Evanston Teachers To Be Graded on How Much Students Learn

May 5, 2010

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Third grade teacher Donna Del Vecchio's students will take an assessment this month that helps determine whether her students have advanced at least one year.

How do you define a good teacher? What about an excellent teacher? A new Illinois law requires school districts to factor in how much students learn when they grade their teachers. It's a concept being pushed by federal education officials, and it's stirred up controversy nationwide. But locally, one north suburban school district is quietly trying it out.


There's a fight on right now across the country over how teachers should be evaluated. A lot of it sounds like this:

DALY: Somebody needs to stand up and say, 'We will help you do your job, but if you can't do your job—you cannot teach our children.' That is the bottom line truth.

That's Tim Daly, president The New Teacher Project, speaking before a group of Chicago parents recently. Daly's group—and the U.S. Department of Education, too—want teachers to be graded based on whether kids are learning or not. A survey of teachers in three of Illinois' biggest districts found nearly all teachers are rated “superior” or “excellent.”

DALY: We have massive student failure, but if we were to look at how the adults were doing, we said the adults are doing fantastic.

But teachers say learning is influenced by a lot more than what kids do in school.  And many oppose hanging their careers on kids' standardized test scores.

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Orrington Elementary in Evanston seems a long way from the national fray. But District 65, with schools in Evanston and Skokie, is the only Illinois district to try evaluating teachers based on student outcomes. Up close, it looks less controversial—and more complicated.

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Donna Del Vecchio's 17 students took a test when they began third grade. They took another in January. And they'll take another later this month. When the results are in, it's Del Vecchio who'll be graded.

DEL VECCHIO: What I have to do throughout the entire year… what I'm doing on a daily basis, is I'm assessing. I'm using formal assessments, informal assessments, I'm kid-watching every day. At the end of that year you're taking that collection of assessments…and you're looking at it and you're making a determination: have the kids grown a year?  They're with me for a year, and the expectation is that they will make a year's worth of growth.

To get a rating of excellent, Del Vecchio will have to prove that most of her students advanced more than a year. That goes for the gifted students as well as kids at the bottom of the class. And she'll have to turbo charge learning for the weakest students.  

Del Vecchio plans to use things like writing assignments and chapter tests to prove she's taken her students a year. Her boss isn't allowed to evaluate her using her students' ISAT scores. And he himself will be judged based on how the students in his entire school progress. Orrington principal Michael Dougherty says he's been talking to teachers all year about how they're doing—down to the individual kid.

DAUGHERTY:  Some children I might talk to a teacher two or three times a week about. It's bringing about a lot of… constant dialogue with teachers about are kids learning. And if they aren't, we need to be talking about what we're going to do.

Evanston cuts teachers some slack for kids who are chronically truant or students who have family tragedies. But teachers don't get a pass on other tough issues—like poverty or kids who don't speak English at home.

Teachers and administrators worked for months to hammer out the new system. Now, as May testing approaches, local union president Jean Luft says teachers are a little anxious. They've had to wrestle with some tricky questions this year—like what does a year's progress in gym look like?

LUFT: We have social workers, we have art teachers, music. We have occupational therapists—all these type of people work in schools. And it has to be an equitable evaluation system for everyone.

Luft also worries teachers won't want to take on slow learners. Student growth counts for half of a teacher's grade in Evanston. The other half is based on more traditional things like lesson plans or teaching style.

The director of Illinois' largest teachers union says using student data to grade teachers could be a plus.

SOGLIN: That actually lends a little objectivity into a process that up to now has been highly subjective.

Audrey Soglin helped write Illinois' new law—she says teachers can't be bystanders in this process.  The law requires each of Illinois' 869 school districts to sit down with their teachers and hash out their own evaluation plans.