Collaboration Marks Evaluation Reform in Michigan District
Some critics of America’s public schools say teachers don’t want to be held accountable for the challenges of struggling schools. Not true. In fact, teachers demand to be held accountable and they’re the first to say, “The status quo must go,” in education. But they want it done, fairly, realistically, and with purpose.
In a recent address to participants in the NEA Priority Schools Campaign forum, Changes, Challenges and Collaboration, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said, “We need to be dissatisfied with the way things are. It has to gnaw deep down in your gut so hard that you can’t stand it. That you can’t take it for one more day that it stays the way it is. That you not only accept change, you demand change,” said Van Roekel.
A group of educators in Romulus, Michigan did just that—change a system that didn’t work for them. District and school administrators, educators, and union leaders at Romulus Middle School seized on the public policy window afforded by the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program to help raise student achievement and remove the stigma of a “failing school.”
Romulus was one of 28 Michigan schools to receive SIG funding. Part of the grant required school leaders to reform its existing teacher evaluation system. However, Romulus was ahead of most Michigan school districts in overhauling its evaluation system. Four years ago, local education leaders started looking at different professional growth models to transform its outdated assessment tool because what they had in place resembled a grocery list.
“The previous teacher evaluation was a check-off form. People were either ‘satisfactory,’ ‘unsatisfactory,’ or ‘in need of improvement,’” said Gary Banas, president of the Romulus Education Association. “There was no clear rubric. It was meaningless.”
The way it worked: Educators at the middle school would be formally evaluated every three years. The school principal and a content expert from the school district would conduct two formal evaluations that were thirty minutes long. Afterwards, they would go through the motion of checking off boxes.
“The initial system was ineffective,” said Jason Salhaney, principal of Romulus Middle School. “Educators were left feeling ‘I’m just okay’ rather than finding out what they’re really good at or what they’re not good at.”
Dissatisfied with its system, a committee was formed to research various evaluation and accountability systems. The group—union leaders, district and school administrators, and educators—spent two years looking at various professional growth plans.
After numerous revisions, the initial evaluation model allowed teachers and principals to develop a common understanding of Charlotte Danielson’s teacher performance standards and its relationship to student growth.
“Our goal in Romulus was to shift teacher evaluation from an event that teachers and principals endured to a process that requires teachers and principals to trust each other as they work to improve performance,” said Carl Weiss, superintendent of Romulus Community Schools.
Weiss continued: “While performance standards are foundational to every teacher evaluation system, the tipping point for a highly effective system is a collaborative, trusting relationship between teachers and their principals,” said Weiss. “Where trust exists, teachers will stretch themselves by trying new strategies in an effort to improve their skills. Principals then work with each teacher to create realistic and attainable performance goals that will have a positive impact on the kids.”
The revamped evaluation system allows for a healthy dialogue on teaching and learning between teachers and administrators. It also promotes professional creativity and ingenuity, and draws on inspiration from teachers. The plan also has numerous metrics to guide the evaluation plan, which includes the school’s current reality: student, school and district growth goals; teacher objectives; and available district resource.
“This allowed us to get feedback. It wasn’t coming in and looking at a lesson in one day. It was a sequence in a period of time where you can look at actual growth,” said Salhaney. “It gave teachers more focus and it really was about instruction—and that was the biggest difference,” referring to the past evaluation system.
Quarterly assessments are conducted throughout the year, giving teachers a better understanding of what is working for student growth and what is not. At the end of the year, teachers are individually evaluated, and this part of the evaluation takes into account student test scores.
The use of student growth as a silver-bullet solution to measure teacher effectiveness is a contentious topic across the country.
The three-million plus member NEA want a high-quality teacher evaluation system that supports the use of standardized tests only if they are developmentally appropriate, scientifically valid, and reliable for purposes of measuring both student learning and teacher performance. Moreover, such evaluations should be local school district functions.
However, a number of states, Michigan included, are linking a high ratio of student growth to teacher assessment tools. NEA stands behind its research, citing that statewide linkage does nothing to further the goal of producing a high quality, reliable system of educator evaluations.
In Romulus, local education leaders had been monitoring state legislative trends and realized student growth would be a heavily-emphasized component to its evaluation system. As a result of these trends, the 200-member REA decided to accept the reality and move on, incorporating 50 percent of student growth into its evaluation system from the onset.
As forecasted, this past summer, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill that attached teacher evaluations to student data by 50 percent. The 50 percent requirement is being phased in so that in the 2013-14 year it’s 25 percent, the next year 40 percent, and the following year 50 percent.
“We knew this was coming, and my district and our teachers were ahead of the wave, not afraid to discuss changes to our evaluation system,” said Banas. “We were comfortable going with 50 percent because we’re in this together to make sure our kids do well. However, our product is not perfect and has some areas of concern.”
The local education association is working to merge the collaborative evaluation plan with the state’s required use of data. It’s not as easy task, according to the local president, Banas.
“This has been a very challenging topic. The fact that 50 percent of the gauging of the ‘effectiveness’ or ‘ineffectiveness’ of any one teacher is tied to substantial student growth, based upon some random measure of monitoring is absolutely absurd,” said Banas. “Two teachers could have the same student growth goal, use different means to monitor for success, and based on those results, one teacher could potentially be deemed ‘ineffective’ while the other could be deemed an ‘effective’ teacher. We have a serious problem,” said Banas.
Banas remains confident about the collaborative work in the middle school, but acknowledges the challenges ahead in meeting the state’s requirement.
“As soon as professional growth plans become administrative-driven growth plans, we lose the very essence and purpose that we set out to promote in the development of the new teacher evaluation program. Professionalism and growth results from people coming together, discussing ideas, experimenting to improve the system, building upon past knowledge, and discovering and trying new techniques.”