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Lessons on Teacher Evaluation From Charter Schools

The Center on American Progress released three papers yesterday on different aspects of teacher effectiveness. I'll be writing a bit about them over the course of this week (We Read So You Don't Have To!), but they're all worth checking out.

First up is a fascinating look at charter school evaluation policies, written by Heather Peske, formerly of the Education Trust and now at Teach Plus, a group that works to connect teachers to education policymaking, and Morgaen Donaldson, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education.

Charter schools typically have fewer rules and constraints and stronger "corporate cultures," so they should have more opportunities to innovate on evaluation policies, the theory goes.

So, in interviews with teachers, principals, and CMO staff, the authors took a look at three charter-management organizations, deemed "Northern," "National," and "Western." All three use a set of performance-based standards, and a series of structured observations coupled with detailed feedback, as the basis of teacher evaluations. None of the CMOs uses a "value added" methodology just yet for formal teacher reviews. And only one, the "Western" CMO, had unionized teachers.

Among the researchers' findings:

• The schools rely much more heavily on evaluations as a formative tool for improvement, through observation, coaching, and discussion of practices, rather than assigning a summative year-end rating. (I wrote about this tension in an earlier item.)
• In the North and National CMOs, evaluation is directly tied to individual and collective professional development.
• The evaluations generally contributed to a much more collaborative enterprise that encouraged self-reflection, continuous improvement, and more transparent teaching practices.
• In schools in the nonunionized CMOs, unlike in most public schools, observations were not "formal" or "informal," "scheduled" or "unscheduled." Instead, all observations contributed to the final, summative evaluation.
• Regular observations and conversations between evaluators and teachers helped minimize "surprise" ratings, so that teachers weren't caught unaware.
• Hiring processes at the schools played an important role in selecting teachers who view evaluation as an essential part of improving performance.
• Dismissals were somewhat higher than the national average of 1.4 percent in public schools (those data are from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey), but not by a lot. Principals in the Northern CMO reported dismissal rates of about 5 percent to 10 percent in annual dismissals; in one National CMO school, between 4 and 11 percent were dismissed. The Western CMO had few dismissals. However, other teachers opted to leave rather than be formally dismissed.
• Principals reported that they often did not dismiss more teachers because of the struggle to hire replacements who were a good fit for the school.
• Like many public schools, the schools in the CMOs did not recognize teachers for outstanding performance.
• Principals reported challenges in carrying out evaluations, and teachers struggled to find time to use evaluation results to implement changes in practice.

The authors point out that this is basically anecdotal, case-study research, so the results shouldn't be extrapolated to all charter school networks. Nevertheless, it's groundbreaking work in an area with sparse research.

Finally, the authors make this observation: The focus of these evaluations systems was on making teaching more transparent and creating a cycle for continuous improvement, but not for officially or publicly differentiating among teachers. "Perhaps in searching for greater numbers of low summative ratings or dismissals, we are looking at the wrong solution to the problem of low teacher quality," they write.

Food for thought as the nation turns its attention to overhauling evaluation systems.

More up on dismissal policies in later this week.

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