By Christopher Smith
Sometimes, 20 minutes is all an employee has to impress a boss.
That can be especially true for public school teachers.
Current state law requires school administrators to show up to class without notice three times and formally observe a class for 20 minutes before deciding if a teacher is “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”
Teachers are told what standards they must meet in advance and observers must go through state-approved training to evaluate teachers, but some say one 20-minute session and a minimum of three unscheduled visits aren’t enough.
State lawmakers and officials with the state Department of Education are piloting a new model of evaluation called the Teacher Keys Effectiveness System. Now in its second year of fool-proofing, the system is expected to require at least two 20-minute classroom observations by a principal or vice principal, as well as four impromptu visits by other administrators.
Jennifer Warnack, the Murray County Schools Teacher of the Year and one of the 50,000 teachers to test-drive the new system, says it is an improvement.
“One time I had an administrator come into a computer lab I was teaching in and the technology was acting up,” Warnack, a sixth-grade teacher at Coker Elementary School, said. “I thought, ‘This is terrible. This was working yesterday. This looks bad.’ I didn’t get a bad evaluation, but if a teacher did get a bad evaluation this new system would let them redeem themselves and to improve.”
The state Department of Education website says there are close to 115,000 teachers in public schools, which means slightly more than half will adopt the new evaluation if and when it is finalized. Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools officials said none of their teachers are testing the new system, but Yanira Alfonso, a former Gwinnett County teacher who recently started at Westwood Elementary School, said she’s had “limited experience” with it.
“I only experienced it for half a year before I moved up here and I think there are pros and cons to any new thing like this,” she said. “I think it has some good things in that more of a teacher’s performance is evaluated. The fact that they (administrators) can come in more than once and take into account the other work you do is a positive. The downside is that I do feel it’s a lot of extra work for teachers and administrators.”
The test run is funded by the Race to the Top, a $4 billion federal grant arising from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which aims to improve schools across the nation and help the economy. Brett James, principal of Coker Elementary, says it is money well spent.
“The thing is, as administrators we can get bogged down in a lot of other work,” James said. “This will force us into the classroom more often and give us a better insight on how our teachers are doing and ensure our state officials and parents that our teaching methods are working. I’m also really excited by the electronic side of this. Once it’s done, we can upload our teacher evaluations online for other administrators to access. It might take awhile to perfect.”
Perfection was missed last year when only 5,800 teachers were evaluated. A report from the state Department of Education said the evaluations taken from January to May of 2012 were “skewed to the positive,” with .032 percent of teachers classified as “ineffective,” 5.95 percent as “developing or needing improvement,” 74.4 percent as “proficient” and 19.3 percent as “exemplary.”
“Statistically, this flies in the face of our academic achievement levels. These numbers just don’t jibe with reality,” Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If the Georgia evaluation system is going to be based on these type of statistics, I wouldn’t see us going forward with it because, just statistically, it can’t be valid.”
Warnack thinks that once the system has been made as sound as possible, it will “streamline” a complicated process.
“It will also add some uniformity to things,” Warnack said. “Before, school districts were evaluating teachers by different standards. This will have people in Murray County being evaluated by the same standards as teachers in Gilmer County, south Georgia, and all across the state.”
The one portion of the new model that concerns Warnack is student evaluations. Students in all grades will have a chance to critique their teachers on 10 education standards, responding to questions written to fit the students’ grade level. Warnack says she will be evaluated by her sixth-graders in March.
“Sometimes I wonder if all the students, especially the younger ones, will evaluate truthfully or honestly,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if my students did one evaluation on me it wouldn’t be a problem, but you have to realize that these kids will have to do an evaluation on all their teachers. I wonder if they’d do them honestly or get bored with them.”
“I oversaw some student evaluations when I was still at (Hopkins Elementary School) in Gwinnett County,” she said. “The students would come to the computer lab and take a survey, but I think it was inaccurate. I witnessed where students would stand in front of their computer and clicked straight down all the way, so I doubt if it’s accurate. I think that whole part should be taken out.”
Accurate or not, teachers won’t be the only ones who will be evaluated differently, James said.
“There is also another portion being piloted right now to evaluate leaders and administrators,” he said.
The Leader Keys Effectiveness System requires superintendents to review administrators like principals in a similar format, evaluating “instructional leadership, school climate, planning and assessment, organizational management, human resources management, teacher/staff evaluations, professionalism and communication, and community relations.”
James welcomes it.
“It only makes sense that you want to make sure your administrators are doing a good job, too,” he said. “All of this is improvement, from my perspective.”
The 10 teacher assessment standards of the new evaluation model, according to the state Department of Education: “Professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional strategies, differentiated instruction, assessment strategies, assessment uses, positive learning environment, academically challenging environment, professionalism and communication.”