New criteria for evaluation will likely include kids' test scores
By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Nov. 8, 2010
About 99 percent of teachers in the Houston school district receive satisfactory job evaluations, with their students' academic success barely playing a factor.
That's likely to change next year. Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier and the school board are developing a new appraisal system for the district's 13,000 teachers. The process will affect who's promoted and fired, as well as the training teachers receive.
The nitty-gritty of evaluations might seem incidental, but the topic has become a cornerstone of public education reform, with President Barack Obama calling on schools to hold teachers more accountable for their students' performance.
Ann Best, the Houston Independent School District's chief human resources officer, acknowledged that teachers are nervous about the changes, but she said they, along with parents and administrators, are represented on committees developing the new criteria.
"This effort is designed to ensure that we have effective teachers in all of our classrooms," Best said, "and part of having effective teachers is giving teachers really clear feedback about their performance. What we should expect coming out of this initiative is more effective teachers in our schools."
Still, HISD's largest teachers group is threatening a possible challenge at the Texas Education Agency.
Texas law says any teacher evaluation systems that veer from the state-approved model must be "developed by" school-based committees and a district-level committee.
Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, questioned whether HISD officials are letting the committees drive the process as required.
"What we're getting back from the teachers is they feel they're window dressing — that all the decisions have been made," Fallon said. "If (the new evaluation) isn't really developed by them and accepted by them, then we will promise a challenge at the state."
Best and Dan Weisberg of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit helping HISD with the evaluation process, rejected the claim that teachers are being sidelined.
"There is no secret tool in any file that someone could say it's already been developed," Best said.
Committees have met over the last two months and, according to a presentation made to the school board, have agreed on three broad categories for the ratings: student performance, instructional practice and professional expectations.
The main sticking point, by all accounts, will be how to define student performance. The current appraisal tool focuses mostly on principals' observations of teachers — not on student test scores or other data.
The HISD board approved in February a policy ordering future evaluations to include an analysis of test score data called value-added, but trustees did not set any details, such as how much the scores should count in teacher ratings.
Value-added is meant to be a statistical measure of teacher effectiveness, looking at whether students' test scores met, exceeded or fell below expectations based on each child's past performance.
Fallon, whose union represents more than 7,000 educators, said it would be a "deal breaker" if the evaluations included the value-added data that HISD uses to determine teachers' bonuses. She and Chuck Robinson, who heads the district's second-largest teacher group, repeatedly have said the formula developed by North Carolina statistician Bill Sanders is confusing and unreliable.
HISD model criticized
HISD's general counsel, Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, declined to speculate what would happen if the committees decide against making value-added data part of the evaluation as the board policy mandates.
"It's premature for us to comment on what will or will not be in there," she said. "Obviously the board policy exists. I think it's a policy of an aspirational nature."
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, met with members of the Houston chapter in October to encourage them to work with the district to adopt an "evaluation system that does look at both teacher observations and student learning."
Weingarten made headlines in January when she said she favored including student test scores and other measures of student performance in evaluations. But she has blasted HISD's value-added model.
"The more we look at it, the more concerned we are it's not ready for prime time," she said. "It's like a weather forecast."
A study of four years of teachers' evaluations in HISD found, as in other districts nationwide, that few teachers got poor marks. Of all the ratings, 62 percent were "exceeds expectations" and 37 percent were "proficient." The other 1 percent were "below expectations" or "unsatisfactory."
Best said she expects the new appraisal to better differentiate among teachers.
"To me it's impossible that nearly 100 percent of our staff are performing at the highest levels because there are varying levels of performance in any profession," she said.
Robinson, who leads the Congress of Houston Teachers, said it's more important to train principals or other evaluators than to change the appraisal document.
"It's the way it's applied and used and the kinds of instructional leadership you have in a building," he said, adding that teachers expect the new evaluation will lead to more firings.
"There's just a lot of fear, a lot of insecurity and a lot of mistrust - and not from people who are lazy, indifferent people who just want to collect a paycheck."
The focus of the evaluations, Best said, will be on helping teachers improve their skills.
"What we want to assure people of is the first step is not termination," she said. "The first step is having accurate data to inform a plan for your development. Then we have to assess the extent to which the implementation of that plan actually works."