By Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
TUPELO – On a recent morning at Lawndale Elementary School, Assistant Principal Ian Shumpert was immersed in a third-grade language lesson, taking careful notes on his iPad.
He was there to conduct an observation of one of his teachers, a process Shumpert said has become much easier since the school switched to an electronic system, which allows him to choose categories from drop down menus and type comments into a form that is then immediately emailed to teachers.
Andrea Harrell, a fifth-grade language arts teacher at Lawndale, said the new system has been helpful in providing instant feedback. In the past, she said the process was much less efficient.
“A lot of us didn’t see our evaluation for several days, and sometimes that can make you nervous,” she said.
By 2014, the staff at Lawndale Elementary will again change its system and adopt a statewide evaluation procedure, which was recently developed by the Mississippi Department of Education. The new system will rate teachers by looking at student test score data, as well as the scores teachers receive from observations conducted by administrators.
The new system is the first of its kind for the state, which had previously left the process of evaluating and rating teachers largely up to individual districts.
The shift to a statewide system comes at a time when at least 30 states across the nation are rolling out new evaluations using more rigorous criteria about what makes a good teacher. A growing body of research indicating that teachers are the most influential in-school factor impacting student achievement has pushed many states to more closely examine how teachers are teaching.
Under old systems, the vast majority of teachers were rated satisfactory – even if the vast majority of students were falling behind.
Mississippi’s evaluation, which was developed with the help of Vanderbilt University, looks at five areas of teaching: planning, assessment, instruction, learning environment and professional responsibilities. Under each area, teachers can be rated on a scale of zero to four on a total of 20 criteria, such as demonstrating knowledge of content and managing student behavior.
“(The) goal is to focus on increasing the number of high-quality teachers and leaders in the state,” said Daphne Buckley, deputy state superintendent for quality professionals and special schools at the Mississippi Department of Education.
Buckley said the new evaluations are a shift in thinking for both teachers and administrators because they require evaluators to observe what students are doing in order to determine if kids are learning.
“In the past, sometimes we go into classes and we solely look at the teacher,” Buckley said.
Although more states are adopting new evaluation systems, there is little consensus on what criteria should be looked at when rating teachers. Some evaluations focus on qualities like running an effective class discussion or setting academic goals for students. Others focus on broader abilities, like having strong knowledge of content or lesson planning.
There also is little agreement on how many criteria need to be rated during an observation to determine if a teacher is effective and which criterion is most important.
In Los Angeles, teachers soon will be evaluated on a list of 61 criteria, while most schools in Tennessee use a list that includes 19 skills. In Louisiana, the state’s new teacher evaluation rubric has just five skills listed in the observation portion.
Like Mississippi, in each place, a teacher’s rating will be based on a combination of student achievement data and classroom observations.
Kelly Riley, executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, said the inclusion of student test scores came from a federal push for accountability.
“I think it’s a common expectation in today’s world,” Riley said, “Our outcome is to prepare students, and we measure that through student growth, so this puts an emphasis on outcomes,” she said.
It is an idea that has been met with resistance. New York City teachers recently balked at a proposal to include student test data in evaluations, costing the city at least $250 million in state funding. In Louisiana, educators have expressed concern over half of their rating being based on test scores and ultimately linked to hiring decisions.
Mississippi’s new system will base half of a teacher’s rating on a combination of student growth and school-wide growth.
“That could be a little scary,” said Harrell, who has been teaching for 25 years. Because Harrell is in a tested grade, her test scores will count for 30 percent of her overall rating by the 2014-15 school year. But Harrell said if teachers are teaching well, their test probably will reflect it.
“For the most part, if you are doing what you need to be doing and forming relationships with students, you should be okay,” she said.
Kevin Gilbert, President of the Mississippi Association of Educators, a teachers union in the state, said while new observations are promising, he has reservations.
“I can’t gauge if it’s going to be good or not,” Gilbert said. “But we do know this, teachers across the state of Mississippi have been asking for a more comprehensive approach to evaluations.”
Gilbert said that the new observations, which include a 25-page rubric, will standardize what administrators across the state look for during evaluations. The rubric also gives evaluators guidance on how to determine which score a teacher gets. The 20 ratings for the various criteria are ultimately averaged together for the teacher’s total score.
“It is definitely removing some of the subjectivity,” Gilbert said.
It could also improve the quality of teachers in Mississippi, and the academic performance of students in a state that consistently posts some of the lowest test scores in the nation. A study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found it doesn’t necessarily matter which practices are emphasized on evaluations. Teachers who more effectively demonstrated the types of practices emphasized in any given system had greater student achievement gains than other teachers.
In Mississippi, the new system currently is being piloted at various schools in Jackson and Columbus, and in Simpson, Wayne, Jones, Calhoun and George counties. Buckley said some of these schools have experienced school-wide growth since adopting the new evaluation system, which is part of a larger initiative by the state to improve schools.
But some say the new evaluations could put stress and an overwhelming amount of work on administrators, especially in smaller districts. Under the new system, each teacher must be evaluated at least twice annually and participate in a pre-observation and post-observation conference each time. Each teacher must also be informally observed at least five times during the year.
Although other staff members besides the principal can be trained to do observations, Gilbert said that making sure all evaluators are being adequately trained is a concern. And while experts say the goal of evaluations should be to help teachers improve in their practice, Gilbert said there always is a concern that evaluations will be used for the wrong reasons.
“We want to make sure we’re putting together an evaluation instrument that’s going to help better our profession and not be used to get rid of teachers,” he said.
The concern is valid, especially considering that in neighboring Louisiana, under a new evaluation system, teachers could lose their certification if they receive an “ineffective” rating for two years in a row. In Washington, D.C., about 7 percent of the teaching force was fired during the first two years after a controversial new evaluation system was launched in 2009.
But Buckley said the new system is intended to help teachers reflect on their teaching so they can make constant changes.
“It’s designed to improve practice, not to be a ‘gotcha,’” Buckley said.
At Lawndale, Shumpert said the school will be ready to adopt the new system, which they will be able to upload into their current electronic system. He and principal Brock English currently each make about 20 observations each week, per the school district’s policy, and formally evaluate every teacher two to four times a year.
Frequently observing teachers beyond formal evaluations has been incredibly helpful, he said.
“It is astronomical what we can do,” Shumpert said. “We know what is going on in a classroom. We can see consistency from teacher to teacher, and grade level to grade level.”
The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.