The upcoming school year marks a big change for Ohio teachers: Each of them will be subjected to a new job review that will, for the first time, tie their job evaluations to their students’ academic growth.
It isn’t the only change in the way teachers’ performances will be evaluated. But it’s caused the most stir over concerns about how to measure “student growth” accurately amid massive shifts in testing and curriculum.
The move is controversial. But like it or not, the new evaluations are coming.
“Teachers are really worried,” said Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. The union represents Cincinnati Public Schools’ 2,500 teachers. “Teachers’ main concern is they are being evaluated on (students’ standardized) tests that are in the process of changing. It’s crazy doing something when you’re in the middle of a transition.”
The way teachers are evaluated is important because those evaluations will eventually play a role in hiring, firing, promotion and pay.
Better evaluations theoretically make for better teachers because they help a district siphon out the bad ones, develop the average ones and promote and reward the good ones.
Nationally, more and more states are moving toward evaluations that are tied to student growth. Ohio approved its evaluation overhaul in 2011.
Adding student achievement represents a massive shift in the teaching profession. President Barack Obama’s administration has funneled billions of Race to the Top grant dollars to schools that promised to make this a priority. The shift is part of an education reform movement bolstered by studies that show how important good teaching is to a child’s success.
How it works
Ohio law requires all districts to start using the new system in the 2013-14 school year, with some exceptions. School districts with a union contract that has not yet expired can wait until the new union contract begins. In Southwest Ohio, that’s only a handful (Three Rivers, New Richmond, Lakota and Kings).
The state created an Ohio Teacher Evaluation System to act as a framework for districts. It requires 50 percent of the teacher’s score to be based on specific classroom observations, the other 50 percent on a mix of “student growth” measurements.
For some teachers, that will mean using the controversial “value added” score for at least part of that 50 percent. The score is based on how much the teacher’s students improved on state standardized tests in a year.
Many school districts piloted the new system last year, including Cincinnati Public Schools, the region’s largest.
The results won’t be available until the end of the month, and then only in aggregate. Although individual teachers were told their scores, the district hasn’t released that data.
Teachers don’t oppose including student growth in their scores. The controversy comes when discussing how to measure it.
Ohio law requires “value added” data – students’ scores on state standardized tests – be used. Only teachers who teach grades 4-8 in reading and math have value-added scores. Those who teach the other grades and subjects will use other measures – they could be other types of tests or an art portfolio or physical fitness improvements. Those measures are developed by the individual teacher and school district and approved by the state.
But teachers say those scores don’t accurately measure how effective a teacher is. It just measures how well a student tests – and potentially how well a teacher taught to that test. But it may or may not actually measure how much the student has learned.
Critics have long claimed standardized tests aren’t a good barometer for how much students really know – after all, some kids blow it off. Others do poorly on it, but show they know the material through other types of tests.
And experts say it takes several years’ worth of value-added data before it starts to be reliable – and even that’s debated.
Added to those concerns is the Common Core curriculum – which will bring a whole new set of tests starting in 2014-15.
“Teachers’ main concern is they are being evaluated on tests that are in the process of changing,” said Sellers. “Yes, there should be accountability but we need more time to figure out the tests.”
Sellers noted a few other problems. She said it’s tough to judge teachers if their students always score high on the tests.
For example, several teachers at Cincinnati’s academic powerhouse, Walnut Hills High School, were listed as “least effective” based on value-added data obtained by the Enquirer.
That’s because those students already do so well on the state standardized tests, there’s very little room for growth, Sellers said.
She also is concerned about teachers with lots of English-language learners, or students with disabilities, or overloaded classrooms. She said hundreds of classrooms were overcrowded this year, making it difficult for teachers to give students the individual attention they need.
Pilot ‘wasn’t an easy task’
Cincinnati adopted its new evaluation system in September 2012 and was among several districts to pilot it that year simultaneously with its old system.
After consulting with the teachers union, the district agreed not to count the teacher’s grade under the new system just yet. Each teacher met in a private conference with the principal, who explained what their score would have been had the new system been in place. They’ll use that information to get training in any areas of weakness.
Yenetta Harper, director of the district’s Office of Innovation, oversaw the the pilot. She couldn’t say yet how the teachers’ graded under the new system compared to their grades under the old system.
“I think it went pretty well,” said Harper of the pilot. “It wasn’t an easy task. We fulfilled our requirement … Next year it’ll be a little different.”
The biggest complaint, she said, was it more than doubled the amount of time it took to do the evaluating. Principals and assistant principals spent voluminous amounts of time meeting with and observing the teachers.
“It’s a lot of extra work,” said Harper. “Principals will have to do two observations and two classroom walkthroughs, then they have conferences, and looking at (student learning objectives). It’ll be a very different system.”
Harper said overall teachers have appreciated the opportunity to get feedback.
As for the “student growth” issue – “There is some anxiety, naturally,” said Harper. “But we’re committed to making this thing work for our district, and we will do it.”