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On The Road To Better Teacher Evaluations

Sam Evans-Brown

The Department of Education is set to release the culmination of three years of work. It’s a model system of how the DOE recommends schools should evaluate their teachers. New Hampshire schools are free to do what they will with those recommendations… for now.

For starters, why do teacher evaluations matter?

New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry has put improving the state’s public school teachers at the center of her time in the office, and she has a ready answer to that question.

“How many ineffective teachers does it take for a student to be lost in a system?” she posits, “Some research implies that if you have two years of an ineffective teacher in your early years of reading, the likelihood that you’ll be a proficient reader by third-grade has been significantly reduced.”

Nobody wants that. It’s why the state Department of Education has been working to create a system that schools can use to identify teachers not doing a good job.

Effective Teaching.jpg
Credit NH Task Force on Effective Teaching / NH Department of Education
Teacher evaluation is only one of the four

The DOE Model

In 2011 New Hampshire passed a law requiring all schools to have an evaluation policy, but local districts are free to craft that policy however they see fit.

The DOE’s model for doing that includes:

·     At least three observations of teachers in action on evaluation years, watching for good teacher practice. Observation sessions can include chats before and after to discuss instruction.

·     Meetings where teachers set goals for the year and present a portfolio of “artifacts” – lesson plans, classroom activities, tests – that show they are promoting learning in their classroom, and present plans for professional development and keeping current in their subjects.

·     Using some measure of student growth as part of a teacher’s rating. These can be different for each subject – for instance reading and math can use standardized test scores, but classes like art would need to devise their own measurable methods. This could also involve “shared attribution” which recognizes that some improved test scores could be attributed to more than one class. Think a reading test being split between social studies and literature teachers. The DOE is leaving the decision of how to implement this portion entirely up to schools.

·     A roughly equal – or 20% each – weighting of five criteria: Teacher content knowledge, instructional practice, professional responsibility, student growth, and “learner and learning”. This last category is a teacher’s understanding of how children learn.

The state recommends combining that information to rate teachers as highly effective, effective, needs improvement, or ineffective. 

Model Panel.jpg
Credit NH Department of Education

While the rating would be considered in the conversation over whether to walk a teacher out the door, it’s also to identify the teachers who need help.

As Commissioner Barry puts it, “some people believe good teachers are born, some people think good teachers are made.”

Once weak teachers and exactly what they’re struggling with is identified, districts can better target them with mentoring from veterans, workshops, and follow ups.

So Many Questions

But the DOE’s model is just that – a model. Putting together and implementing the real thing will be a challenge for many districts, since parts of this model don’t necessarily sit well with many New Hampshire teachers and principals.

Education leaders point to what is happening in the town of Lyme, a tiny bedroom community for families working in Hanover, as evidence that robust evaluation systems can work in local schools. The k-8 Lyme School is in the midst of creating and piloting its own teacher evaluation system.

4th grade teacher Steven Dayno, 3rd grade teacher Kate Cook, middle school science teacher Skip Pendleton, Principal Jeff Valence, and Superintendent Mike Harris have all been instrumental in crafting that system. 

When asked if they thought if this sort of a system could work if it was just plunked down on a school from above Dayno replied flatly, “No.”

Valence, laughing, followed up, “I don’t think anybody believes that.”

The Lyme system includes a lot of pieces from the state model: multiple observations by administrators and a paid outside consultant, goal setting and artifact collection. It also includes a piece that the state says is totally optional: responses from surveys given to students and parents, and frequent sit downs with the principal.

But they are still working out if there is a way to integrate test scores or grades in some way into the evaluation. They say there are so many questions. How can standardized test scores be used to rate teachers when the state is switching from NECAP to Smarter Balanced tests in 2015? What to do for subjects with no standardized tests? How much shared attribution is appropriate – between two subjects? Between four? Between the whole school?

And as Lyme Superintendent Mike Harris points out even at their school district, where the teachers are on board, it’s been a tough process. “There still remain – yeah – serious doubts on the parts of teachers on whether this can work, and work accurately and fairly,” he says.

Optional, For Now

According to the National Educators Association, 16 percent of New Hampshire schools still don’t have a teacher evaluation policy.

UPDATE: A recent survey of NH school districts by the NH DOE says that only 4% of school districts have no evaluation system, but only 51% have a "fully developed and consistently implemented" policy.

Evaluation survey data.jpg
Credit NH - DOE
A survey for N.H. school districts shows where N.H. schools are in developing their own teacher and principal evaluation systems. How these systems are designed on a school by school basis was not addressed

And around New Hampshire there’s a lot of variety in how comprehensive evaluations are: for example a 2010 survey found 76 percent of evaluations included unannounced observation of teachers. But only 16 percent included some measure of student growth: such as how much students’ test scores increased while under a given teacher.  

All of that local variety might soon end.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, is up for renewal and the importance of educator evaluations has been on the forefront of education reform efforts. If Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing the ESEA they just might make local control over evaluations a thing of the past.

Education Commissioner Virginia Barry says, she thinks schools should plan for the future.

“I do believe in all transparency, honesty, that ultimately there’ll be some kind of reporting system for those schools that accept federal dollars,” she asserts, “So you’re kind of like, being proactive.”

If Barry is right, the trying experience that teachers and administrators in Lyme are undergoing right now could be on deck for a lot of other New Hampshire schools. And the hope is if schools can make it through, the beneficiaries will be the students.