Fair and reliable teacher evaluations: Can it happen in Michigan?

MEA supports the majority of the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness’ recommendations for creating what it calls a “fair, transparent and feasible” system for evaluating teachers and school administrators.

If implemented by the state Legislature, the MCEE’s recommended system would replace the more than 800 different evaluation systems employed in districts across Michigan.

“The report constitutes an improvement over what educators are currently experiencing in our public schools,” said MEA Vice President Nancy Strachan, a veteran teacher with nearly 40 years of classroom experience. “The report provides a strategy to improve educational outcomes by focusing on student learning objectives.”

“The evaluation process should be focused on professional growth as an educator — not simply a tool to terminate employees,” Strachan said. “We need to add a support system of professional learning.”

Established by Legislature in June 2011, the MCEE bases its system on “rigorous standards of professional practice and of measurement,” with the overall goal of enhancing instruction, improving student achievement and support ongoing professional development.

“We tried to focus it as much as we could on the improvement of instruction,” said MCEE Chairwoman Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education and a former classroom teacher, to provide “useful feedback” to educators.

MEA supports a workable evaluation system that increases teacher effectiveness and that is supported by ongoing professional learning. The evaluation process needs to incorporate multiple measures when evaluating teacher effectiveness and it must incorporate valid observations of professional practice.

Enhancing instruction and improving student achievement is the goal of every educator. The MCEE’s recommendations fulfill most of those goals, Strachan said, by emphasizing “the need to continue to develop skillful teachers who can use best practices to educate our students.”

The MCEE’s report identifies and recommends a tool to evaluate teachers; a tool to evaluate school administrators; new requirements for professional teaching certificates; and a waiver process for local educational agencies.

“We’ve seen a lot of evaluation systems,” said Jerry Morrissey, an eighth-grade science and history teacher at Dunckel Middle School in Farmington Public Schools, “but certainly not one that is as comprehensive and game-changing.”

Evaluations

The MCEE recommends that teachers be evaluated and classified into one of three categories: “professional,” “provisional” and “ineffective.” Evaluations would be based half on observations of their practice, and half on student growth.

For the professional practice observation portion, teachers would be observed multiple times over the course of a school year by a principal, assistant principal, master teacher, curriculum director, superintendent or assistant superintendent.

The observations would be based on an established observation tool, selected by the state from among the following options: Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching,” the “Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model,” “The Thoughtful Classroom” or “5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning.”

Observations by qualified peers would be encouraged, but could not be the only source of observation. Observations by would count for at least 80 percent of the practice metric, with the remainder coming from factors like student surveys, parent surveys and portfolios.

The other half of teacher evaluations would be based on student growth. The MCEE recommends that the state develop or select student assessments that are aligned to “state-adopted content standards in all core content areas” like English language arts, math, science and social studies, as well as in “high-volume non-core content areas where state-adopted content standards exist (e.g., arts, health and physical education, career and technical education, and many high school electives).”

Furthermore, the report recommends that the state should “in all cases that are possible and professionally responsible, produce value-added modeling (VAM) scores for educators on state-provided assessments in the core content areas.”

(MEA has concerns about a portion of the proposed student growth component that calls for up to 10 percent of a teacher’s student growth score — 5 percent of the total evaluation score — to be based on his or her entire building’s VAM score. A middle-school math teacher, for instance, should not be judged based on a student’s growth in reading, since the math teacher doesn’t teach that subject.) 

The practice and assessment scores would be combined to categorize teachers as professional, provisional or ineffective. These three categories would replace the state’s current categories of “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective,” and “ineffective.”

Here’s how the MCEE describes each of its new categories:

  • Professional: A teacher has “exhibited the knowledge and capabilities expected of a skillful educator.” The MCEE expects that “educators who are extraordinary — as well as educators who are competent — would fall into this category.” The MCEE recommends that teachers rated as professional be provided with opportunities for “advanced roles or leadership. In addition, an educator rated as professional for three straight years may be evaluated on an alternating year basis in subsequent years and receive two-year goals for enhancement.”
  • Provisional: A teacher “has exhibited some professional knowledge and skill, but has specific substantial identified weaknesses that should be addressed through feedback and targeted professional development.” The MCEE predicts those rated provisional to include beginning teachers who have yet to develop the level of skill necessary for professional practice,” as well as experienced teachers “who struggle with mastering professional knowledge and skills.” The MCEE recommends that teachers rated as provisional for three consecutive years be “counseled out of his or her current role.”
  • Ineffective: A teacher “has exhibited performance that has specific critical identified weaknesses. The educator should be placed on urgent notice that significant improvement must be achieved in the specific areas of underperformance within two years. An educator who receives an ineffective rating for two years in a row should be terminated from further employment” in his or her school district.

Ball said the goal of the proposed new rating system is to encourage professional development and growth, not “punishing teachers” or only giving teachers feedback “when there’s something wrong.” Instead, teachers receiving a professional rating would still receive specific feedback on how to improve, Ball said.

“We hope, over time, that more and more [teachers] would receive a professional rating,” Ball said.

Like teachers, administrators would be evaluated based on their practice and student growth. In addition, they would be evaluated based on the “proficiency of their skill in evaluating teachers; progress made in the school improvement plan; attendance rates; and student, parent, and teacher feedback.” Administrators would be classified in the same three categories as teachers, and subjected to the same rewards and sanctions.

“Administrators play a central role in high-quality instruction,” the report pointed out. “They support teachers, provide feedback, and enable and enhance professional learning communities.”

The report acknowledges of one MEA’s major concerns with evaluations — that the validity of the entire teacher evaluation system rests upon competent administrators. After all, the report says, “the documentation of teaching is only as good as the observer.”

To that end, Ball said it’s critical that the Legislature adopt a mechanism for teachers to appeal if they feel they’ve been unfairly evaluated, so that the evaluations are “consistent with the principles of the policy.”

Certification

As it stands, new teachers receive their initial certification at the provisional level for five years, and may renew their provisional license for up to three additional five-year periods. The MCEE recommends tying teacher certification to its proposed performance categories.

Under the MCEE’s proposal, teachers wishing to move from a provisional license to a professional one must achieve three consecutive “professional” ratings under the new evaluation system.

Alternately, teachers may receive a professional teaching certificate if they’ve achieved three “professional” ratings in non-consecutive years, provided they receive a recommendation from their current principal.

Local flexibility

The MCEE’s recommendations allow some flexibility for school districts that have developed their own evaluation systems.

Under the MCEE’s proposal, districts could receive a waiver provided they can demonstrate that their evaluation system has “the same level of quality and rigor” as the state-approved system. If there’s isn’t enough documentation to support claims of comparable quality and rigor, a district would have to submit a plan explaining how it will gather relevant data on the evaluation system’s technical soundness. In such a case, the district would be eligible for a probationary waiver good for up to three years.

Finally, if a school district wished to implement a modified version of the state-approved evaluation system, it would have to “demonstrate how the adaptations do not threaten the validity of the inferences based on use of the instrument.”

Challenges ahead

Implementing the MCEE’s recommendations will be easier said than done.

“Will there be challenges in implementing this system? Absolutely,” said MCEE member David Vensel, principal of Jefferson High School in Monroe

First, the recommendations are just that; the Legislature will need to draft and pass legislation to put the system into place. The original legislation passed in 2011 that created the MCEE only call for a report — it didn’t commit the state to adopting the report.

“What we hope now is that the Legislature will move forward to put in place the recommendations we’ve made,” Ball said.

Once a bill is introduced, legislators will be lobbied heavily from all sides — including from corporate special interests with a vested financial interest in seeing public education fail. After all, those who favor turning the education of Michigan children over to private corporations will undoubtedly oppose any evaluation system that is actually fair to public school teachers and administrators.

“We need to fully educate our legislators,” Strachan said. “Many of them don’t understand the system of education.”

Second, properly funding a new evaluation system, both in the short term and in the long term, will require a level of financial commitment to public education that legislators have been unwilling to make in recent years. Remember, the governor and lawmakers just two years ago slashed $1 billion from the state’s School Aid Fund to provide a tax break for big corporations.

Given that reality, it may be difficult to find the funding necessary to provide proper (and regular) training to administrators to ensure they are conducting high-quality evaluations — much less, committing to the funding for strong professional development for teachers.

“It’s not going to be inexpensive,” Strachan said. “We need to make sure it’s fully funded on a yearly basis.”

Finally, a successful teacher evaluation system will require full buy-in from educators, administrators, parents and other stakeholders. For example, poverty, language barriers and other external factors outside of the classroom play a huge role in student performance and growth — and thus teacher evaluations.

“There are some obstacles that the public needs to know about,” Strachan said. “We don’t have students that all come from the same socio-economic background. They don’t all have prior knowledge of some subjects. That’s something that’s really going to have to be considered in these evaluations, to be fair and put everybody on level footing.”

To read the MCEE’s full recommendations, visit www.mcede.org