A recent Arizona law requires all school districts and charter schools to implement a new teacher evaluation system by the 2013-14 school year. For the first time, teachers in the Kyrene School District will be evaluated, in part, based on how well their students score on tests.
The district is surging ahead. Kyrene used the first quarter of the 2012-13 school year as a practice phase for the district’s new teacher evaluation system. About a week after fall break, the official evaluations that will be used to determine teacher ratings at the end of the school year went live.
“You know Kyrene, never being one to play second fiddle, jumps right on it,” said Laurie Jake, an eight-year social studies teacher at Centennial Middle School.
Everyone has been talking about the changes the new evaluation system has brought to the district. It has been the prevailing theme in conversation this school year, said Kyrene Superintendent Dr. David Schauer.
“It is the most dominant thing,” Schauer said. “But you know what, it has to be.”
As a result of the new evaluation system in place, Kyrene teachers are changing their classroom tactics to ensure their students learn the skills they need to do well on tests. These test grades will determine whether a teacher does well or falls to the bottom tier of the new rating system. Unlike the old evaluation system, it is no longer just a pass-or-fail grade for teachers.
This change means a higher standard for teacher evaluations, and these new evaluations take up more time. Principals, assistant principals and other administrators who are in charge of evaluating teachers have changed their daily routines to accommodate the new evaluation system. Now, evaluators say they must be strategic and mindful as they schedule each teacher evaluation.
However, Schauer said he believes when the stress from the change calms down, the district will see higher student performance and stronger teachers.
Just ‘pass or fail’ wasn’t satisfactory
In the past, teachers were rated solely on their individual performance. Now, teachers in Kyrene will be rated, in part, on their students’ grades. Forty percent of the yearly rating comes from student test grades — which can be from tests like the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) tests or other district tests, which the district is developing, Schauer said. The other 60 percent of the final score is based on the evaluation of the teacher’s individual performance.
The new law states that teachers must now be rated on a scale of highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective at the end of the year. Before they were rated either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, Schauer said.
Kyrene Assistant Superintendent Gina Taylor said that an overwhelming majority — nearly 99 percent — of teachers all received grades of satisfactory with the old evaluation system.
Taylor worked with the district’s Teacher Evaluation Design Team to select a more detailed evaluation program that follows the Arizona state law requirements.
The committee decided to implement The Art and Science of Teaching Framework by education researcher Robert Marzano. Marzano is based in Colorado and he is a speaker, writer and trainer of education materials nationwide.
“The new system is less of an event, and more of an ongoing process,” Taylor said. “Now, the main goal is really to help these teachers grow, and this will improve education.”
A software program called iObservation is a part of the Marzano system that tracks teacher scores. This software was purchased with money from the recent technology override. The software makes feedback immediate. Evaluators can fill out their evaluations instantly from within classrooms using computers or iPads. Teachers then receive emails that they have been rated on an element of their teaching as soon as they are entered in the system.
Student grades from AIMS or other district tests are uploaded to the iObservation database where they are then factored into the end-of-the-year teacher scores.
Deana Senn, a staff developer from Learning Sciences International, provided nearly 60 hours of training to Kyrene staff members about the Marzano system.
She said the complexity of the Marzano system stresses and overwhelms teachers. Although teachers are advised to use a majority of Marzano’s 60 teaching tactics everyday, the program does not require that they be graded on all 60 at once, Senn said. Evaluators are trained to look for strategies such as the use of academic games to engage students, incorporation of physical movement within the classroom, and reflection on learning goals during class lessons.
Throughout the year they are expected to observe two full 45-minute or longer full class lessons, perform several unannounced three- to 10-minute walkthrough evaluations, and meet in several one-on-one conferences with each teacher.
Forty-one of Marzano’s 60 teaching strategies are recognizable inside the classroom. Evaluators are trained how to notice the use of such strategies regardless of whether they stay for a full lesson or simply walk through classrooms. The other 19 elements — such as planning and preparing for the needs of all students and acting professionally with coworkers — can be seen and rated at any time, she said.
“The bottom line is that teaching is amazingly complex,” Senn said. “That’s why we have to focus in on those really thin slices of teaching behaviors.”
Keeping them on their toes
Tara Dale, a six-year science teacher at Akimel Middle School, said with the new evaluation process in place, she doesn’t even dare to sit down at her desk during the school day.
“Now you don’t even want to answer that one quick email,” Dale said. “What if it is during that one moment the walkthrough comes in?”
Dale said the unannounced walkthroughs are the most stressful part for teachers, but they keep them on their toes to do a better job for their students. She said it is important for teachers to be roaming the classrooms for more reasons than just the unexpected walkthroughs.
Dale now uses visuals in the classroom to help both herself and her students.
Before each new unit, Dale gives her students brightly colored sticky notes to place on the board in the front of the room. She asks her students to rate their own understanding on a scale from 0 to 4 on how much they already know about the topic. As they continue through the unit, she has students move their sticky notes to higher numbers as they learn more. Dale said the new evaluation process motivated her to try classroom strategies like this.
“It’s a win-win,” Dale said. “I can see the kids reflecting and owning their education and that has a huge snowball effect — it’s just so powerful.”
Centennial Middle School teacher Laurie Jake said stress and anxiety among her coworkers has been wild as a result of the new evaluations.
“Everyone has been like hyper-nervous Nelly since day one,” Jake said. “Stress levels have just been through the roof.”
Jake said the hardest part about the new evaluations is that 40 percent of teacher scores are reliant on student grades.
“What happens when you’ve done literally everything you can for a student but they still aren’t improving?” Jake said. “Or what happens when your students are already at 98 percent? You can’t go much higher from there — yet our scores still rely on their progress.”
Jake said that although teachers are anxious about the increased accountability, they are less angry because they understand that their evaluators face even more stress than they do.
Buckets of chocolate
Buckets of chocolate candy are sitting on Principal Tina Nicks’ desk long after Halloween this year.
“We’re going to get through this,” said Nicks, principal at Kyrene del Cielo Elementary School, as she pointed to her bucket of candy and laughed. “But we’re going to go through a lot of chocolate in the process.”
Nicks said managing her time with the addition of new responsibilities from the changed teacher evaluations requires tremendous mindfulness.
“We’re finding that balance,” Nicks said. “But sometimes you just don’t know how it will all have to work until you jump right in and get your feet wet.”
At Kyrene del Cielo, Nicks is responsible for the evaluation of around 23 teachers. Evaluators within the district each have a different number of teachers to evaluate, but most are responsible for between 15 and 20 teachers.
Nicks said the largest challenge has been creatively planning and scheduling her weeks with time for formal observations, conferences, and the scattered walkthroughs.
“How do I do it?” Nicks said as she opened her laptop and pointed to the screen. “I use this Outlook calendar. That’s how I do it.”
She said each week since evaluations began, she has done about three formal observations, and six one-on-one conferences — oftentimes with all different teachers. She said her strategy is to start by taking care of scheduled classroom observations, then “sneak in” the sporadic walkthroughs with any free time.
The new evaluations require evaluators to spend more time in classrooms. Nicks said her time for other office tasks such as answering emails and filing paperwork have shifted tremendously compared to previous years. She now spends time after school hours completing these tasks.
“We just do the best we can do each week,” Nicks said. “We take it one day, one week at a time — and we’ll just keep getting better.”
Taylor has spent much of her time alongside principals in classrooms conducting evaluations. Taylor said while change is never easy, she believes the worry will subside as teachers and evaluators become comfortable with the new process.
She said one of the biggest adjustments for teachers has been the system’s attention to detail.
“Evaluation is very personal to teachers,” Taylor said. “And they aren’t necessarily used to getting specific feedback when it before was more like pats on the back and a ‘good job.’”
However, Taylor said she believes the district will see improvements in student grades and stronger teachers as a result of the thorough feedback.
When teachers get bad grades
Some teachers fear the “unknown” of what may happen if they receive a low score such as ineffective on their final yearly performance rating. Although the district is unsure about the specific consequences of such results, Schauer said it is possible that at some point in the near future, evaluation ratings may become attached to pay.
While it is unclear about pay for performance, the new law does state that districts should offer incentives for high ratings, and consequences for low ratings. This is the same as previous years under the former evaluation system — where teachers with the lowest ratings are placed on improvement plans and cannot transfer schools until they improve.
Schauer said he has dedicated much time this year to address issues and provide support in meetings, through emails, and in-person for his staff members as they learn to adapt to this new system.
Seventh-grade teacher Dale said that although student learning is always the main concern, teachers are certainly worried about how this new system will affect their careers.
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely in the back of everybody’s head,” Dale said. “Teachers have even lost sleep over this.”
Emily Nichols is a sophomore in The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.