Teacher evaluation goal clear, but not how to get there

Brad Fennessy answers a question while teaching Honors American Literature to a group of junior and seniors Tuesday at Woodstock North High School.
Brad Fennessy answers a question while teaching Honors American Literature to a group of junior and seniors Tuesday at Woodstock North High School.

School officials across McHenry County have mixed feelings about education reforms that for the first time hold both teachers and administrators accountable for student performance.

On the one hand, officials from Huntley District 158 to Woodstock District 200 agree that reforms by the Legislature should create a more accountable, objective and uniform evaluation system that are in line with reforms pushed by the Obama administration and its Race to the Top initiative.

But officials also are apprehensive about incorporating students’ growth into evaluations and unresolved questions about how to accurately and fairly measure it.

“I like the idea of saying education is important and there needs to be some accountability for teachers on how to teach students,” said Bill Donato, a Woodstock High School science teacher. “It’s how you do that is the question.”

Districts across the state will be working to find answers to that question from now until 2016, the state-mandated deadline for all districts to have student growth account for at least one-fourth of a teacher’s evaluation.

The move toward more classroom accountability started in 2010 when the Legislature passed the Illinois Performance Education Reform Act. The Legislature strengthened it a year later in what is popularly referred to as “Senate Bill 7.”

The controversial reform puts an end to a long-standing system that primarily factored seniority and professional development into a teacher’s job security. Educators now have to factor in a teacher’s ability and knowledge as well as improving students’ academic performance.

Using state guidelines, each district will decide by 2016 how student growth will be factored into teacher evaluations. Districts have the power to choose what types of student assessments can be used.

But answering what constitutes student growth won’t be easy, Donato said. Each district first will have to figure out how to measure growth in a given school year.

Districts then will have to address how to measure student performance between classrooms and grade levels. Bilingual teachers who have many non-English native speakers in class and gym teachers who can’t test for student growth in the traditional ways also will need to be assessed accurately.

Donato and Bill Heckmon are on the District 200 committee assigned to address those issues for Woodstock’s school system. Heckmon, the district’s associate superintendent, said the committee will be mindful of what assessments are used to evaluate teachers.

The assessment question was a major issues in last month’s weeklong strike by teachers in Chicago Public Schools. Teachers balked at how standardized testing were incorporated into the evaluation process.

“If we are going to evaluate teachers, we need to use a growth model,” Heckmon said. The Illinois Standards Achievement Test and others like it are “a snapshot in time. It’s not meant to be used to measure growth from year to year,” he said.

Tests such as the ISAT are given to third-graders each year and measures districts’ ability to teach the state’s education standards each year.

At District 158, the most daunting challenge for teachers and administrators is figuring which student assessments produce a reliable model for student growth, said Jessica Lombard, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Lombard said the district and its teachers’ union are working to form a committee to address that question and have a system ready to go by 2016.

“The reforms are holding everybody accountable,” Lombard said. “The students are our customers, and that’s the primary reason we are here in education – to make sure each student is growing and each student is achieving.”

Deadlines for Illinois education reform:

By Sept. 1: All districts needed an evaluation system for administrators and principals that incorporates student growth.
• All districts had to adopt a statewide grading system that classifies teachers into four groups: excellent, proficient, needs improvement and unsatisfactory
• All evaluators must be trained in the statewide grading system.

By Sept. 1, 2013: All Chicago Public Schools must have an teacher evaluation system that incorporates student growth.

By Sept. 1, 2016: All Illinois school districts must start using a teacher evaluation system that incorporates student growth.

Source: Illinois State Board of Education

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