New teacher ratings not dramatically different

Results for non-tenured teachers under new system shows slight drop in ‘excellent’ ratings, slight jump in ‘unsatisfactory’

September 18, 2013

WBEZ/Becky Vevea
File: A classroom at Peck Elementary on the Southwest Side.

A first and partial glimpse of Chicago’s new evaluation system for public school teachers indicates fewer of them are considered “excellent,” but the shift in numbers is not as dramatic as once thought.

One reason teacher evaluations are being overhauled in Chicago and across the country is because year after year, the majority of teachers have been rated excellent or superior, while just 1 percent were considered unsatisfactory.

The numbers released by the district include only non-tenured teachers. CPS rates tenured teachers only every other year; those results will be publicly revealed in 2015. And significantly, ratings for about half of high school teachers do not factor in student performance. That will change in the coming years as the amount of student growth slowly increases.

Still, CPS Chief of Talent Alicia Winckler said the district expects to see fewer teachers at the top and slightly more at the bottom.  

“You do see continued shift, a very differentiated distribution,” Winckler said. All CPS teachers will get a rating under the new system by 2015 and at that time, the public will get a complete picture of the overall impact.

Student growth will also count for 30 percent of every teacher’s rating by 2015, while the remaining 70 percent will be based on principal observations.

Evaluations—and how much they would rely on student test scores—were a key sticking point during contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union. It remained a focus throughout the seven-day strike at the start of last school year, although the amount test scores counted did not change.

Under the evaluation system, called REACH, CPS puts teachers into four different categories—excellent, proficient, developing and unsatisfactory. Of the more than 4,000 non-tenured, probationary teachers evaluated this past school year, 409 (9.6 percent) received the top “excellent” ratings, 123 (2.9 percent) received the lowest “unsatisfactory.” Half were considered “proficient” and about 1,600 were labeled “developing.” Three years ago, nearly 25 percent were rated “excellent,” which was actually labeled “superior” at the time.

Numbers released today do not match up with numbers provided to WBEZ in 2011 for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

Still, the number of teachers in the top category had been decreasing over the previous few years before the new system went into effect. Winckler said that could be due to about 100 schools that were already piloting the new observation rubric.

While tenured teachers did not get formal ratings this year, about 90 percent were observed by their principals. On the whole, tenured teachers performed better than probationary teachers.

“Research has shown that professional practice in teaching grows over time,” Winckler said. “It’s a very complex art and science combination and it takes some experience.”

Why change the evaluations?

Until 2012, Chicago teachers were evaluated based on a checklist that included things like, “provides bulletin board ...maintains attendance books, lesson plan, seating chart, and grade book accurately… and presents an appearance that does not adversely affect the students’ ability to learn.”

By the end of its life, that evaluation system was criticized by both principals and teachers who complained it was too vague and did nothing to help teachers improve their craft.

States and school districts across the country have been overhauling how they measure teachers, largely because the Obama administration made it a key requirement in winning more federal funding through the Race to the Top competition.

The Illinois legislature passed a law in 2010 called the Performance Evaluation Reform Act in its bid to win federal money under Race to the Top. Ultimately, Illinois did not win Race to the Top. Still, the law requires all districts to implement evaluations tied to student performance by 2017.

It’s not clear if new evaluation systems will lead to better teachers and better schools.

Tim Daly, president of TNTP, an organization focused on teacher quality, said the lasting effects of teacher evaluation systems are almost entirely based on local implementation.

“There are some states that have reported results looking very much like the old widget effect and there are some individual districts at least that have seen quite a bit more distribution,” Daly said, referring to a 2009 study conducted by TNTP that found 94 percent of teachers were rated in the top two categories, while less than 1 percent were deemed unsatisfactory. Daly’s group has questioned why schools are failing if most teachers are excellent.

Daly pointed to Florida and Michigan as states that continued to see unlikely high percentages of top-rated teachers.  On the other hand, places like Memphis saw 22 percent of teachers fall into “unsatisfactory” ratings during the first year of the new, more rigorous evaluations.  Daly says it is too early—and the data is too incomplete—to say if Chicago will be like Florida and Michigan, or more like Memphis.

How do teachers and principals feel?

As CPS rolled out the new evaluations, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research surveyed almost 1,200 administrators and more than 20,000 teachers about the new system.

Overwhelmingly, teachers and principals felt the new evaluations encouraged professional growth and improved instruction in the classroom.  Eighty-seven percent of teachers said their evaluator--in most cases their principal--was fair and unbiased.

But researchers found 57 percent of teachers surveyed still believed the new evaluation system relied too heavily on student growth. They also found many teachers did not fully understand how much student growth would count both for themselves and their colleagues.  

The Chicago Teachers Union issued a press release late Tuesday again blasting the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The Consortium researchers also said principals reported spending an average of six hours per evaluation, leaving many of them feeling pressed for time not only to complete the required observations, but to follow-up and provide coaching to teachers who need it.

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. She tweets from @WBEZeducation.