September 2012 Newsletter: Charter Schools and the Teacher Evaluation Trend

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Charter Schools and the Teacher Evaluation Trend

The teacher evaluation landscape is changing around the country in the wake of efforts to connect performance ratings and job retention to multiple measures, including the level of student learning. For leading charter schools, the efforts are fundamental. But evaluation methods and implementation remain a work in progress as new state laws on evaluation take effect and educators and policy makers wrestle with how to achieve the best results. This feature of the National Charter School Resource Center monthly newsletter focuses on the experience of the leader of a top-rated Boston, Massachusetts-area charter school using teacher evaluation, and the perspective of a former teacher at that school who helped survey teachers in the state and prepare a report about the principles that should guide evaluation. Resources are included to further pursue the topic.

Many states have adopted new requirements for teacher evaluations since the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant competition, which began in 2009 and included consideration of whether states' applications included reform of teacher evaluation systems. A range of complex issues are in play in devising effective evaluation systems. What evidence should be used to determine effectiveness? What qualifies evaluators? What are the repercussions? The impact on charter schools varies. In Pennsylvania, for example, the charter schools have been exempted from the new teacher evaluation law that factors in student performance, an issue reported by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July 2012. In New York, charter schools that did not accept Race to the Top state funds can opt out of the state evaluation system and stick to their own methods, an issue reported by the Albany Times Union in November 2011.

In Massachusetts, which was awarded $250 million in the Race to the Top competition, charter schools, like other public schools, are required under the state's new regulations to adopt, adapt, or revise the new evaluation system.

The evaluation system is being phased in; it started in 2011–12 with certain low performing schools as well as schools that volunteered to participate, followed by schools participating in Race to the Top for 2012–13, and then all schools by the 2013–14 school year. According to the regulations, evaluations must be filed with the state, but whatever the results turn out to be for individual teachers, the law considers them personnel files that will not be subject to public disclosure under open records requirements.

Evaluations must have a plan that includes at least one goal for improving practice and at least one goal for improving student learning. The system accommodates "developing educator" plans, for example, a teacher without professional teacher status; "self-directed" educator plans that provide up to a two-year review cycle for those rated proficient or exemplary; "directed" plans for educators in need of improvement that cover time frames of a year or less; and "improvement" plans covering at least 30 days, but no more than a year for educators rated unsatisfactory.

Multiple measures of assessment are required to reach one of four ratings: exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory.

Evaluation standards for both teachers and administrators cover curriculum, planning and assessment, family and community engagement, and professional culture, and include "frequent unannounced visits to classrooms" as an element for administrators. Educators are responsible for collecting information, such as evidence of student learning and proposed improvement goals, and providing the information to the evaluator.

Regarding evidence, the system prescribes specific categories of measures to be used in evaluation. For example, the regulations note that student achievement measurement must include, where available, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Student Growth Percentile and the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment (MEPA).

Exemplary educators whose impact on student learning is "rated moderate or high shall be recognized and rewarded with leadership roles, promotion, additional compensation, public commendation or other acknowledgment," according to the regulation. High impact means learning "significantly higher than one year's growth relative to academic peers," while moderate "indicates one year's growth relative to academic peers," according to the regulation. Schools can supplement the state's system with elements that are consistent with the plan.

Evaluation Approach Evolves for Massachusetts Charter School Leader, Teacher

Prospect Hill Academy is a Boston, Massachusetts-area charter school that has received the state's top performance rating. The K–12 school with an enrollment of 1,137, located on three campuses, is adopting the state's new evaluation framework because it closely reflects the school's existing system, Head of School Jed Lippard said in an interview with the Resource Center. Lippard said that one of the key new issues is to "systematically think about student performance in relation to teacher evaluation. All the other pieces we've been doing in some way shape or form."

There is, however, something the school does that the state's rubric does not do, namely, go beyond the performance of individuals to consider the broader school context. "Our core model of adult learning and professional development is what we call collaborative inquiry, which is teams of teachers systematically looking at data together and assessing impact on instruction," Lippard said. "That's our MO and there is nothing in the rubric that the state has authored that holds teachers accountable for engaging in that process."

Evaluation in isolation has the potential to undermine teamwork and the overall performance of the school, according to Lippard, who described nuanced circumstances of how implementation of systems plays out.

"The traditional model is teachers shut their door and do their own thing and some are great and some aren't and most are in the middle," said Lippard, a former charter high school English teacher who now is President of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. "But what we don't want to have is a bunch of great teachers working independently without any sense of responsibility to the whole. It is essential with a K–12 school that there is both horizontal and vertical integration."

Lippard said that recognizing the importance of linking teacher evaluation to outcomes for students is easier than finding the right way to document it and preventing the pursuit of narrow metrics from shutting out diverse learning. The pattern has been to "monolithically" rely on standardized test scores, which Lippard calls problematic. "When the policymakers and press look at school level data, that's the only measure that they are really interested in. Good schools are the schools that have high MCAS scores and bad schools are the schools that have bad MCAS scores," Lippard said, referring to Massachusetts's standardized test.

The application of standardized test results to individual teachers presents its own challenges. Students in Grades 3–10 take the MCAS, which covers mathematics and English skills. According to Lippard, about 30 percent of the staff is involved in mathematics and English instruction. "What do we do for the foreign language teachers? What do we do for the science teachers, the social studies teachers, school counselors, the art teacher, the PE teachers? None of them are captured by this fixation on standardized test scores," Lippard said.

Charter schools, with fewer layers of administration, may be better positioned to adjust to the changes, but "it's a lot of work," Lippard said. "My hope is that we think about this from the standpoint of authentic assessment and not just standardized testing."

Fairness requires reliability not just in methods but in the consistency of those handing out the ratings. "I think there is this myth of objectivity when it comes to rubrics—once we have articulated what it looks like to be performing at each of those levels for each of the standards—that the work of evaluation takes care of itself," Lippard said. "That's just not true."

It is a dynamic process. "When new people come in and other people leave it creates a need to re-norm ourselves," Lippard said, adding that the school has borrowed from the "grand rounds" of medical education to help accomplish the goal. The school rotates its academic leadership meetings among the school's three campuses, allowing opportunities for observation by principals of teaching at different levels and greater confidence in equity of assessment.

A "faculty cabinet" at each of the campuses provides a vehicle for feedback from teacher leaders. "No matter how hard we try to operate from a we perspective there is always some level of us versus them," Lippard said. "There is a hierarchy." Feedback played a role as Lippard strived to carry out his governing board's desire to institute a plan to provide higher compensation for the best performers. Lippard said the mandate came when he moved from his principal post at the high school to the head of school in 2006 and it "made me cringe" at the time because of his belief that money does not drive most educators and he "didn't want to create a system that created barriers to collaboration."

"I've done an about-face," Lippard said. "I do believe that our best teachers should get paid more. I don't think they need the carrot of some additional money to work hard and do right by kids, but rather as a reward."

Lippard, "quietly and without a whole lot of fanfare, at the end of each year," solicited nominees from the administrative team for those deserving of a bonus and a special thank-you for going "above and beyond." But intent and impact diverged, according to Lippard. The faculty cabinet "made it very clear" that they felt the effort was "totally cryptic" with unclear criteria and that it could be viewed as a means for leaders to "snuggle up to their favorite colleagues." Lippard said they were right. In response, the next iteration of the program will be linked to the new evaluation system and that exemplary teachers will receive performance pay. "That's what teachers on the faculty cabinet asked that we do and that's what we've committed to do," Lippard said. Room will remain to reward someone who does not necessarily meet the formal criteria, but may still be worthy based on a unique contribution, such as taking on an additional class to cover for an extended absence of a colleague that enables the school to avoid hiring a substitute who is unfamiliar with the school. "This is our growing edge right now," Lippard said.

Evaluation should be done "with and for teachers, not to them," Lippard said, adding that the process needs to be focused on an "adult learning opportunity to get better at something you are deeply committed to." But Lippard's bottom line goes unaltered. "If we have teachers that are not meeting the needs of kids, we fire them. Period."

Jeff Vogel spent nine years as a high school history teacher at Prospect Hill Academy and, as a 2012 Boston, Massachusetts fellow at the teacher support and policy organization TeachPlus, was a lead writer of A Great Evaluator for Every Teacher: 5 Ways to Ensure That Teacher Evaluations Are Fair, Reliable, and Effective. The report was based on surveys of teachers in schools in the state that were the initial users of the new state evaluation system. The report expressed support for the principles of the state's evaluation system to differentiate the quality of teachers. The report also recommended that those implementing the evaluation system ensure that teachers understand it before they are evaluated, and that evaluators undergo rigorous training and certification, have the necessary time and support for the task, and that teacher feedback is used throughout the process.

The survey of 112 teachers showed a range of reactions among teachers when it came to their evaluators and, in some cases, almost annual turnover in principals and assistant principals, according to Vogel. "Teacher A said my evaluator was amazing. I really improved my students' scores because I was taught four new strategies to teach reading," Vogel said in an interview with the Resource Center. "And then teacher B said evaluators didn't even go through the process of trying to help me, let alone actually provide good ideas." Vogel said that at his own school he was evaluated every year. Goals were set, supervisors were consulted, data were collected on progress, and plans were modified to accommodate changes in circumstances. Vogel said that when he started at the school the evaluation system was not working well. "People felt that they were being placed into rankings that they felt could not be fully justified," Vogel said. Vogel said the school adjusted to a system where teachers are paid based on years of experience, but with some variation based on teaching quality. "That has been the middle ground," Vogel said, adding that the school has strived to ensure that the evaluations are reliable and " match our own intuition about what we know regarding different teachers' abilities and performance." Vogel said that the high quality of evaluators at the school diminished concerns about fairness.

There was no set percentage of the evaluation that was tied to student achievement data. Having a specific percentage makes sense to help ensure reliability and consistency, according to Vogel, although it raises questions about how to accommodate teachers whose programs are not the focus of standardized tests? "As a history teacher, what's the appropriate quantitative data to assess me?" he asked. "I taught AP classes. You could use those scores. I taught several that weren't AP." It is a practical question, he said, that "people are facing all over the country."


U.S. Department of Education Awards Grants Totaling $14.4 Million to 2 CMOs

Awards totaling more than $14.4 million to "support high-quality charter schools in more than 25 communities across the country" were announced September 27, 2012 by the Education Department. The announced grants were $4.1 million to Democracy Prep Public Schools for the first two years of a five-year grant and $10.3 million to the KIPP Foundation for the first two years of a four-year grant.

Federal Teacher Incentive Fund Awards More than $31 Million to Aid Charter Schools

More than $31 million was awarded by the Education Department under its 2012 Teacher Incentive Fund to help charter school organizations to "improve pay structures, reward great teachers and principals and provide greater professional opportunities to teachers in high-poverty schools," the department announced September 27, 2012. Read more.

Resource Center Webinar Focuses on Blended Learning Models, Changing Roles of Staff

A September 13, 2012 webinar hosted by the National Charter School Resource Center focused on blended learning and the many models for combining online and traditional teaching methods as a way to increase efficiency and boost student achievement.

During the hour-long webinar, Blended Learning in Charter Schools: Reimagining Traditional Models, Heather Staker, senior research fellow for the Education Practice at Innosight Institute, discussed examples of blended learning, including the arrangement of classrooms and schedules, student-teacher ratios, and impact on school budgets.

Also, Lucy Steiner, senior consultant with the education policy and practice organization Public Impact, discussed the impact of blended learning on staff development, including job descriptions and candidate screening, and accountability for interactions between teachers and students.

Native Charter School's Expansion Part of Federal Professional Development Grant

Twenty-two U.S. Department of Education grants totaling more than $6 million will go to efforts to improve educational opportunities for American Indian children and aid professional development, including an award supporting expansion of a Native charter school, the department announced on September 13, 2012.

The grants include one for $289,232 that involves aid for training teachers to help expand Ojibwe Immersion Charter School in Wisconsin. The goal is to support five people who will receive "advanced training in Ojibwe oral fluency and immersion pedagogy" to help boost the school's capacity to serve three more grades, according to the grant description.

Twelve of the grants totaling $3.3 million were made under the Demonstration Grants for Indian Children program, which supports projects to increase readiness of children for kindergarten and the capacity for high school students to transition to postsecondary education.

Ten grants totaling $3.3 million were made under the Indian Education Professional Development program, which includes support for training Indian people to serve as teachers and administrators.

The National Charter School Resource Center's July 2012 newsletter focused on charter schools as an option for aiding Native education.

Charter Schools Named 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools Winners

At least 11 charter schools are among the Education Department's 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools winners, according to a list released by the department.

The award honors public and private elementary, middle, and high schools "where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students' levels of achievement," according to the department's September 7, 2012 announcement.

Charter Schools Among 900 Intending to Seek Race to the Top-District Award

At least 23 charter school organizations from eight states and Washington, D.C., are among the nearly 900 organizations that have expressed intent to apply for the Education Department's $400 million 2012 Race to the Top-District competition, according to a Department list.

Through the Race to the Top-District program, the Department plans to "support school districts in implementing local reforms that will personalize learning, close achievement gaps and take full advantage of 21st century tools that prepare each student for college and their careers." The four-year awards will range from $5 million to $40 million, and 15-25 awards are expected.

Expressing intent to apply is not binding and the application process remains open, the Department stated. Applications are due on October 30, 2012, with awards to be announced no later than December 31, 2012.


October 22–25, 2012: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers will hold the 2012 NACSA Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

November 4–5, 2012: Best Cooperative Practices Between Charter and Traditional Public Schools Conference in Broomfield, Colorado.