Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
INDIANAPOLIS — Reform: There is perhaps no idea more embraced in education circles nationally—and especially here.
Indiana is in the midst of a massive education reform effort that includes the creation of vouchers, increasing the number of charter schools and adopting a new system to hold schools accountable. For the first time, that includes taking control of failing schools away from districts.
It could be argued, however, that no reform measure will have more impact in the classroom than a new state program that is being piloted in six Indiana school districts and is about to be unleashed in every school across the state.
The Hechinger Report and Indianapolis Star have teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Indiana.
Beginning next school year, the way teachers are evaluated—in essence, graded—will change dramatically. The result, reformers predict, is that large numbers of bad teachers will be tossed out, good teachers will be rewarded, and teacher quality will be raised in classrooms across Indiana.
“This whole process … has the possibility of really transforming education,” said Thomas Hunter, superintendent of Greensburg Community Schools, which is a pilot site for the state’s model evaluation system this year. “In very few years, there will not be a poor teacher in a classroom.”
The legislature passed a law last year that will require annual evaluations. Here’s how the system will work:
Teachers across the state will be rated 1 through 4, with 1 being the lowest. Those ratings will be based in part on the test-scores of their students.
The ratings come with consequences.
Those who receive ineffective ratings can be dismissed at the end of the school year. After two years, anyone twice rated as needing improvement—teachers rated a 1 or 2—also can be fired. Teachers rated in the bottom two categories also can be blocked from receiving a raise.
“This is a culture shift,” said Mindy Schlegel, who leads a new division within the Indiana Department of Education focused on educator effectiveness. “This is saying, ‘If you’re not good, you don’t deserve a raise.’ ”
How significant is this change? Consider this: Currently, many teachers are not observed even once a year. Few are rated as ineffective.
The reform is championed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who thinks the current system, which leaves evaluation up to each school, does not address poor performance. He pointed to a study of a sample of school districts that showed 99 percent of teachers were rated effective.
Bennett calls that a “statistical impossibility.”
And while most education reforms have spurred politically polarizing rhetoric, there is general consensus on the need for improved teacher evaluations in Indiana.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Nate Schnellenberger has repeatedly called for “fair, rigorous evaluation” for every teacher.
Many school districts have little in the way of a functioning evaluation process—and it varies greatly from one district to another. Often, an evaluation consists only of a less-than-formal classroom observation by a principal or vice principal.
One of those models being piloted in Indiana is nationally known, and the other is the state’s self-created design. Districts may adopt one of those approaches, tweak their existing model to conform to the state’s model, or create their own—as long as the state determines it complies with the new law.
The Warren Way
Few districts are better poised for the change than Warren Township, which has been refining a homemade evaluation system for 15 years.
The district was chosen as a state model site because it already regularly reviews teachers, creates intervention plans for those who struggle and has the option to fire those who do not improve after a second level of intensive help.
The changes the district is making to fit the state model are mostly minor. For example, ratings were changed from effective or not effective to the state’s four-point scale, and observations for veteran teachers will be annual instead of every three years.
The district also is working on incorporating student test-score growth as a factor in its process for the first time.
“Our expectations for teachers and principals have been very high,” Assistant Superintendent Mary Rehlander said.
Ryan Russell, the principal at Raymond Park Intermediate Academy, has found Warren Township’s process helps people first to figure out if teaching is for them and then how to teach at their highest level.
“I tell new teachers the difference between being a great teacher and leaving the profession is how you respond when you’re knocked on your tail,” he said. “How resilient are you?”
Russell’s teachers receive a very clear outline of the expectations on which they are graded. Reviews start with short visits, usually about five minutes, some unannounced, that he or an assistant principal makes regularly. Twice a year, the administrators perform a full evaluation for new teachers. Altogether, new teachers commonly are observed as many as 20 times a year. This is being extended to all teachers.
Most feedback is simple and technical. Take, for example, this scene that played out recently.
Russell was observing Jen Hess’ fifth-grade class when he noticed something subtle from his seat in the back of the class: The highest-achievers in the room were tuning out.
Russell mentioned it to Hess. By the next day, Hess had a new game plan.
“I adjusted my lesson,” she said. “Instead of keeping them all with me, I had the higher-level kids meet in a small group. Their discussion took it to a higher place.”
For Russell—and Hess—this is what a teacher evaluation should look like. The best teachers, Russell said, will take even the most minor concern and kick it around until they find a solution.
“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ approach,” Russell said. “I can say a simple sentence or ask a question, then walk away. That will bring more change for student learning than rating her with a number.”
Sometimes, Russell said, multiple observations reveal recurring problems. That leads to a meeting called “problem solving,” in which the teacher and administrator discuss concerns, create a plan to solve them and establish a timeline.
“It doesn’t start the first time we see something,” Russell said. “We have a very specific assistance technique.”
If the problem is resolved within the timeline, the process ends. If not, teachers face intensive intervention. This involves a team of about five fellow teachers and the principal.
Over a new time frame, often a semester, team members conduct observations and give feedback and advice. If the teacher improves, the process goes back to the less intense problem-solving level.
If not, the team can recommend to the superintendent to cancel the teacher’s contract.
“We don’t take lightly people’s careers,” Russell said, “but my measuring stick revolves around leadership with the children in the classroom.”
This year, Greensburg is piloting the state’s model system, known as RISE.
Teachers will be observed five times throughout the course of the year—three times for 12 to 15 minutes and twice for 40 to 60 minutes. Administrators will catalog what they see and then meet with teachers to dissect performance. Teachers will receive training to help them improve.
Next year, when the system is fully implemented, observation will make up three-quarters of a teacher’s overall evaluation grade, with scores for planning, leadership and core professionalism added in as well. (Greenburg is still figuring out how test-scores will be factored in.)
The district quickly learned principals are the key to making RISE work well.
It’s shifted the focus of their work heavily toward how teaching happens in their schools.
Greensburg Junior High School Principal Dave Strouse, for example, said he no longer has time to be in the cafeteria during lunch and now must split bus duty with an assistant principal. Parents who used to have easy access to him at school more often need to call ahead to schedule a meeting.
“The hard part is giving meaningful feedback,” Strouse said. “That’s why it takes so long.”
Surveys conducted by the Indiana Department of Education show that nearly 39 percent of school systems plan on adopting RISE, and 38 percent will try to adapt what they already do. The state is prepping itself to train hundreds of administrators with a four-day session in the summer and more follow-ups in the fall.
Indiana is far from alone in its pursuit of new systems to evaluate teachers.
Florida passed legislation last year mandating districts craft new evaluation systems that will require yearly evaluations and use student test-score data for at least 50 percent of an overall score.
Also last year, Massachusetts lawmakers approved overhauling their system. Education advocates in the state are working on a ballot initiative that would link teacher-evaluation results to staffing decisions.
Tennessee’s new teacher-evaluation system, which includes multiple observations and student surveys, was rolled out this school year.
A recent joint research effort called Measures of Effective Teaching, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found the more often teachers are evaluated, the more likely their effectiveness ratings match the success or failure of their students as measured on standardized tests. (Disclosure: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story in collaboration with The Indianapolis Star.)
Indiana’s new evaluation process is expected to generate huge amounts of data. Schlegel, the state administrator who is leading the new department focused on educator effectiveness, said what those data say, and how districts adjust, will spell success or failure.
The hope is that the Indiana Department of Education will not only be able to judge how well the plans were executed, she said, but also use the data to ask useful questions. Are low-performing teachers improving or leaving the profession? How are the best teachers distributed among schools? Is teacher retention improving?
“There will be data that no one has now,” Schlegel said. “There are so many layers of information that [are] interesting and issues we can address.”
A version of this story appeared in The Indianapolis Star on March 11, 2012.