Teacher evaluation — based partly on students’ standardized test scores — has emerged as one of the key issues in the school strike, a “dramatic illustration of the national debate on how public school districts should rate teachers,” according to the New York Times .
But teacher voices and teacher perspectives have been largely missing from the public debate. You may have gotten the impression that teachers oppose being evaluated altogether.
That’s not the case, said Bill Lamme, a social studies teacher at Kelly High School and part of a CPS-CTU committee that negotiated over a new evaluation system earlier this year.
“I’m an advocate for the idea that teachers unions need to protect teaching,” he said. He wants an evaluation system “that helps teachers identify deficiences in their teaching and helps them improve.”
He just doesn’t think that’s the purpose – or the motive – behind the system proposed by CPS.
Two years ago a state law mandated new teacher evaluation systems throughout the state. CPS pushed hard for separate provisions for Chicago: instead of launching a new system by 2016, as other districts are required to do, CPS must — under provisions it advocated — do so this year.
And while other districts are mandated to negotiate with teachers representations for 180 days – and to use a state-designed evaluation template if they fail to reach an agreement – CPS was required to negotiate for only 90 days. And if no agreement was reached, CPS was entitled to implement its own proposal.
“That doesn’t set the stage for serious negotiations,” Lamme said. Still, teachers met with representatives of the administration, and won some minor adjustments, he said. “Basically they had their plan, and they weren’t very receptive to our larger, more substantive objections.”
Those center in particular on the use of statistical programs to measure “value added” based the scores a teacher’s students get on a standardized test.
Those tests “are not designed for that purpose,” Lamme said. “They do not have statistical reliability. Teachers can be at the top one year and the bottom the next year. They’re methodologically bogus. They’re not defended by serious scholars in the field.”
They can’t account for the multitude of factors that go into teaching and learning. “They do not have a good system to compensate for teaching in a difficult school, with high mobility, transient students, poor attendance. A teacher can be teaching at their best every day, but the kids aren’t there every day.”
The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet  spells out some of these issues, as does the local network of education researchers, CReATE . As they show, researchers say that while value-added can account for the effectiveness of larger groups, they are ureliable at measuring individual teachers’ performances. And research has proven that value-added measurements penalize teachers in low-income communities, teachers with special ed or English-learning students.
That will drive better teachers out of challenging schools in high-poverty communities, where scores are lower. “That’s not what we need to improve education in this city,” Lamme comments.
(CReATE also points out that, with all the new initiatives taking place in CPS this year, including a new curriculum and a longer day, it makes sense to pilot a new evaluation program rather than rolling it out full-blown — particularly since it will require training administrators and testing them to make sure they know what they’re doing.)
For teachers in non-tested subjects, their “student performance” measure will be based on a school-wide literacy score. “That’s an even less fair measure,” said Lamme.
The state law requires a range of measures for evaluating teachers, and the proper mix – and their proper weighting – is also a concern. While the law requires 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student performance, CPS is pushing for more. (Another major part of the evaluation system uses classroom observers to rate teacher practice and performance under a model Lamme said “is valid and a useful tool.”)
The CPS proposal to measure student growth also includes a component of what’s called “performance tasks” – more complex measures of higher-order learning.
“In Social Studies, you’d have them read some primary documents and write a paragraph,” said Lamme. “This is a fair test of the kind of teaching we ought to be doing and we are doing.”
If it were up to him, he’d use these kinds of measures for student growth. The union is pushing to maximize their weight in the overall evaluation.
Another concern was CPS’s method for ranking teachers. Instead of splitting up the possible 300 points into four equal groups – from “excellent” to “unsatisfactory” – the administration “made the lower categories much larger than the higher categories,” Lamme said. Teachers showed CPS that teachers with “proficient” ratings across the board would end up with an “unsatisfactory” rating under this approach.
For Lamme, “that’s a strong indicator of what CPS’s agenda has been through different mayors and administrators over the past decade and what it continues to be – and that is to get rid of experienced teachers, in spite of the fact that they may be effective teachers.” He’s afraid that’s what CPS hopes to accomplish with this new system.
He points to the district’s “turnarounds,” where all teachers (and all personnel) in a school building are fired and allowed to reapply, with few if any rehired, regardless of their record and qualifications. “That simply is not fair.”
Many of his colleagues think this agenda is driven by economics, since new teachers cost less than veterans. Lamme thinks it’s something else: that new teachers could be more pliable than experienced ones, who’ve been through a series of the “very questionable and faddish” curricular and instructional programs constantly being introduced by CPS.
Other issues Lamme raises are a fair appeals process and effective professional development and mentoring for teachers with low ratings.
What about student surveys of teachers? CPS is proposing using these for 10 percent of a teacher’s rating. CTU is meeting with the district to devise and pilot student surveys this year, Lamme said.
“There’s a mixed attitude among teachers,” he said. “Some think it’s not a good idea, that it will turn teaching into a popularity contest. that teachers will be nicer to students in order to get better results. Some teachers believe good teaching calls for more strictness, and some students don’t appreciate that.”
Lamme supports the idea. “I think it encourages students to be less passive about their education and helps them own their education in a significant way.”