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Lesa Worthington, a third-grade teacher at Greensburg Elementary School, keeps a green folder on her desk for paperwork from her evaluation. It holds student data, information about the student learning objectives she had to set and painstakingly detailed notes from the five observations by her principal this year. By late April, the folder was stuffed.

In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law requiring all districts to overhaul their teacher evaluation systems by this fall. Before the bill’s passage, most teachers with tenure would be observed once every three years in the classroom. Unsatisfactory ratings were rare.

But now, amid a national push to improve teacher quality and remove ineffective teachers from the profession, Indiana’s new evaluations are becoming an intensive yearlong process for all teachers. Although districts are free to create their own systems, they must meet state criteria, such as more frequent observations or requiring proof of student growth. Any teacher who is deemed ineffective for two years may be let go.

While nearly all the state’s districts are in the process of designing or experimenting with new systems, Greensburg and other districts at the forefront of these changes are learning how to wrangle the craft of teaching into something that can be measured with hard numbers and steadfast rules.

“In many ways, teaching is an art form,” said Doug Thorne, executive director of personnel and legal services for Elkhart Community Schools, which has put into place a system that differs from Greensburg’s. “We’re trying to apply a numerical mathematical system to evaluating teachers. That’s always going to be a challenge and a problem.”

Elkhart developed its own system as a means of giving local teachers more input, while Greensburg is one of three districts across Indiana piloting the state-developed system, called RISE. In both Elkhart and Greensburg, the evaluations have been a big change.

“We were all just preparing for the worst,” said Mike Myers, a 10th grade English teacher at Greensburg High School. “It’s a pretty fair evaluation. It’s an improvement on what was in the past.”

Pilot program in Greensburg

Several Greensburg teachers noted that going through the pilot program and slowly adjusting to the new process had removed much of the anxiety. Although some small frustrations have cropped up over increased paperwork and the time it takes to get back test-score data, most teachers and administrators reported having a positive experience. And while the teachers have learned the process is not as intimidating as they once had feared, it is changing how they behave in the classroom.

For Worthington, a major difference is the use of student learning objectives. Under RISE, each teacher must set two goals for student growth each year ― a primary one for all classroom students and a targeted one for children who are the lowest performing at the start of the school year.

The learning objectives are a small piece of the total evaluation, but are the biggest change and “most important part,” said Greensburg Superintendent Tom Hunter.

For Worthington to be rated highly effective in her primary goal, 18 of her 21 students must pass state standardized tests. For her secondary objective, at least four of the six lowest performing students in her class must make at least a year’s worth of growth, and the remaining two students must demonstrate at least half a year’s worth.

The objectives “define my whole year,” she said. “You’re more in tune to where your kids are at all times.”

Teachers, who develop the goals that are then approved by an administrator, can look at past test history, attendance and reading level among other factors when they set learning objectives, particularly for the group of lowest performing students.

Even so, the process can be difficult. “Kids aren’t always a number or a statistic, so it’s hard when you’re setting the (learning objectives) on data,” said Erin Buening, a first-grade teacher at Greensburg Elementary. For instance, although she can discuss student absences with her principal, home life is not supposed to enter into the equation for teacher performance.

Using the numbers, teachers and their administrators must find a balance between setting a goal the teacher can realistically achieve and maintaining high standards.

“You can make an argument that teachers could cook the books, so to speak, but at the same time you’ve got a principal who’s looking over that who’s going to be evaluated by how well his school does,” said Dan Sichting, superintendent of Bloomfield School District, which has also piloted RISE. “You’re also going to have teachers that are going to set them really high.”

At Bloomfield, in the first year of RISE, the majority of all teachers were rated highly effective on their student learning objectives. Once all other factors were considered ― including principal observations, student test scores and the overall school grade ― about a third of elementary school teachers and 10 percent of high school teachers were rated highly effective.

Although Greensburg did not provide specific evaluation results, school officials said that in all but a few cases, student performance on standardized tests matched the learning objectives and principal observations. Unsatisfactory ratings were still rare, but that’s to be expected in a district where nearly 80 percent of students pass the state standardized tests, said Hunter.

The observations have made the biggest difference in the day-to-day operations of the school, consuming much of the principals’ and assistant principals’ time. Teachers are observed five times throughout the year and supplied with detailed feedback. Administrators note every interaction the teacher has with students, complete with exact quotes. They might jot down that a student had her head on her desk or how long a teacher paused between asking a question and calling on someone.

The recap of the lesson, as well as how well teachers do on each piece of a rubric that spells out specific teaching strategies, is given to the teachers. They then meet with their administrators to discuss what they did well and what areas need improvement. Several teachers said the feedback they received has led to changes in the classroom.

But there are limitations; the detailed rubric is an attempt to quantify a qualitative practice. It breaks down elements of teaching such as tracking student data and modifying instruction. Administrators rate teachers on a scale of 1 to 4 in each of the 14 areas.

“It’s a rubric, so it’s supposed to be black and white,” said Buening. “It’s not. It’s very gray. It comes down to human nature.”

Each Wednesday, all administrators who conduct observations meet to watch videos of teachers, rate them based on the rubric and compare results. “You do start to find yourselves catching the same thing,” said Tammy Williams, Greensburg’s director of curriculum and instruction. “More and more, we’re becoming consistent.”

Elkhart tries own system

Elkhart has also increased the amount of time administrators spend in the classroom, with at least two 30-minute observations and four 5- to 7-minute visits per school year. Some teachers have raised concerns that the short visits might not accurately capture what goes on throughout an entire lesson, said Alexander Holtz, president of the Elkhart Teachers Association.

“How can they possibly give me this score if they’re only in (the classroom for) five minutes?” he said.

The rubrics are up for debate, though. The evaluation system “is something we’re going to be looking at much more frequently. It’s going to be continually refined and fine-tuned,” Thorne said. “It’s not going to be as static as it might have been in the past.”

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