This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Last year, though more than half the students in the Philadelphia School District failed to meet standards in reading and math, just 16 of its more than 11,000 teachers were rated “unsatisfactory.”
Only six were dismissed due to poor classroom performance.
That apparent disconnect has long frustrated parents, students, and advocates who wonder why the District seems unable to deal with inadequate teaching. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman raised the issue at a recent School Reform Commission meeting, saying that those numbers are out of sync.
New models for teacher evaluation are emerging around the country, including some that involve teachers observing and rating their peers.
But the District’s teacher evaluation system is like those in most other cities – cumbersome, restricted by the teachers’ contract, and not designed to ensure high-quality instruction.
Some principals say that if they are determined, they can terminate ineffective teachers or encourage them to leave, especially newer ones. But they say the process is virtually useless in the cases of veterans who are in control of their rooms but fail to use effective teaching strategies.
Trying to terminate such a teacher based on poor teaching – as opposed to misconduct or specific classroom incidents – “is hard, and goes on a long, long time,” said Charles Connor, principal of Decatur Elementary in the Far Northeast.
Researchers say more often the evaluation process is perfunctory and suffers because there are no agreed-upon norms for what constitutes good teaching. Without standards, deciding what good teaching is becomes a matter of taste; for instance, some principals want active classrooms in which students are engaged in inquiry-based learning, while others don’t.
“We have not seen evidence …that teacher evaluations are used to provide detailed metrics on a teacher’s performance needs, beyond the summary score of ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’” a recent report for the District by Educational Research Strategies concluded.
The report said that far from helping teachers get better, the evaluation procedure is so rigid and arbitrary that it “makes it difficult for school-based experts and coaches to … target those most in need of support.”
State rating checklists were updated in 2004 in an effort to make the evaluation process more meaningful, but the District never bothered to require principals to use them. Most principals still use old forms that, among other things, require the principal to judge teachers on “personality.”
Under state regulation and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract, principals must observe and rate teachers once a year – twice for new teachers still on probation. After one unsatisfactory rating, veteran teachers can be observed more than once a year, but dismissal requires three unsatisfactory ratings in a row, after the principal has documented the inadequacies and taken the proper steps to get the teacher help.
Teachers have often requested transfers or gone on leave to avoid consecutive “unsatisfactory” ratings, several principals said, often showing up at a different school where the process must start over again.
Revamping this ineffective system has taken on new urgency, given the more focused national attention on quality teaching.
Federal officials have made improving teacher evaluation – and tying it somehow to student learning gains – a condition of receiving the second round of federal stimulus funds.
According to a letter U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent to governors on April 1, states must report the number and percentage of teachers and principals in each district who receive low performance ratings and specify whether their evaluation system requires any evidence of student achievement gains.
“Decoupling teacher evaluation and student [progress] is like pretending pro basketball has nothing to do with a score,” he told a group of education writers in April. “Outcomes matter. We have to … find a way to measure classroom success and teacher effectiveness.”
But teacher unions and others fear this means evaluating teachers based primarily on student test scores, which they oppose.
PFT President Jerry Jordan said he doubts there is any fair way to link teacher assessment and student achievement, “unless they make sure that other institutions that affect students’ lives like health care, housing and employment for parents are also addressed.”
But there are teacher evaluation models that improve upon Philadelphia’s without relying on student test scores. Some systems have been created through district-union partnerships, others with help from foundations interested in improving teacher quality.
Most employ some sort of peer evaluation, in which teachers help devise the standards and metrics for what good instruction looks like. Short of toting up test scores, they study examples of student work and the quality of teacher assignments.
“Teachers need to understand the benefit of having rigorous, fair evaluations that their peers contribute to,” said Thomas Toch of Education Sector, who recently completed a study of teacher evaluation nationwide and concluded that most are “superficial and capricious.”
Peer evaluation is also a way to promote professionalism and create a career ladder for teachers.
The best programs, Toch said, are expensive but reap other benefits. One of the oldest and best known is in Toledo, Ohio, begun in 1981 in collaboration with the union. There, trained expert teachers observe their peers, participate in intervention, and serve on panels that decide whether a teacher should be retained.
Toch said that the system in Toledo weeds out about 10 percent of new teachers and the worst-performing veterans.
A more recent model, developed in South Carolina by the Milken Foundation, is the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Teachers are evaluated at least three times a year against a set of standards by teams of mentor and master teachers and administrators that TAP trains in special rubrics. Team members meet before and after the observed lessons to give the teachers detailed feedback, and coach them regularly until the next evaluation.
In addition to uniform, agreed-upon standards, effective systems require the use of multiple evaluators, Toch said, which ease teacher fears of arbitrariness. Many Philadelphia teachers complain that principals can and do use the system punitively.
Jordan said that more content-area specialists should be involved because principals often don’t have enough knowledge in some disciplines.
In addition to cost, the challenge to implementing such an overhaul of the system, Toch said, is the need to change the culture so that people believe evaluation systems aren’t just to weed out the poorest performers, but “can help them become better teachers.”