By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — A new teacher-evaluation process in Chicago public schools could separate the wheat from the chafe in inner-city classrooms, and that has struck fear in the heart of thousands of picketing teachers locked in a bitter battle over the matter.
Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being judged on factors they can’t control. Fear of being told they’re not good enough. Fear of being dumped.
It’s not surprising to many observers that a new state-mandated evaluation process is at the root of the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years. It’s a big change, but one that’s been a long time coming.
“This is about changing the fundamental relationship between teachers and school systems that teachers have dominated for a long time. That’s threatening for teachers and for their union, and that’s why these fights can be so vicious,” said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning policy group that is following the situation in Chicago. Winters also is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
Most states, including Colorado, Florida, New Jersey and New York and Washington, D.C., have revamped their teacher-evaluation systems or are working on reforms. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative encouraged states to implement new evaluation procedures to boost teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom.
“Illinois is in wide company here. I think that’s one of the reasons why this argument has been so strong by the unions,” said Winters, who has done extensive research on the teacher-evaluation system in the United States. “They see the tide really has been turning and that more and more states are moving in this direction toward a system that has much better evaluations for teachers than we’ve had in place,”.
As the third day of the historic Chicago teachers strike closed Wednesday, those familiar with the contract negotiations said the new evaluation system, which would assess teachers on students’ progress during the year, remained a point of contention.
The state law, signed in 2010, requires all Illinois public schools to implement a new teacher-evaluation system gradually by the 2016-17 school year. Chicago public schools are trying to implement a plan that measures student improvement on standardized tests and counts student “growth,” or lack thereof, as part — at least 25 percent — of teachers’ performance evaluations.
Salaries, tenure and job security all will be on the line.
And that has caused teachers to worry that the new system will penalize them unfairly for factors beyond their control — student poverty, hunger, homelessness and uninvolved parents among them.
But others say their complaints are unfounded, as inner-city teachers elsewhere have dealt with the same issues and have managed to excel. They say the new system is superior to the existing evaluation process, which is simpler, based on observation and rarely dings teachers for performing unsatisfactorily.
And they say it will shed light on teacher performance: good teachers will be recognized and rewarded for excellence; failing teachers will be cut loose.
They also point out that Chicago teachers were involved in the developing the new evaluation system.
“We’re seeing some of these picket signs saying, ‘Don’t judge us exclusively on our kids’ standardized tests.’ It’s kind of frustrating when you see how much thought had gone into these evaluation discussions,” said Jessica Handy, policy director at Stand for Children Illinois, which champions issues related to public education and graduation rates.
Handy said teachers, for years, have not gotten much feedback from their evaluators, which made it difficult for them, their schools and their students to improve.
“I think we can all agree they’ve done a crummy job of evaluations in the past. The whole point of an evaluation should be to have a dialogue and help teachers improve,” she said. “We shouldn’t be treating the 22-year-old college student just out of school like a super hero that gets thrown into a class with 32 kids and be expected to work magic with no support. We’ve got to support our educators.”
Sounds reasonable, right? Employees in other lines of work regularly are evaluated on their performance and meeting objectives.
The teachers do have some valid concerns, said Sue Sporte, director of research operations at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which researches student success and school improvement matters with an eye toward reform.
How do you assess progress of students who already are at the top of the scale and can’t grow as much because they’ve already got the material down? What about learning-challenged students who come to school hungry or whose parents never read to them? Should they be judged the same as middle-income students whose parents are involved? Should there be a sliding scale?
And what about educators who co-teach? If one teaches math for students in both classrooms and the other teaches reading for students in both classrooms, who gets credit for student growth? What about high school students who have different teachers for every subject? Who gets credit for reading growth?
Those are the kinds of questions being hammered out behind closed doors, Sporte said.
“It’s not as straightforward as it sounds,” she said. “It sounds like, ‘Well, yeah. You saw these kids. Did they learn or did they not?’”
So is it possible to determine who the best and worst teachers are? It depends, she said.
“It depends on what you value that your teachers do. Is it about raising test scores? Is it about raising kids who love school? Is it about developing curiosity? Is it about helping kids develop good habits so they show up and do homework?” she said. “What is it that the public and the parents value in their teachers, because what you measure is what you ultimately value.”
And, ultimately, the reluctance in Chicago comes back to fear, Handy said.
“I would say there’s a lot of rhetoric around it. I think if you tell teachers that you’re going to be judged based on student performance, it’s a scary prospect, especially for teachers who do work in those underserved areas,” she said, noting that underserved children can excel, given the right opportunities. Providing teachers with support and feedback is part of that.
“I would say it’s so important for us if we want a fair system, if we want equity, if we want to get those kids all the support they need in school. We have to support our teachers with honest evaluations and keep those best teachers in the classrooms.”