a theme that goes something like:  “Teachers Good, Teacher Unions Bad.”  Or sometimes it’s just as plain as “teachers are greedy, they don’t really care about the kids.” 
Whatever form these assertions take, they serve to identify the very real work we have to do to help our citizenry understand what we do and identify genuine education reform needs.
The good news is that the conversation with my friend is only beginning.  The next time we chat I know we’ll get to talk about the following:
  • Teachers do care about kids. How could we not?  It’s the very core of who we are and the nature of our jobs.
  • Taking care of our own families and taking care of our students are not mutually exclusive things. Teaching is a profession, not a call to martyrdom. 
  • Collective bargaining is the key way in which educators advocate for our students.  Really.  Because working conditions for teachers are also learning conditions for our students. 
  • The Teacher’s Union cares about teacher quality. 
These aren’t hard things to talk about because, well, they’re true! 
I like telling the truth.
I’m looking forward to telling the truth next Sunday already.

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