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Memphis school district
Millington Middle School principal Dr. Michael Lowe talks to one of his students in the hallway between classes. Lowe and both of his vice-principals evaluate each teacher and then combine the score. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

Washington, D.C. launched a controversial new teacher evaluation system two years ago that overhauled how teachers are rated and led to the firings of 7 percent of the teaching force—more than 280 people.

The new evaluations roiled the city; 80 percent of D.C. teachers believe it was not an “effective way to evaluate the performance” of teachers, according to a 2010 survey of more than 900 teachers by the local teachers union. And the chancellor who put the new evaluations in place, Michelle Rhee, is now gone, after the mayor who appointed her was voted out of office.

Nonetheless, this year the Memphis school district adopted a version of D.C.’s classroom observation method, one that reform advocates hail as revolutionary even as some critics say it stifles teacher creativity.

Like Memphis, Washington, D.C. is a high-poverty, high-minority district with a track record of low student achievement. Both places launched the new evaluations as a way to identify struggling teachers and either help them get better or remove them.

Districts in the rest of Tennessee are also overhauling their teacher evaluations, after a state law passed in 2010 requiring them to do so. But Memphis is the only district to adopt the D.C. version. Local educators say they chose the D.C. observation method—essentially a list of standards that teachers must demonstrate during a classroom observation, such as promoting critical thinking among students or managing classroom behavior—after looking closely at three different options.

Teacher evaluations

The Hechinger Report and Memphis Commercial Appeal recently teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Tennessee.

Read the rest of the series

You can also read our previous series on the similar issues in Milwaukee and Florida.

“It’s really, really rigorous and comprehensive, and it was chosen by the teachers,” said Kriner Cash, the Memphis City Schools superintendent. “They thought it got more at the different complex nuances of teaching.”

Some observation systems on the market are prescriptive about how teachers should meet the standards—requiring observers to monitor whether teachers require students to do a quiz at the end of a lesson, for example. Others are looser and more holistic—judging teachers on whether they are “flexible” and “responsive” to student questions. The version adopted in Shelby County, known as TEAM, would fall into the latter category.

The D.C. system lies somewhere in the middle of the two approaches, according to a study by the Aspen Institute, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “They felt it was manageable,” said Ken Foster, director of the Memphis Education Association, a teachers union.

The Memphis and D.C. “Teaching and Learning Frameworks,” as the observation systems are called, are not identical. Insight Education Group, the private company that designed the D.C. and Memphis systems, changed the wording and broadened standards that were too specific, including a requirement that teachers “target three or more learning styles” during a lesson.

Similarities remain, however, and issues that arose in Washington have resurfaced here.

Some teachers and principals say the list of standards that teachers must meet is unwieldy. Originally, D.C. teachers were required to demonstrate 13 standards in one 30-minute observation. After the first year, following complaints that it was impossible to demonstrate all the standards in one lesson, the number on the list was reduced to just nine.

In Memphis, evaluators look for 11 standards during 15-minute observations, although administrators say teachers shouldn’t necessarily be penalized if they miss one or two, as long as evaluators see each one at some point over the course of the year.

“An 11-point checklist,” said Marni Barron, a teaching coach at a D.C. elementary school and outspoken critic of the system, “is not getting to the heart and soul of anything that’s organic and creative.”

The teachers in her school “do a dog-and-pony show to get through the observation,” Barron added. “The rest of the time it’s a watered-down, loosey-goosey instructional program.”

The evaluation system should be thought of not as a “program or curriculum, but rather, a way of thinking,” according to materials published by the D.C. public schools. “The one thing I would not want anyone to think is that the framework is a prescription, because teaching is so complex,” said Jason Stricker, chief operating officer of Insight Education Group.

Another issue that has cropped up in both D.C. and Memphis is how well the teacher ratings based on classroom observations match the student test-score data that make up the other half of a teacher’s overall rating. For the most part, evaluators have been more forgiving than the test scores, raising concerns about the accuracy and reliability of both measures.

“We would like to see them getting closer, but we do think they’re measuring different things,” said Scott Thompson, director of teacher effectiveness strategy for the D.C. Public Schools. “If they were measuring exactly the same thing, we wouldn’t need these different measures.”

Training has also been a concern. The D.C. union survey of teachers found that 94 percent believed there was a “lack of consistent understanding” among both teachers and evaluators of the observation framework’s expectations. Another two thirds felt they had not received sufficient training in the new system.

Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams said teachers and principals here haven’t spent enough time learning about the standards and how they should use them in their classroom. “We are suffering from that,” he said.

A survey last fall of 2,300 teachers conducted by Teach Plus, a nonprofit advocacy group, suggests that teachers here are more confident. Although not directly comparable to the union survey in D.C., it found that 57 percent of respondents wanted more help learning how to apply the framework “strategies” in class, but only about 17 percent were confused about the observation process and expectations.

In both cities, teachers have said they wished they’d had a year-long trial run of the new evaluation system before their jobs were put on the line. (A teacher can now lose tenure after two years of ineffective ratings, and eventually be fired.) In Memphis, the timeframe for the new evaluations has been even “more compressed” than in D.C., said Stricker, in part because of the passage of the new state law.

Administrators say a culture shift in schools may be painful, but that it is both urgent and necessary to lift the two cities from among the worst-performing districts in the nation. And Cash has emphasized that in Memphis, firing teachers is not the aim.

“There will be a percentage of 10 to 15 percent that we’ll have to counsel out after making all of the efforts we’re going to make to help teachers improve,” he said. “But this is not about a massive turnover of human capital. That’s not sustainable and it’s not efficient and there are no replacements.”

A version of this story appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on February 7, 2012.

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  1. Is the point of this story Memphis has taken the significant step of instituting a new teacher evaluation, or is the author taking the opportunity to rekindle criticism of Impact? Yes, the first two paragraphs restate the facts (and a 7% termination rate after years of less than 1% is not poor by any standard), however presented this way immediately biases the reader. This kind of reporting casts doubt over the Hechinger Reports claim to inform the public through “quality journalism.” Please return to the higher standards for which you are known and respected.

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