Memphis tries D.C.-style teacher evaluation

March 31, 2012

Teachers here took a step last spring that seemed at first glance surprising: They chose to have their work evaluated in much the same way that their counterparts are observed and rated in D.C. public schools.

In the District, the IMPACT evaluation system, developed under former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, has stirred huge debate as nearly 300 teachers have been fired for poor marks during the past two years.

Memphis teachers adopted the D.C. method — in significant part — over two alternatives that are better known and more widely used. They said IMPACT offers concise, concrete formulations of what effective teaching looks like.

“It really allows you to reflect,” said Melanie Fleming, who teaches third grade at Richland Elementary, one of the higher-performing schools in Memphis.

But many of the city’s 7,000 teachers are raising grievances about the new system and fears that school officials will use it to purge educators, not help them raise their game. Union officials say teachers feel betrayed, an echo of the D.C. tumult.

“What they are going to do is run some good veteran teachers into retirement,” said Stephanie Fitzgerald, a longtime science teacher and former president of the Memphis Education Association.

Superintendent Kriner Cash disagreed. “This isn’t about gotcha,” he said.

The Memphis debate raises the question of how much D.C. school reform efforts will influence public education elsewhere. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed $20,000 raises for teachers who earn top ratings two years in a row — similar to the D.C. teacher bonus program. Interest in IMPACT is so broad that D.C. school officials in January held a second annual “educator evaluation summit,” which drew educators from 17 states for briefings on what Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her team have learned.

To Henderson, the birth of IMPACT’s Tennessee cousin is a heartening sign.

“Previously, nobody would look at DCPS for much of anything except to point to us as an example of urban education failure,” Henderson said. “And the simple fact that we are now on the cutting edge of things around some of this stuff is in­cred­ibly gratifying.”

Initiatives here and in the District are part of what a recent study called “unprecedented momentum” toward evaluations that hold teachers accountable for student achievement. Lured by the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top grant contest, and private sources such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 32 states have overhauled their assessments in the past three years, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Tennessee is a hotbed for change in how teachers are appraised. State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman (Rhee’s ex-husband) is a former top official of Teach for America, a leading proponent of stringent evaluations. In 2010, the state legislature passed a law requiring annual evaluations for all licensed teachers, using multiple measures that include “value-added” — a controversial statistical tool to determine an instructor’s contribution to student test scores.

That paved the way for the state to win $500 million from Race to the Top. Memphis, which had been working independently on revamping evaluations, won a $90 million grant from the Gates Foundation to experiment with teacher assessments.

Like IMPACT, the Memphis program uses a mix of regular classroom observations, test scores and other measures to assess teacher quality. Previously, evaluations usually meant only perfunctory check-ins by principals, who routinely awarded most instructors good ratings even as their students posted dismal test scores. Many tenured teachers here went five years between evaluations.

“It’s not okay to check in with someone you deem a professional once every five years,” said Monica Jordan, coordinator of Memphis teacher talent and effectiveness.

Some teachers say administrators left them poorly prepared for the requirements of the new assessment. Classroom observers had conflicting interpretations of the performance criteria.

But teacher remorse over last spring’s choice, school officials say, is less about IMPACT than the unprecedented scrutiny from a rigorous new evaluation. It is difficult, officials acknowledge, for teachers with 20 to 30 years experience who have long been told they are meeting expectations to suddenly hear that they need to rethink much of what they do.

Memphis school officials said they are uncertain how many dismissals may result from poor evaluations this year. In an interview, Cash estimated 200, a number that his chief of staff, John Barker, later walked back, saying that more would be known in the next few weeks. The system’s approximately 2,000 non-tenured teachers — those with less than three years experience — are more vulnerable. For those with tenure, the future may hinge on what kind of evaluation, if any, they received last year. Under Tennessee law, tenured teachers with two consecutive poor evaluations are subject to dismissal.

Cash, a former Martha’s Vineyard superintendent who worked in Miami and came to Memphis in 2008, has some misgivings about the intense push to appraise teachers through metrics.

“The artful parts of teaching are more difficult to measure,” he said.

Teacher evaluations are just one element in a time of immense upheaval for the Memphis public schools, which serve a poor and heavily minority population of 105,000 students. The city is in the throes of negotiating a consolidation with majority-white suburban Shelby County schools, a move compelled by funding issues. The Memphis Education Association lost much of its power after state lawmakers outlawed collective bargaining by public employees last year.

In the midst of political challenges, Cash said he worried about the evaluations being seen as an assault on African American women, who comprise 75 percent of the city’s teacher corps. He called it one of the “third-rail issues” of the kind that undid Rhee and former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Of particular concern, he said, are about 800 mostly veteran teachers who have scored poorly on evaluations and may not be reachable by coaching or professional development.

In Memphis, a working group of teachers and administrators spent much of 2009 scrutinizing every available teacher performance appraisal, selecting three to pilot at a limited number of schools during the 2010-11 academic year: the Framework for Teaching, a widely used system devised by Charlotte Danielson, a Princeton-based educator; the Teacher Advancement Program, a creation of businessman Lowell Milken that features peer observation and feedback; and IMPACT.

The first two were considered too prescriptive and excessively detailed, school officials said. The Danielson system, according to its Web site, breaks down teaching into 22 components and 76 smaller elements.

In April 2011, teacher focus groups selected IMPACT for the clarity and specificity of the 11 “rubrics” — or performance criteria — that formed the basis for classroom observations. They include clear presentation, use of strategies to develop higher order thinking in students and consistent checking for understanding.

Memphis didn’t completely cut and paste IMPACT onto its books. Value-added measurements count for just 35 percent of evaluations in grades where standardized tests are administered, compared with 50 percent in the District. Memphis also counts student surveys for 5 percent of the assessment. The District does not.

But teachers say the process went off the rails last summer. Principals and other classroom observers were poorly trained in how to use the IMPACT rubrics, teachers said. They also were overwhelmed by the challenge of checking all 11 criteria in a half-hour classroom visit.

“There was a high stress level,” said Martha Mason, a fifth-grade math teacher at Winridge Elementary in southeast Memphis.

In the District, a cadre of “master educators” shares the load of classroom observations with principals. In Memphis, principals carry most of the responsibility, with minimal help from the central office.

Sharon McNary, principal of higher-performing Richland Elementary, said her normal 12-hour days have stretched to 16, with evenings spent in her living room with an iPhone, iPad and laptop, writing reports on classroom observations. Each half-hour visit creates two to four hours of writing and post-observation conferences with teachers.

It has limited her ability to get around the school the way she used to, troubleshooting and conferring.

“I miss it when I’m not in every classroom every day,” McNary said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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