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Making Teacher Evaluations Work

Evaluating teachers is one of the most difficult jobs in any school district. The Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools handle teacher evaluation by incorporating it into an in-depth, wide-ranging approach to teacher learning called the Professional Growth System. Education World takes a close look at the system's practical elements and how it works.

Evaluating teachers can create knotty problems for a school district. To be fair, evaluation systems must include real opportunities for teachers to improve their performance but weed out those who ultimately can't meet the district's standards. In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) chooses to couch its teacher evaluation program in a wider-reaching approach called the Professional Growth System.

So far, the new teacher evaluation system has been successful, according to MCPS superintendent Dr. Jerry D. Weast. "The best evidence of success we have thus far is the recognition by teachers themselves that professional standards and expectations can be raised and improved effectively if teachers are part of the process and provide the essential leadership," Weast told Education World. "Good teachers know what it takes to be a highly professional and effective classroom teacher, and they understand the dynamics necessary to establish an effective process that recognizes and supports teachers as professionals."

"The concepts of professional growth within the context of schools as professional learning communities must be promulgated throughout the system as a shift away from the culture of classroom isolation," Darlene Merry told Education World. Merry is director of the department of staff development with MCPS, which in fall 2000 instituted the Professional Growth System, including key elements of extensive teacher learning and stringent teacher evaluation. The system is being phased in over a three-year period in the 189 schools in the district.

In MCPS, Merry works collaboratively with development specialists to determine development plans. "Expert staff-development specialists coordinate the training pieces," Merry told Education World. "There is a full-time teacher in each school [who] serves as the staff development teacher.

"Each school has an allocation of specified substitute time to release teachers for job-embedded professional growth activities," Merry continued. "There are initially 20, increasing to 60, consulting teachers who are released from the classroom for three years."

COLLABORATION WORKS

Planning for and developing the Professional Growth System in MCPS required great thoughtfulness and care over a period of years. In 1997, the county board of education made changes based on recommendations from a task force of MCPS and Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) representatives. MCPS hired consultants from Research for Better Teaching (RBT) in Acton, Massachusetts, to create a new teacher evaluation system that would halt "one-size-fits-all" teacher evaluation. The consultants were charged with developing a system to differentiate among teachers who are excellent, those who meet MCPS standards, and those who are marginal or ineffective.

The district teachers union and administrators association collaborated with RBT consultants to work out details of the new system throughout the development phase. Their overarching goal was to improve the quality of teaching and learning by supporting teachers in their professional growth.

EVALUATION COMPONENT

As part of the system, new teachers and underperforming teachers work with "consulting teachers" (CTs). They have at least five years of total teaching experience, have demonstrated mastery-teaching skills, have knowledge of peer coaching, and are proficient writers. "They must be able to communicate their knowledge and strategies about best practices effectively," Merry told Education World. In addition, CTs are highly recommended by an administrator and peers. They show empathy for other teachers and understand the supporting role they will play for new and underperforming teachers.

Feedback and support from the CT helps improve the new or underperforming teacher's instructional skills. The CT works with the teacher to identify strengths and weaknesses. Through modeling, observation, and feedback, the CT attempts to change the mentored teacher's practices. The teacher receives materials, and help in developing materials, to enhance classroom curriculum. Management strategies -- both physical layout and classroom routines and procedures -- are learned and help the teacher with classroom technique. Even the CT learns, and the increased skills in observation enhance his or her own teaching when the CT returns to the classroom three years later. That's what happens if all goes according to plan.

What happens if the CT and the classroom teacher don't succeed? Under the newer guidelines, a probationary teacher is not renewed and a tenured teacher is dismissed when the teacher demonstrates little or no advancement in instructional skills after one year of support from a consulting teacher. Based on evidence and documentation from the CT, a peer assistance and review panel of six teachers and six administrators, recommended by their unions and appointed by superintendent Weast, actually makes the recommendation. The basic standards of performance are concepts from The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills, a book that synthesizes current thinking on the effectiveness of matching teaching strategies to student needs.

"If, through observation and support, the CT provides evidence that the teacher demonstrates skills within each of the standards, then the teacher will be retained," Darlene Merry explained. "If there are significant issues or concerns within any of the standards, a decision is based on the severity of the concern and the indication that there has been little or no improvement in that area."

Deploying a program such as the Professional Growth System calls for ample resources, which MCPS is providing. The total budget for the project is $10,209,559, which comes from the overall MCPS budget. The cost of the salaries of the consulting teachers alone is $906,965, and $6,171,610 is budgeted for staff-development teachers.

IS IT WORKING?

Whether the Professional Growth System works will ultimately be measured by student performance, but it's too early to use that as a benchmark. So far, only anecdotal feedback on the system exists, but it has been mostly positive.

Classroom teacher Sharon Thome reacted to her experience with the program by sending her staff-development teacher a note: "At the beginning of the year I (and I think others) did not fully understand the impact that you and the position would have on us as teachers. My Back-to-School night was the best ever after you observed in my class and gave me suggestions on how to make my presentation more hands-on and valuable to parents. I got several comments back about how they liked the format and not being lectured to."

At the same time, staff-development teacher Holly Steel commented on her classroom experience in a note to Darlene Merry. "We see awesome learning going on here. ... As one who has the privilege to move about a classroom as the second adult, I witness learning. ... By the end of this year, more of our teachers will take on the second adult role in other classrooms. The seeds for the professional growth and learning communities you and others have envisioned are going to take root. I just know it."

"A large-scale reform effort such as this cannot be successful without trust and collaboration among teachers, principals, parents, and support staff," concluded Weast. "Everyone has to be personally committed to the ideals being sought and not merely comply with an edict from the central office."

 

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