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Pilot teacher evaluation program empowers teachers to improve

February 04, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Winter Street Elementary second grader Alex Townes, right, listens to Intervention teacher Mandi Raley while she helps with reading skills.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Getting kindergartners to learn to ask and answer higher-level questions can be a challenge, intervention teacher Mandi Raley said.

“When (you) say, ‘Do you have a question?’ a lot of times they want to tell you a story,” said Raley, who often helps students in kindergarten through second grade with reading at Winter Street Elementary School in Hagerstown’s West End.

Through a pilot teacher evaluation program that began this school year at five Washington County public elementary and middle schools, Raley said she’s learning ways to improve her teaching techniques, and she’s seeing results with her students.

“I can see, through my students, that they’re becoming more independent with their reading and writing. They’re more accountable for their learning,” said Raley, who is in her eighth year working for Washington County Public Schools.

Participating in the pilot program, known as Performance Outcomes with Effective Rewards or POWER, are 134 teachers and 14 school-level administrators at Northern and Western Heights middle schools, and Fountaindale, Salem Avenue and Winter Street elementary schools, said Stacy Henson, project manager.

The participating schools were chosen because of their high Free and Reduced-Price Meals, or FARM rates, a measure of poverty.

The school system will need to implement a new teacher evaluation system that takes into account student achievement to comply with mandates in the federal Race to the Top program and the Maryland Education Reform Act of 2010.

The new evaluation system was supposed to start in the next school year, but the state delayed it until the 2013-14 school year, said Donna Hanlin, the local school system’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, school administration and improvement. If the school system doesn’t implement its own new evaluation system, it must adopt the state’s model.

That gives the school system another year to continue piloting at least one teacher evaluation system, Hanlin said. There’s a chance the current pilot program could be tweaked or the school system could add another pilot program, she said.

Through the existing pilot program, groups of teachers with similar improvement goals work together on training tasks. The program is providing more in-depth conversations between teachers and the administrators evaluating them, some participants said last week.

The program also provides financial awards for participants deemed effective or highly effective.

“I’m having deeper conversations about education than I’ve ever had before, especially about instructional practices,” Western Heights Principal Michael Kuhaneck said.

Washington County Teachers Association President Denise Fry, who helped develop the pilot program, said she likes that the pilot program provides a way to practice a new teacher assessment method that includes student achievement before an evaluation program becomes mandatory.

The evaluations through the pilot program are no-fault, so they are not directly tied to teachers’ employment and do not become part of their personnel records, Fry said.

Henson said there are a few participating teachers who are in their evaluation year. Those teachers also are being assessed under the school system’s current evaluation method.


Financial incentives

The school system used a $7.4 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant to develop and implement the pilot program, with most of that money paying the performance awards to participants deemed effective or highly effective, Henson said.

This school year, a participating teacher could earn a bonus of as much as $7,000 through the program, Henson said. Teachers who opt out before the end of the school year do not receive any financial bonuses through the pilot program, Henson said.

So far, eight teachers have opted out. Some changed their minds before the school year began or opted out for personal reasons, she said.

Rather than deemed to be ineffective, effective or highly effective overall, teachers’ effectiveness is determined in separate categories with financial awards for each category.

A $2,000 retention award is provided for participating teachers who complete this school year successfully — meaning they are deemed to be effective or highly effective in at least one category, Henson said. The amount of the retention award escalates each year so a teacher who is successful for all four years could receive an $8,000 retention award in the final year.

This year, the smallest financial award, for a teacher completing the year and who is deemed effective in at least one category, is $2,375, Henson said.

School administrators, such as principals, who successfully complete the program this year can receive a financial award ranging from $500 — if they are deemed effective in at least one category — to $10,000, Henson said. There is no retention award for administrators, she said.

Henson said an administrator’s effectiveness is determined by:

  • Two evaluations.
  • How they did with eight leadership goals.
  • How well the school did with attendance and suspension rates.
  • Meeting adequate yearly progress through student assessment tests.
  • The percentage of students who met their target scores on a computer-based test.
While the federal grant is for five years, the school system only has federal funding guaranteed for the first three years, Henson said. After spending the first year planning, the evaluation program became active in its second year — this school year.

Henson said the pilot program is expected to continue next school year, when the school system will need to start providing a share of the funding, which will increase each year. The local share for next year is $112,000, Henson said.


Measuring achievement

It was the student achievement portion of evaluating teachers that school system administrators still had the most questions about last spring when developing the pilot program.

Half of a participating teacher’s evaluation is based on student achievement, Henson said.

Thirty percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation is based on the percentage of students in the class who meet their target score by the end of the school year, Henson said.

At the start of the school year, students take a computer-based test and a target score for that student is set. Teachers are aware of the target score and might share that information with a student’s parents, but students are not given the target score, Henson said.

The results of that first test help teachers determine which skills need the most work for each student. Teachers might periodically group students who need similar assistance in a classroom to help them meet their needs, Henson said.

Students take the test at least once later in the school year to determine if and how well they improved.

The other way student achievement is determined, which accounts for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, is based on how the school does on the annual Maryland School Assessments.

Evaluators look at whether the school met adequate yearly progress, also known as AYP. Or they look at whether the school closed the achievement gap in student population subgroups that in previous years didn’t score at least proficient, Henson said.

Most of the AYP categories deal with reading or math skills.

Fountaindale and Salem Avenue are among the school system’s 12 “alert schools” because they met proficiency standards in 2010, but failed to meet at least one in 2011.

Northern, Western Heights and Winter Street are among the five county public schools in “school improvement” because they failed to meet proficiency standards for two consecutive years — 2010 and 2011.

Western Heights also failed to meet proficiency standards in 2007 and 2008 so it is considered to be a “developing comprehensive school in improvement” and is in its third year of “school improvement.” If the middle school fails to meet proficiency standards this year, school system officials will need to plan to restructure the school for the 2012-13 school year.


More observation

The most significant difference in the observation part of the evaluation is that supervisors observe teachers in the classroom annually in the pilot program, which is more often than tenured teachers are now observed, Fry said.

Currently, tenured teachers are observed once a semester during the first and fourth years of their five-year certification license, Fry said. Nontenured teachers are observed twice a semester, she said.

Under the pilot program, teachers are evaluated seven times a year, including two self-evaluations.

Teachers in the pilot program also know when the evaluator will be in class, and the conversation between the evaluator and the subject is more two-sided, school system officials said.

Except for the first time a nontenured teacher is evaluated, administrators operating under the school system’s current evaluation system are not required to inform teachers when they will be observed for their evaluations, Hanlin said.

With the current system, evaluators mark whether teachers’ performances in specific areas are satisfactory, unsatisfactory or if there is room for growth, Kuhaneck said.

Under the pilot program, evaluators mark whether a teacher’s performance is unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or distinguished for many factors, Henson said.

The pilot program provides a more-detailed checklist of skills for evaluators to review and does a better job of describing what the different teaching levels, such as proficient, look like, Kuhaneck said.

It’s more time-intensive, but Kuhaneck said he loves it.

Teachers are evaluated on as many as 22 components with 76 elements during one of the evaluations, Henson said.

Western Heights teacher Julie Cardenas said that long list of elements provides her with more specific feedback.

“For me, it’s a better learning tool as a newer teacher as to how I can be a better teacher,” Cardenas said.

While teachers are evaluated seven times during the year, it is the three formal observations by their school principal that count toward whether a teacher is deemed to be ineffective, effective or highly effective in the evaluation category, and possibly receive a financial award for that category, Henson said.


Self-reflection

Of the four remaining evaluations, one is performed by an administrator or supervisor from outside the teacher’s school; one is conducted by a peer participating in the pilot program; and two are self-evaluations.

“Professional educators sometimes get very busy, and this is perhaps requiring them to take a step back and do some personal reflection on their own teaching methodologies,” Fry said.

That’s not a bad thing, but it could put additional stress on already busy teachers, Fry said.

The self-reflective piece has teachers videotape themselves at least twice a year, starting at the beginning of the year so they can watch themselves teaching and see what they are doing well and where they need to improve, Henson said.

Fry said there’s an initial awkwardness in watching one’s self on video, but it also can be an eye-opening experience.

Several teachers told her they didn’t want to watch themselves on video, but they ended up learning a lot about themselves as a teacher, Fry said. They might be asking themselves if they are boring or whether they allowed students enough time to answer a question, Fry said.

Raley said she’s learned to make sure she’s giving students enough time after she asks a question to process the question and think of a good answer, rather than to expect rapid responses.

Cardenas, who teaches English language arts to Western Heights sixth-graders, said she looked at how she was grouping students together for certain activities.

Rather than group them randomly as she was, Cardenas said she now matches them up so a student who is weak in one skill area is with a student who is strong in that area.

That provides an environment of collaboration, she said.

“When you teach someone else what you know and pass on that knowledge, it tends to strengthen and reinforce your own learning,” Cardenas said.

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