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Pittsburgh officials revealed the first official results of a new teacher evaluation system designed to help weed out ineffective teachers Thursday. The verdict? Nearly all the teachers – 96.9 percent – are good at their jobs.

The results, praised by the local teachers union and school system alike, follow a pattern emerging around the country: new evaluation systems, which replaced supposedly lax systems that allowed failing teachers to skate by and which cost millions to develop, aren’t unearthing large numbers of bad teachers.

teacher evaluation system
At Upper Darby High School, first-year teacher Joe Niagara works with senior Amanda Farina in class while Principal Christopher Dormer (seated, rear) observes and takes notes for Niagara’s evaluation. (Photo courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer)

The new systems typically include multiple, intensive classroom observations and require some demonstration of student growth, whether on standardized tests or – for teachers in subjects without tests – by measures chosen by schools and teachers. They’re also typically much more rigorous than evaluations in the past. Previously, principals often didn’t visit the classrooms of veteran teachers before signing off on their performance. Now, under some new systems, principals may visit even veteran teachers several times a year.

Pittsburgh, using a large donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which has been among The Hechinger Report’s many funders), was one of the pioneers in creating the new evaluations and has been held up as a model for its efforts to increase accountability for teachers. Washington, D.C. and states like Tennessee and Florida have also launched new evaluations meant to be tougher on teachers, and a lawsuit out of California, Vergara v. California, could lead to new laws governing the teaching profession in other states soon. In that lawsuit, a group of Los Angeles students argued that bad teachers denied their right to a quality education.

But so far, the new, more rigorous evaluation systems mirror their predecessors in suggesting that bad teachers are rare. As The Hechinger Report reported last summer: “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 Pittsburgh this was the first year the evaluations were linked to high stakes, and just 1.6 percent – or 28 teachers – were found to be unsatisfactory. The district has been testing the system for several years, though, and many teachers who weren’t performing up to standard had already left; some resigned while others were counseled out.

The Hechinger Report detailed the district’s transition last summer after a pilot run:

Under the old system, fewer than 1 percent of teachers annually in Pittsburgh received the unsatisfactory ratings that could result in firing — similar to the numbers across the state. Over the last four years in Pittsburgh, about 150 teachers have resigned or been dismissed because of the new evaluations, the most in the history of the district and about 7 percent of the teaching force total.

… In Pennsylvania, a study commissioned by the state of four districts that are already using the new evaluations found that 96 percent of teachers received ratings of proficient or distinguished. Only 1 percent received the unsatisfactory ratings that could lead to removal—the same percentage as under the old system.

It’s unclear if the results suggest that teachers are better than many critics have claimed, if the new systems are less rigorous than expected, or if the numbers are the result of growing pains as schools adjust.

“Are the majority of the teachers satisfactory and acceptable? I think the answer yes,” said William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado Boulder, which has been critical of test-based teacher evaluation. “Where I think it’s a waste of money is they’re trying to get a degree of precision that they cannot get with the measures they’ve got.”

Proponents of the new evaluations have told Hechinger reporters that they were never meant to identify large numbers of bad teachers. Rather, the evaluations were intended to give teachers feedback and help them improve at their jobs.

Pittsburgh School Superintendent Linda Lane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that one of the goals of the evaluations was to “grow the practice of staff.”

“In order for kids to grow, we have to grow,” she said.

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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. Are you responding to “Vergara”? It’s not how many, it’s where. They’re in low-income neighborhoodds.

  2. So teachers all come from Lake Wobegon? Interesting. Every profession has a not insignificant fraction who are genuinely bad at their jobs. In my experience, it’s more than one out of every 30.

  3. Parents are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the problems in the schools are not in the schools. The problems are in the home. The teaching is not bad. It’s the parenting that’s bad.

  4. The error happened when the kid counted backward from 127 to 121 by tens rather than ones. I can see how the problem confuses most people because we don’t use a number line to add or subtract. And, yes, there are algorithms for addition, subtraction (and just about everything else) in mathematics, but what this curriculum is teaching is not subtraction but, rather, the fundamental principles that underlies how we add and subtract. For what it is worth, I was taught the same thing in second grade . . . in 1959.

  5. As teachers, we are expected to educate, nurture, and develop all students, which also includes the struggling student. Most of the time these students struggle due to the lack of parental involvement at home (as was stated above). It would be unheard of to get rid of these students yet that is the premise of this evaluation system. I believe that more and more blame is resting at the feet of teachers who tirelessly show up to educate every day when the true problem is with the parent(s) that don’t find value in education and hold their child responsible for that education.

  6. Evaluating teachers more often is a great idea, but why put them on a calendar. One of the biggest problems with teachers is the use classroom management tactics that include bullying, harassment, and belittling. When such tactics are implemented the dynamics of the classroom community is ruined and students spend much of their time focusing on how to avoid these destructive tactics, opposed to learning the content being presented. For this reason, I feel the observations should be pop-in visits. This would allow the principal the opportunity to get an idea of what is really going on in a teachers classroom. When the teacher has the time to plan and change her management the principal does not see how the teacher truly preforms. They get to see the teacher perform by the book. A performance that allows the teacher to show the principal what he/she wants to see not what is really going on daily.

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