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When former Gov. Mitch Daniels and then State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett pushed a massive overhaul of teacher evaluation through the legislature in 2011, the promise was a bold new system that would reward the best teachers, weed out the worst and for the first time tie pay raises to student test scores.
Two years later, the teacher evaluation landscape is dramatically changing with Bennett’s successful challenger, Glenda Ritz, in office.
Ritz is making big changes to systems Bennett put in place to help districts create new evaluation systems. She argues Bennett’s model was too centralized and prescriptive. Her approach, she said, will give school districts more latitude while maintaining teacher accountability.
But to some school reformers, Ritz is subtly backing away from what was supposed to be a tough new system of accountability, possibly squandering a chance to greatly improve teaching in the state.
For teachers, the stakes are high as new systems take shape that will determine their pay and job security. For students, a system that leads to better instruction could be a boon, but the danger exists that teachers will end up confused about what’s expected of them and distracted from the task of teaching.
One thing is certain: Ritz’s vision is very different from Bennett’s. Teacher quality is an area where she has deep expertise. And she’s moved quickly to undo some of the supports he put into place for new evaluation system.
For example, the Indiana Department of Education’s online resources intended to guide administrators and teachers grappling with the new law have been dramatically overhauled.
Gone is all reference to RISE, the state’s model teacher evaluation system developed by Bennett’s team that many expected would become the default model at most schools. Also gone are loads of reference materials and resources the department collected to support districts that use it.
One new link is to a video featuring Ritz speaking into the camera about evaluation and dropping another bombshell — that her staff plans to revise Bennett-created rules that would have assigned teachers ratings of 1 through 4 based on the ISTEP test score growth of their students that districts could use as part of their evaluations.
Bennett supporters dismayed
Veterans of the department under Bennett are dismayed by the change in direction. There’s even an effort underway to try to rebuild the RISE Web page outside of the department’s Web site.
“I sort of knew it was coming, but I was still really disappointed,” said Mindy Schlegel, who left the department last summer after leading the effort to improve teacher evaluation under Bennett. “Those resources were meant to be support. It was the work of a lot of Indiana educators. We worked for over two years, we got lots of feedback, we made changes, we piloted it for a year and we made changes again.”
But Ritz argues her way is better for Indiana educators.
“I don’t believe that was the intent of the legislature to push people toward one model,” she said. “We want good models out there that promote great instruction in the classroom and allow the flexibility for the classroom teacher to shine.”
For his part, Bennett, now in a similar role in Florida, is baffled by her take.
“I’m a little confused by the criticism,” he said. “To say it was top heavy is not a very informed opinion. But hey, she won the election. So it’s her deal now.”
Of all the issues Ritz has faced since she took office, judging what makes good teaching is the one she is most passionate about and has been most deeply involved in.
Ritz is one of fewer than 200 National Board certified teachers in Indiana, which means her teaching was recognized through a rigorous review process of meeting high standards. She is now one of the directors of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which sets those standards.
As an advocate for the Indiana State Teachers Association prior to her election, Ritz said she spent more than 150 hours working behind the scenes with legislators and Bennett’s office in 2011 crafting language for the law that mandated all teachers have annual performance reviews that include student test scores as a factor and lead to one of four ratings — highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective.
Those rated in the bottom two categories are blocked from receiving raises and teachers rated ineffective twice can be fired.
“I have a unique perspective on the intent of that language and the intent was always to have local school districts develop their own evaluation systems within those parameters,” Ritz said. “(RISE) will not be the state model going forth. We will be putting out a model probably this summer that will be different from RISE.”
Many states ramp up evaluations
Since 2009, 36 states and the District of Columbia have altered their teacher evaluations systems, including increasing the number of times teachers are observed or tying teacher ratings to student achievement. The hope was that these changes would make it easier to identify ineffective teachers and remove them from the classrooms, as well as identify and reward top performing teachers.
Under old evaluation systems, about 99 percent of teachers were deemed effective, according to a report by The New Teacher Project, a New York City-based organization that helps professionals in other fields change careers to become teachers.
Under Bennett, an internal study showed the case was much the same in Indiana, with 99 percent of teachers in a sample of school districts rated “effective.” Bennett rejected such high ratings as a “statistical impossibility.”
Even with new systems, early results across the country indicate that not much has changed. In Tennessee and Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated at least effective under their new systems. Almost 94 percent of teachers in Georgia taking part in the state’s pilot program met expectations. Nearly 97 percent of Florida’s teachers were effective or highly effective. Just 0.3 percent were deemed unsatisfactory, the same as the year before the evaluations were implemented.
In Florida, like in Indiana, districts were given some flexibility in designing their evaluation systems. Half of a teacher’s evaluation must be tied to student test scores in the state, but individual districts were allowed to develop the other 50 percent on their own. The results varied widely from district to district. Okaloosa County School District rated nearly 80 percent of its teachers highly effective, for example, while in Franklin County School District, two-thirds of teachers were said to be ineffective.
What sorts of outcomes Indiana’s model produces will begin to be seen later this year as more districts implement their new evaluation systems and bargain new pay systems with their teachers’ unions that take the results into account.
Schlegel, for one, is concerned that Ritz is aiming for a system that won’t diverge much from the state’s historical practice of labeling nearly all teachers as effective.
“My sense is she is not comfortable using testing to hold people accountable,” Schlegel said.
Ritz seeks more local control
But Ritz said her objection to RISE is not a complaint about accountability.
“Ineffective teachers — I said this many times and in many arenas during 2011 — ineffective teachers shouldn’t be employed,” she said. “Ineffective teachers shouldn’t be working in your district.”
The 2011 law, she said, is a good one. In fact, she’d like to see Indiana move toward encouraging all teachers to pursue National Board certification as a natural next step after starting a career in the classroom.
“They’d know that attainment is where we want you to be,” Ritz said, “to be that kind of quality.”
But she believed RISE placed too many limits, dictating to teachers how they do their jobs.
“We want all teachers to have that kind of spark when kids walk into their classrooms and not be relegated to thinking they have to do things in a very prescriptive way for their evaluation,” she said.
Teresa Meredith, president-elect of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said Ritz has an opportunity to execute the evaluation system the way the law intended. Bennett, she said, was off the mark.
“We don’t think he implemented teacher evaluation quite the way it should have been done,” she said. “He seemed to want the state to have more control over this, but it needs to be more local.”
Bennett defends model
That’s not a fair depiction of RISE or what the department under Bennett was aiming for, Schlegel said. State officials were always open to locally-created models, an option Bennett publicly trumpeted often.
“What we were trying to create incentives for was compliance with the law,” she said. “As long as your model was compliant with the law that’s what we were trying to push.”
Bennett noted that the state put forward three models in the pilot year — RISE, a second national model and a locally created model from Warren Township. The importance of local input was a lesson learned from pursuing a federal Race to the Top grant in the past.
“One thing we took out of our Race to the Top experience was to make the local school districts the centers of innovation when it came to evaluation,” Bennett said.
Far from pushing RISE onto local districts, the state was responding to calls for help, Schlegel said.
“A lot of districts said they really needed help because they didn’t have the resources or time to develop one on their own,” she said. “We wanted to support a model people could have a really good start from or take and use if they wanted.”
Ritz argues a less specific state model will allow districts to develop their own systems that are more unique, leading to a wider variety good ideas to share.
In Elkhart, for example, Executive Director of Personnel Doug Thorn said an entire school’s performance is factored into individual teachers’ ratings.
“We don’t want to have an evaluation model that leads towards teachers wanting to keep the secrets of their success to themselves,” he said. “RISE focuses too much on – and this may be my bias – too much on singling out and saying this teacher is exceptional rather than figuring out how to raise everyone’s skill set.”
And yet, Thorn says Elkhart’s system, will have high standards.
“If we had 30 to 40 percent of our teachers rated as highly effective, we would think that the truth of the matter is that we are overrating our teachers,” he said.
Scott Syverson, talent manager for The New Teacher Project, which worked with three RISE pilot districts in Indiana last year, said the system’s biggest challenge was deciding where teachers fall on the four-step rating scale. The organization is now working with Indianapolis Public Schools to train principals in RISE evaluations.
“It’s high stakes for something that’s not an exact science,” he said. “Some observations are easier than others.”
Teacher pay affected next year
Those decisions will really begin to matter in 2014, as districts will begin this fall to negotiate with their unions over new pay systems. Under state law, those who are rated “effective” can get raises, but a drop of one spot to “improvement necessary,” and districts can block any raise.
Ritz wants that changed. The state will be looking at data to see how many of the teachers needing improvement are new teachers.
“I have strong feelings about the category of teachers that are labeled improvement necessary being paid,” she said. “I was a beginning teacher and I really feel that a lot of our beginning teachers are in that needs improvement category. We’re not going to compensate them in any way? What’s to entice them to stay?”
As a practical matter, most districts won’t be able change their pay systems that much, said Alex Holtz, president of Elkhart’s teacher union.
Under Bennett, the state offered a model compensation system that angered unions because it gave districts a mechanism to pay considerable portions of teacher raises as one-time bonuses instead of permanent pay raises.
“It probably needs to have some similarities to a salary schedule like we’ve had in the past,” said Holtz said. “That’s really important to somehow have a sense of certainty to what you might be earning ten years from now.”
How test score growth will factor into a teacher’s review is being reconsidered, Ritz said. New legislation changed the state’s growth measure so students are evaluated by how close they came to reaching a standard, such as a passing score or an advanced score, or by how far they exceeded the standards. Under Bennett, the measure compared student scores to those of their peers with similar backgrounds and past scores.
The department is in the early stages of deciding how the test growth ratings will work, Ritz said. But she envisions a process where the information is mostly turned over to local districts to decide how to use it.
Justin Ohlemiller, Indiana executive director of Stand For Children, a national school reform group, said reformers are wary of where Ritz is headed with evaluation. Performance reviews, he said, need to be about both professional development and accountability.
“We have to focus not only on the feedback but also the outcomes we are getting for our kids,” he said. “We hear from teachers that they want to be measured by outcomes. They are not afraid of that system. They invite it.”
The worry is that student test scores will be diminished as a factor in evaluation, Ohlemiller said.
“When it comes to devaluing the measurable piece of RISE and teacher evaluations, I think it is taking off some of the substance that could be beneficial to teacher improvement,” he said.
Teachers tired of changes
For some teachers, the debate over evaluation is just tiring.
Jacob Pactor, a Speedway English teacher, was on the district committee that chose RISE for its evaluation system over a variety of other options. It’s a good system, he said. The change in direction is unnecessary and is making life tougher for teachers who are constantly trying to respond ot what political leaders say they want.
“Elections have consequences, but every time we have an election it throws teachers and time we spent on it under the school bus,” he said. “Teachers realize politicians love to play politics with education. But most of us would be really happy if they picked a system and stuck to it, whatever it was.”
While debates rage in the statehouse, teachers just try to follow the rules and focus on their students, he said.
That’s a sentiment shared by others.
“I’m a teacher because I want to be effective,” said Greensburg first grade teacher Erin Buening. “I didn’t choose it because I wanted to get a bonus.”