Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools revamp educator evaluations

Laurie Halt is the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Each year when the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam results are released, questions often arise about the relationship of student scores to teacher performance.

Do high MCAS scores equate with better teachers? Should test scores weigh into decisions for hiring and promoting teachers?

Under a new evaluation system mandated by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), student learning and educator practice will be linked to determine performance ratings for administrators, from superintendents to principals, as well as teachers.

Recently Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) superintendent James Weiss and assistant superintendent of instruction and curriculum Laurie Halt met with The Times to talk about what the new evaluation system will mean for Island educators.

They are already at work on a process to implement the new system’s requirements for the 2012-2013 school year, which is the deadline for school districts such as MVPS that received state Race to the Top Funds (RTTF). Underperforming schools must implement the new educator evaluation system this year and all other districts for the 2013-14 school year.

In the past, teacher evaluation on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere focused on classroom observation and a checklist of topics such as instruction, professionalism, and the classroom environment, Mr. Weiss said. About three years ago MVPS came up with its own teacher evaluation method, the Professional Growth System (PGS).

“And this is all focused upon helping teachers become better at their craft,” he said.

The PGS was based on a set of six National Board of Teachers Standards. Teachers currently are rated at the end of a cycle, which is a year for a new teacher or three years for a teacher on professional status, a term similar to tenure used in Massachusetts.

The standards are measured in many ways. As part of the PGS process, which is intended to promote a two-way dialogue, teachers provide evidence of professional growth and discuss it with a supervisor or evaluator.

“The big word in teacher evaluation now is reflection — why did you do this, what does it mean, what could you do better,” Mr. Weiss said.

For example, a teacher who had an issue with connecting with parents might make a log of parent contacts and analyze it to determine where improvements could be made.

“We wanted teachers to connect it [PGS] directly to student learning, but it wasn’t a requirement that you had to have test scores,” Mr. Weiss said. “This present year is the last year we’ll use that process in its current form. The state has mandated some significant changes.”

New standards and ratings

At the end of June, Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell Chester presented a plan for the new educator evaluation system that the state board of education adopted after a few changes.

“There is a lot more to it, but what it does is look at the craft of teaching, the art of teaching, having the right skills, and connects that with student learning, as demonstrated by various kinds of data or test scores, so it directly connects the act of teaching with student learning,” Mr. Weiss explained.

The new educator evaluation system includes four broad statewide standards for administrators and teachers. An administrator would be evaluated on curriculum, instruction, and assessment; management and operations; family and community partnerships; and professional culture.

Four ratings for performance levels include exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.

“In our present system, we have ‘meets standard,’ ‘progressing toward the standard,’ or ‘doesn’t meet standard,'” Ms. Halt said.

“To be honest, we haven’t talked so much in our system about exemplary,” Mr. Weiss added. “It’s either you are meeting those standards in many different ways, you’re progressing by learning or working toward them, or you’re not meeting them. But the state is not only trying to help teachers and administrators become better educators, but also to acknowledge and celebrate the folks who are truly exemplary, to use them as models for other folks.”

Teachers’ impact on student learning

The new evaluation system utilizes a chart that links impact on student learning to educator practice. If a teacher teaches an MCAS subject, it will be one of the determinants of his or her rating for impact on student learning.

“We are going to negotiate what those other measures of student learning are, and we’re going to be looking at kids’ growth, not just their achievement,” Ms. Halt said.

It will be difficult to use MCAS results in teacher evaluations because they are not available until September, Mr. Weiss said. Decisions on new teachers’ continued employment are made in March or April, and hire and fire decisions on other teachers in June.

Another concern Mr. Weiss has is that since subjects are interconnected, a student’s lack of success on an MCAS exam may not necessarily correlate with an individual teacher in a particular year. For example, he said, math skills are critical for chemistry. However, a student with an excellent chemistry teacher may do poorly in the class because of a mediocre math teacher the year before.

The new educator evaluation system is not tied to compensation, Mr. Weiss said. However, a teacher or administrator with poor ratings in educator practice and/or student achievement who does not demonstrate improvement could lose his or her job.

A teacher with a low rating in impact on student learning would be put on a growth plan and be given one year to change his or her practice, according to Ms. Halt. “With teacher development, the goal is about improving performance around the standards,” she said.

Mr. Weiss agreed. “One thing we’ve learned over time is the curriculum becomes a kind of never-ending big bowl, and people just keep throwing things in,” he said. “And if you let that overwhelm you, sometimes you don’t even know where to begin. So we’re going to spend until January or February determining what those priority standards are, so that as we go forward, they will frame everything we do.”

Managing megabytes

Once the standards are established, Ms. Halt said the next step is assessment. To help manage information, MVPS has started a new Data Coach program, based on a model that Ms. Halt said provides the tools to do “collaborative inquiry.”

Every school now has a data team. Fifty educators were trained over the summer, including all principals and assistant principals, who work as data coaches with their school departments or cluster groups.

Mr. Weiss said the MVPS had several older data systems in place at the elementary school level. New ones are now in place at all the schools, funded with a combination of RTTF funds, money in his budget, and some small grants.

“I want to give credit where credit is due,” Mr. Weiss noted. “Under Laurie’s leadership, people across the Island began with our Professional Growth System and our curriculum instruction work a couple of years ago, knowing at some point this was all going to happen.

“So first we had the Professional Growth System, a way of evaluating teachers,” Mr. Weiss summarized. “Now we have a lot of information that needs to be understood and manipulated, and we’ve got to pull all that together and have priority standards that we use to measure kids’ progress.

“Put all those things together,” he added, “and that’s kind of the new way we’re going to be managing what we do, not only staff but students, what we teach, when we teach it, how much emphasis and time we give to it, how we put our resources toward it, all of those things are going to come together.”

Massachusetts received a $250 million grant in 2010 as one of twelve winning states in the U.S. Department of Education’s RTTF competition. The funds are being used to promote reform in the K-12 education system’s standards and assessment, teachers and leaders, school improvement, and data systems, which includes the development of a model system for educator evaluation.

MVPS districts will receive $118,129 over the next four years from RTTF funds, which includes $2,940 for Edgartown; $31,788 for Oak Bluffs; $37,835 for Tisbury; $40,970 for the regional high school; and $4,596 for the Up-Island regional.