Tennessee's new teacher evaluation system takes shape

photo Normal Park Upper School Principal Jill Levine and Assistant Principal Blake Freeman evaluate the eighth-grade U.S. history classroom of Arielle Garcia.

Old observation model

Tenured teachers were evaluated a minimum of once every five yearsNon-tenured teachers were evaluated each of their first three years until obtaining tenureTenured teachers had two classroom observations during evaluation yearsNon-tenured teachers had three classroom observations during evaluation years.Teachers met with principals prior to and after planned classroom observationsTeachers had to complete paperwork before and after observations; administrators completed paperwork following each observationNew model (Hamilton County's Project Coach)All teachers are evaluated each year6 unannounced mini-observations annually for tenured teachers8 unannounced mini-observations annually for non-tenured teachersRequires quick feedback conversation within 48 hours of each observationTeachers see observation information on an online database, but are not required to keep paperwork for the observationsSource: Hamilton County Department of Education

While seventh-graders stack pennies and make length estimates, one person in class is busy wandering the classroom, taking notes as she goes.

Normal Park Museum Magnet School Principal Jill Levine spends only about 10 minutes in Matt Jorgensen's class, but learns much.

"I saw so many things in his classroom that other teachers could learn from," she said.

In the hallway, Levine finishes and submits her notes on an iPad. The principal's observation findings are instantly available to the teacher under Hamilton County's new teacher evaluation process.

Changes to the state's teacher evaluation system were some of the most significant -- and controversial -- in a package of school reform laws the Tennessee General Assembly passed last spring.

The new evaluation system is the culmination of reform efforts to tie teacher effectiveness to student performance and makes this a potential watershed year for teachers.

For the first time this year, half of a teacher's evaluation score will be drawn from classroom observations, while the other half relies on state test data. Previously, a teacher was evaluated solely on an administrator's evaluation, which was given as little as once every five years.

Changes in state law make this the first year that student achievement data is used in teacher performance evaluations.

Not only do the evaluations count for the first time this year, but locally they carry with them the expectation that improvement, if needed, must follow.

The issue is still making noise in Nashville. Some teachers recently asked the state's education commissioner to slow down, and make this a pilot year for the new program.

But in Hamilton County, teachers and administrators say they are largely pleased with the new evaluations, specifically the county's self-developed observation system. They say that's partly because of last year's pilot here of Project Coach, the local evaluation model that's different from the state's version being used in most other areas.

While many are still uneasy with how student test data will be included in their evaluations, local educators say they're finding Project Coach useful, because they say it's less cumbersome than the state's observation system.


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During a quiz game in Arielle Garcia's U.S. history class, Normal Park's Levine noticed that some of the kids who weren't actively answering questions might have been losing interest. She thought those students should be writing clues on their dry erase boards while waiting. And, the activity could have been bolstered with some preparation time.

When observing classrooms, administrators look at six areas, including teacher planning, classroom management, delivery of instruction and a teacher's monitoring and follow-up to learning. Principals focus on those areas, but mostly write short narratives from the mini-observations, instead of the lengthy checklists of the past.

Because Project Coach is so quick at transmitting information, Garcia is able to read the principal's suggestions between classes and tweak her lesson for the next group of students.

"I love the instant feedback," Garcia said.

Garcia said she doesn't feel pressured by the regular observations from administrators. Rather, she enjoys the support and helpful information.

"I feel they're here to guide me," said Garcia, a teacher for four years.

While this is the first year that data counts in teacher evaluations, some point out that data doesn't exist for everyone.

Only about 45 percent of the state's teachers have value-added scores; most work in nontested areas like special education, arts or foreign language. Those teachers will likely use schoolwide scores.

Teachers receive a value-added score that shows how much improvement their students make year-over-year on state tests. Value-added scores make up 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, while 15 percent is drawn from another measure of the teacher's choosing, such as a writing score or graduation rate.

The data piece is what local teachers worry the most about, said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the local arm of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. She said choosing the 15 percent measure is a "shot in the dark," because teachers have no idea how those scores will turn out.

"Test data should be used to improve teaching and learning -- not to punish someone or quantify their teaching ability," said Hughes, a foreign language teacher from Ooltewah High School currently on leave for her union duties.

She said teachers here are mostly comfortable with the classroom observations. But she, and teachers' union leaders in Nashville, think this year's evaluation should be a pilot run and not be used in making hiring or firing decisions.

"I think anytime you change the way you're evaluating people and it means their career and their income is on the line, you should give them enough time to get comfortable with it," she said.

photo Photo by Jill Levine - A foot-high stack of teacher evaluations shows how much paperwork Normal Park Museum Magnet School principal Jill Levine had to complete just one year before the switch to a streamlined electronic evaluation process. The old teacher eval form was 35 pages long, she said.

State education officials have little interest in putting off the new evaluation model. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has defended the evaluations. He says districts should be able to consider the data this spring in making employment decisions.

But there's nothing in the new law that mandates how local districts use the findings.

"There's nothing that forces the hand," said Sara Heyburn, a policy adviser for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Even when the new evaluations label a teacher ineffective, Heyburn said the state doesn't require that they be fired or disciplined.

But locally, the evaluation process does include remediation for struggling teachers.

Hamilton County has a Performance Improvement Plan, which principals can put teachers on for up to six months.

Once on the plan, teachers can receive more individualized attention, professional development or help from instructional coaches.

Stacy Stewart, assistant superintendent for human resources, said a principal could keep a teacher on a PIP for a short time or the full six months. Either way, there's no set rule on what happens to teachers who fail to improve -- that's still left up to administrators' discretion.

"There is the understanding that if you are placed on a Performance Improvement Plan, it is because deficiencies have been noted," she said.

Heyburn said long-term data from the evaluations will help districts track a teacher's progress over time. In the meantime, though, administrators should be able to at least consider the data, she said.

"We are moving forward with implementation," Heyburn said. "How districts use the results in year one is totally up to them."

Brown Middle School Principal Justin Robertson said the data component will be useful, but the classroom observations probably help inform decision-making the most.

"If it comes to make or break time, I'm going to go with my observations rather than the value added," he said.

And the open dialogue between teachers and administrators should help both parties when it comes to talking about hiring in the spring.

"To me, if you've done this correctly, you shouldn't have any surprises in the end," he said.

Robertson said his teachers are mostly pleased with the observation piece of the new evaluations. And he feels like he gets a better sense of what's actually happening in the classroom. All reasons, he says, to continue with the evaluation system.

"Personally, I feel like we have a lot of momentum, especially in Hamilton County," he said. "For us to pull the reins back now, I feel like would be detrimental. This is definitely a very worthy endeavor and something we need to push forward."

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