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Last spring, as the school year was coming to a close, most of Michelle Breitenfeldt’s kindergarteners were not reading at grade level. But that did not stop the Wisconsin teacher from setting an ambitious goal for herself this school year: 80 percent of her students would be on target by May, she vowed. “I don’t like to give up,” she told me.

Breitenfeldt and her fellow kindergarten teachers set this goal as part of Wisconsin’s new teacher evaluation system, which debuted statewide this past fall. In Wisconsin, teachers now set one of the main criteria on which they will be judged—not administrators or state policymakers.

At a time when the debate over how to assess America’s schoolteachers is often framed as too easy vs. too harsh, Wisconsin is striving for something in between. The state is trying to create a teacher evaluation system that’s more rigorous than the observations of yesteryear—which in some communities might have encompassed a cursory classroom visit by an administrator—but less punitive than popular tactics used more recently, like publicly rating teachers on the websites of national newspapers like the New York Times or Los Angeles Times—or threatening them with dismissal for subpar student test scores. So Wisconsin is handing over some of the reins to teachers, asking them to decide how much students should be expected to learn, and how that growth should be measured.

“If you’re just trying to give a teacher a score and say, ‘You’re good or bad,’ that’s easy to do,” said Katie Rainey, the director of educator effectiveness for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “What’s harder to do is create a system that helps the middle-flier [teachers] improve.” To do that, officials have to win teachers’ trust—to get them to buy-in, which can be challenging because of all the turmoil teachers currently face across the country. In many districts, teachers have had to contend not only with new (and ever-changing) teacher evaluation systems, but harder standardized tests and hysteria over the Common Core curriculum standards.

Teacher self evaluation
Erie Elementary Charter School kindergarten teacher Gloria Taylor. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

Reform fatigue may already be the greatest enemy to innovation in America’s schools. Since 2009, more than half of states have overhauled their teacher evaluation systems—with some of them making tweaks every single year. Most states made these changes in response to President Obama’s school-reform grant competition Race to the Top, which privileges states that judge teachers at least partly on their students’ performance. Over the past five years, Race to the Top has helped prompt seismic changes in the way America thinks about—and assesses—its teachers, with many states shifting from an evaluation system based on classroom “walk-throughs” by an administrator to a more punitive model that might use student performance to grade, sort, and rank their teachers, potentially for hiring, firing, and promotion purposes.

Some experts say a more statistical approach to assessing teachers is long overdue and crucial to identifying and weeding out subpar teachers. Others say too many states have strayed from what should be their primary mission: helping teachers improve.

“The cause of teaching as a profession has gone backwards because of policies that are punitive,” said Charlotte Danielson, the creator of a method of observing and grading teachers in the classroom known as the Framework for Teaching, a set of 22 standards—such as maintaining an organized classroom and communicating well with students—that teachers are judged on. Wisconsin is among the states that use the framework as part of its evaluation.

But now some districts and states are starting to think more about how they can use evaluations to encourage rather than penalize teachers. Wisconsin is unusual in asking teachers to play a more active role in defining one of the main criteria on which they will be evaluated. If it works, the state’s experience could pave the way for a rare middle ground in the war over teacher evaluations.

At the start of the school year, the 27-year-old Breitenfeldt had two main sets of goals to set for herself. The first the state requires to be a measurable learning target for her students. This was the 80 percent number that Breitenfeldt set along with her kindergarten colleagues—that 80 percent of the school’s kindergarteners would be reading at grade level by the end of the year, as measured by a test known as Fountas & Pinnell. Only one of Breitenfeldt’s students met that bar at the start of the school year. But by December, half were on level, giving her hope that enough would pull through.

In addition to the gradewide quantifiable target, Breitenfeldt also had to devise a personal goal: identifying an area or two, possibly of weakness, where she hoped to improve. So she made it a goal for herself to attend more professional trainings and communicate better with students’ families. The latter, Breitenfeldt knew, would be challenging. Breitenfeldt teaches at Keshena Primary School, which is located on the Menominee Indian Reservation, where nearly all of the students are low-income and Native American. Three of her students’ families do not have working phones, so she would have to make home visits to remain in regular contact. And Breitenfeldt, pregnant with her first child, already had a packed daily schedule. She leaves for school at 6:30 a.m., and then goes to a second job as a varsity dance coach after school.

Breitenfeldt will ultimately be judged on two sets of scores: one set based on her performance on the 22 standards laid out by Danielson’s framework and a second based on student growth. The second score won’t solely hinge on whether teachers meet the targets they lay out for themselves. It will also encompass how reflective they were in setting that goal, how well they monitored student progress, and how carefully they adjusted instruction accordingly. That way, a teacher who sets, and achieves, a ridiculously low goal for her students would not rate well.

“We’re trying to allow teachers to be learners,” Rainey said. “We’re not trying to compare teachers but track their progress from point A to point B.”

“I like that you have to create your own goal and be reflective,” Breitenfeldt said of the latest iteration of Wisconsin’s teacher evaluations. In the six years that she has been teaching, she’s experienced three different evaluation systems—with yet more changes likely in store. Teachers across the state are grappling to understand the nuances—and stakes—of this latest approach. And their experience thus far speaks to the challenges—and promise—of Wisconsin’s alternative method. Even the most empowering teacher evaluation system could still be received by teachers as yet another bureaucratic mandate. But by giving teachers a chance to set some of their own goals, Wisconsin might just raise the bar higher for everyone.

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