November 25, 2013

‘A time of great anxiety’ or ‘great opportunity’?

How Atlanta’s new evaluation system will impact local teachers

By Christopher Smith

— Lawmakers in Atlanta seem intent on spurring better education across the state to make sure future workers are actually qualified for upcoming jobs. But are new reforms, such as stricter teacher evaluation, going to help or hurt education?

That all depends on who you ask.

Jennifer Phinney, director of school support for Dalton Public Schools, said a new statewide system, called Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, brings a “time of great anxiety” for local teachers. Meanwhile, Toby Westmoreland, curriculum and instructional facilitator with Murray County Schools, called the new system “much better and fairer.”

The new system overhauls how teachers are reviewed, including self-assessment tests and student evaluations. It also requires principals to be in classrooms for a minimum of two 30-minute observations and four 10-minute walk throughs to review how knowledgeable teachers are, how positive their classroom feels and how well they communications, among other benchmarks.

The prior system had no student input, no self-assessment and only required a one-time visit to classrooms by principals.

Most school systems, including the city and Murray and Whitfield counties, have been running the new evaluation system on roughly 10 percent of their teachers this year, expecting a full rollout next June.

A ‘runaway train’?

Westmoreland said — while he wishes politicians would stay out of education — the new system forces school leaders to get out from behind their desks and demands a higher work ethic from teachers. Some local leaders disagree.

City schools Superintendent Jim Hawkins said the new evaluation system will bog down teaching with hours of paperwork and create an unrealistic demand on educators. Hawkins said he is also worried lawmakers will soon tie teacher evaluations to their salaries.

“It’s coming at us so fast,” he said.

Performance-based pay is a new federal requirement if schools want Race to the Top cash — $4.35 billion of grant money approved by Congress and President Barack Obama as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was designed to spur more rigor and creativity in schools to make America more competitive in a global market.

Evaluation-based pay is already being discussed by the Tennessee State Board of Education, but no concrete plan has been adopted yet. John Barge, Georgia’s state superintendent, is only requiring a pilot year before deciding what to do with teacher salaries. Federal officials have said Georgia’s noncompliance to add a pay system this year could mean it loses $9.9 million from $400 million in grant funding before 2015.

Leigh Ann Noll, a teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School who thinks the new system is “mostly positive,” said most teachers are afraid of what could happen if their paychecks are tied to evaluations from students and administrators.

“Some classes just a struggle,” she said. “Some are inclusion classes, or first-learner classes. And they perform on lower levels compared to gifted classes. I think that’s what scares us. What does that system even look like?”

What it looks like to Phinney is a “runaway train” of state control that takes the power away from local leaders and hurts student learning.

“This will directly impact the experience our students are having at school every day,” she said, particularly worried about a caveat in the system called Student Learning Objectives that would require standardized end of course testing for all classes.

Currently several arts-focused classes, such as dance and theater, don’t require strict testing. Phinney says those subjects, among others, can’t fit into a standardize picture and the new system “could end up being the death knell for any design in instruction.”

“I’m very concerned,” she said.

Bagley Middle already adopted system

Westmoreland isn’t as worried. Bagley Middle School in Chatsworth, he said, has been inadvertently preparing for the new evaluation system for years by having a similar system in place since 2008.

“We are a standards-based school so we haven’t had to change much to fit (the new system)” he said. “We were ahead of the rest of the ball game.”

The Bagley system involved constant review of test data and lesson plans and instructing teachers to treat students individually, not as a group — all standards in the new state system.

Before the system, Bagley was “not in a good place,” Westmoreland said.

“We had struggling special needs classes, writing scores were not great,” he said. After Westmoreland began the Bagley system “scores went way up,” he said.

Seeing that firsthand gives him faith in the new evaluation system, which he said will force teachers across the state to improve.

“Sometimes teachers just don’t know how to teach,” he said, adding that the new system will crack down on bad teachers and help good teachers become “great ones.”

Amanda Parrot, who teaches at Bagley, said she isn’t worried about the possibility evaluations could determined the size of her paycheck.

“I think we’ve been prepared,” she said. “I don’t think this will be a big shock. Bagley has done a good job preparing us for what is about to happen. I think we will be OK. I think our kids do good and we are good at what we do. So, no. I’m not worried about it.”

Neither is Tammy Rosenberger, who teaches at North Whitfield Middle School. While she doesn’t like the idea that job evaluations could decide how much she makes, she says she is “focused on the now.”

“I think there’s so many positives that outweigh the negatives, or the fears of the negatives,” she said. “There’s a fear of what could come. We have to focus on here and now and for me it has been positive.”

Positive because it has allowed Rosenberger “to grow” and see “strengths and weaknesses.”

Noll said the new system has been “actually validating.”

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, man. I’m actually doing what the state wants me to do,’” she said. “None of it was new. None of it was surprising. It was things you should want to be evaluated on.”

But it does bring a lot of extra paperwork, Noll said. The new workload constantly bleeds into her weekend and evenings, she said, which cuts into time with her family.

“I spend a lot of time on it, too,” Rosenberger said. “But I just roll with it.”

Rosenberger said teachers shouldn’t worry because local school leaders “have their backs.”

Noll agreed.

“They’re not going to throw us to the wolves,” she said.