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Elliott Elementary in Lincoln, Ne., struck off on its own last year when it became the only school in the city to win money through the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Winning wasn’t something to be proud of, though: It meant the school qualified as one of the worst in the nation. About a third of fifth-graders at Elliott were proficient on state reading tests when the reforms began, compared to 80 percent in Lincoln as a whole.
Winning also meant a lot of work for teachers and administrators. One of the biggest tasks was overhauling the way teachers at the school are evaluated. Elliott was the only school in the city making the change, which meant it had to come up with a new way of rating teachers mostly on its own.
“The challenge was connecting it to student achievement,” said Jadi Miller, named the principal at Elliott after a longtime principal was ousted to comply with the grant’s mandate of new leadership. “That was certainly very new for us.”
In the Obama administration’s new push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, the vast majority of districts chose the reform option that seemed the least invasive: Instead of closing schools or firing at least half of the teaching staff, schools could undergo less aggressive interventions, such as overhauling how teacher performance is measured and rewarding teachers who do well.
But the teacher-evaluation requirement has turned out to be a major stumbling block for many schools in the SIG program. Last summer, when the U.S. Department of Education offered waivers to extend the deadline for launching new teacher and principal evaluations, more than two dozen states applied on behalf of their SIG schools, according to federal officials. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that nearly two years into their three-year grants, many schools have yet to change how they rate and reward teachers.
“You have this pressure you’re putting on these schools, and it really becomes a challenge for them to respond,” said Scott Marion, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment, which has advised schools on evaluation models.
The movement to overhaul how teachers are rated has sparked public battles between school officials and teachers unions across the country. Controversial state laws—fueled in part by a separate Obama administration grant competition, Race to the Top—have called for more thorough evaluations based on frequent classroom observations and student test scores. In some states, teachers now face losing tenure or their jobs if they are rated poorly.
Proponents of the new policies have argued that teachers have a significant impact on students’ academic careers, either preparing them for success later on or setting them back by years. Critics say that observations are subjective, and test scores aren’t a reliable measure of a teacher’s skills.
Amid the tumult, the SIG program has received less attention. Yet it’s likely to be just as instrumental in spreading the Obama administration’s vision of reform for the teaching profession. After the initial delays, many schools, along with entire districts and states, are set to launch new evaluation systems to fulfill the grant’s mandates in the next year—despite technical difficulties, resistance from teachers unions and questions about the accuracy of various evaluation methods.
Schools applying for SIG money had four reform models to choose from. During the first round of the program, launched in 2010, nearly three-quarters of schools—more than 600—signed up for the “transformation” model, which requires schools to create new evaluation and reward systems for teachers based in part on student academic growth.
Some transformation schools are located in states already in the midst of launching new statewide teacher evaluation systems, including Florida, New York and Tennessee. State support has not been a guarantee that launching the new evaluations will go smoothly, however.
In New York City, schools officials and the local teachers union have battled over job protections for poorly rated teachers at 11 schools using the transformation model. After the two sides hit an impasse this winter, the district announced it was switching to another SIG model to sidestep the teacher evaluation requirement. Now, the city plans to remove at least half of the teachers at the 11 schools.
Education Week, the Education Writers Association and The Hechinger Report partnered with 18 news outlets in 16 states to investigate how $4.6 billion in federal School Improvement Grants are being used to revitalize some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the money is being spent and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last.
Elsewhere, SIG schools have helped influence whole districts and states to rework how teacher performance is measured. For example, the school districts in Yakima, Wash., and Hazelwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, plan to introduce new evaluations at every school, not just those in the SIG program. And in Michigan, Mississippi and New Jersey, SIG schools are acting as pilots for new teacher evaluation systems that will eventually be rolled out statewide.
In some states, however, schools like Elliott Elementary have had to go it alone.
In Louisville, Ky., the teachers union reluctantly agreed to a new evaluation system in four schools that entered the SIG program this year and chose the transformation model. Part of the agreement required that the new system—which includes bonus pay for high-performing teachers—not expand to any other schools in the district.
In Alaska, schools were left to figure out how to revamp their teacher evaluations with the help of private consultants. “The difficulty is that none of these sites had anything in place at all for collecting and analyzing student achievement data in terms of tying it to teacher evaluation,” said Gerry Briscoe, a school improvement specialist at the Alaska Comprehensive Center, a nonprofit group that is supporting the state’s 10 SIG schools. “We’re really building this from the ground up.”
And in Nebraska, teacher unions are currently locked in a battle with state legislators over a proposal to increase the frequency of classroom observations. At the same time, Jim Havelka, a consultant who is aiding the state’s seven SIG schools, all of which chose the transformation model, says measuring student academic growth has been challenging because the state doesn’t provide sufficient test score data to schools.
“Doing value-added just isn’t going to happen,” Havelka said, referring to the statistical models that many states are now using to measure student growth on standardized tests. “We just don’t have that kind of data.”
Even schools in states with advanced data systems must figure out how to measure student academic progress for the vast majority of teachers whose students don’t regularly take standardized tests, including those who teach social studies, music, art or physical education. The Department of Education has said the measurements must be both “rigorous and comparable” across teachers and schools, but experts say following that mandate can be hard.
In one popular approach, teachers set goals for their students at the beginning of the school year and then check to see if they have met them the following June. In some schools, teachers are using packaged tests, like MAP, a computer-adaptive assessment sold by the Northwest Evaluation Association, to set goals like having a certain percentage of students pass by the end of the year. But others may allow teachers to use student projects, teacher-created tests or other classroom work to set goals, which can vary by teacher.
Laura Goe, a researcher for the Educational Testing Service who has advised SIG schools, says goal-setting systems may not always meet federal expectations. “If every teacher is setting their own goals and using measures of their own choosing … there’s going to be big differences in the goals, and there’s going to be big differences in the scoring,” she said.
Tim Daly, president of TNTP, a nonprofit organization that helped Rhode Island develop a statewide system of measuring teacher performance through goal-setting, said in an email that the strategy can be useful, “provided the process is sound.”
“It should be simple, rigorous, and transparent,” Daly said.
Elliott Elementary is using goal-setting to get around Nebraska’s lack of data, which makes more sophisticated statistical modeling impossible. In the fall, teams of teachers create a set of goals based on the end-of-the-year standardized tests, along with benchmark tests given during the year. Individual teachers may choose to set their own separate goals for their evaluations, although not many do.
“We never say a 50 percent goal is okay, we push people,” said Miller, the principal. “It allows everyone to be a part of it, without direct comparability.”
Officials in the Obama administration say they recognize the challenges, but insist that the requirements for the new teacher and principal evaluation systems are critical to the success of the reforms as a whole.
“This is tough work,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We want to make sure that districts have time to develop high-quality evaluation systems that will help them successfully turn around their schools.”
The waivers given out to the first set of SIG schools moved the deadline for launching the new evaluation systems from this school year to 2013-14, the year after their grant money runs out. Officials say the development process is the costliest part of the reforms. And there are no federal consequences if schools don’t make the deadlines or if their systems do not meet expectations, officials said.
Jadi Miller is optimistic that the reforms at Elliott, including the new evaluation system, will transform the school: Already, test scores have risen significantly after just one year. The next challenge is to figure out how to follow another SIG requirement—that high-performing teachers be rewarded for their work.
“To be one of 37 elementaries and we’re the only one looking at [evaluation] this way, that has created some issues sometimes,” she said. “That compensation piece continues to be a puzzle for us, and there hasn’t been great guidance.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the Education Writers Association and Education Week. Reporting was contributed by Leslie Brody of The Bergen (N.J.) Record, Antoinette Konz of the The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.