Selected readings on US charter schools
When Eva Kellogg’s bosses evaluated her performance as a teacher, they observed her classes. They reviewed her lesson plans. They polled her students, their parents and other teachers. And then they took a look at her students’ standardized test scores.
When the lengthy process was over, the eighth-grade English teacher at Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland had received the highest rank possible.
She was a master teacher.
And based on her job performance, she got a $3,000 bonus as well as a metaphorical front-row seat at one of the biggest battles in public education: how to evaluate teachers and whether to give good ones a bigger paycheck.
The Aspire teacher evaluation process and performance-based bonuses put the company of 37 charter schools, including 10 in the Bay Area, at the center of the fierce national debate.
Most traditional public schools use a low-stakes, pass/fail evaluation system for teachers that doesn’t include student test scores. And pay, as negotiated under a union contract, is based on years in the classroom rather than performance.
A few years ago, Aspire’s administrators and teachers tossed aside the traditional system. They wanted an evaluation process that took into account the numerous and complicated skills necessary to be a good teacher and a ranking system that they said gave teachers room to grow.
As a public charter school without unionized teachers, they had the freedom to buck the system.
“The young (teachers), they want the opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness,” said James Gallagher, Aspire’s director of instruction.
They settled on a formula based on 40 percent observation by the principal, 30 percent on their students’ standardized test scores, and the rest on student, peer and family feedback, as well as the school’s overall test scores.
The observation part includes 29 skills for the principal to grade, using specific examples to document teacher performance.
After a one-year pilot program, the Aspire schools adopted the system and used it for the 2012-13 school year. Teachers are ranked as emerging, effective, highly effective or master. Bonuses range from $500 to $3,000, and the first checks went out last month.
“It can’t be a popularity contest,” Gallagher said. “It has not proven to be one.”
Teachers and administrators at Lionel Wilson said they felt it was a fair way to identify struggling teachers, good teachers and great ones.
“I think it would be hard to play favorites with a rubric using 29 points,” said history teacher Juliet Dana, rated an “emerging” teacher during her first year at Aspire last year. “I feel a lot of optimism that I will not still be emerging next year.”
This fall, Kellogg, 29, started her fifth year as a teacher at Aspire.
In the classroom
On a sunny autumn morning, she walked her classroom’s aisles as she read aloud from a small hardback version of John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.”
The words flowed nonstop even as she paused near one distracted student and tapped his book to refocus his attention.
How she saw the boy, with the book in front of her face, was a bit of a mystery – and perhaps an annoyance to the sleepy student. Somehow, over her time teaching, Kellogg had developed the teacher’s all-knowing eyes in the back of the head.
She stopped at the end of the chapter and asked her students about the main character’s actions.
“I want to hear a strong argument for love or greed. What’s his motivation right now?” Kellogg asked. “I see three hands. I’m waiting for two more.”
A few more hands went up and each student offered an argument for greed, love or both.
Minutes later, the students moved on to their next class.
Teaching is hard, Kellogg said; it’s impossible to be a master teacher every minute of every day. But the evaluation system offers a great guide on what it takes to be one, she said.
While the money is often better in traditional public schools than in charter schools, the support and feedback they get at Aspire is worth the pay cut, teachers said.
The bonuses are a plus.
“The money is great, but it’s not the part I’m interested in,” Kellogg said. “I don’t think that’s what motivates.”
On average, the Aspire schools, 35 in California and two in Memphis, plan to spend up to $2.5 million a year on the bonuses – at least until 2017.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing the effort financially through 2017. But with the foundation’s grants came the caveat that the teacher evaluation process include student test scores.
The use of student test scores in teacher evaluations has been a key component of the Obama administration’s approach to education reform, but one that California schools have largely rejected.
Teachers unions, as well as many education experts, say standardized tests weren’t designed to measure teacher effectiveness.
Kevin Kumashiro, dean of education at the University of San Francisco, said, “Here’s what I hear people saying: ‘We can measure learning by giving a test. If the test scores go up it means they’ve learned more. If the scores go up when you were teaching them, you taught best.’ ”
Yet there are too many examples of student scores fluctuating year to year under the same teacher, he added, meaning the scores are unreliable.
Perhaps more importantly, the loud debate over how to evaluate teachers can distract attention from arguably bigger problems in public education, including unequal funding and segregation, all of which lead to low student test scores and rising dropout rates, Kumashiro said.
“The solution, some would say, is fire the lazy, incompetent teachers,” he said. “But learning is not the result of only one teacher.”
Finding new ways
Kumashiro, however, wasn’t entirely critical of Aspire’s evaluation system, which offers videos, research papers and other resources that teachers can use to address shortcomings in any of the 29 categories.
“I love we’re talking about using evaluations formatively,” he said. “The problem with our profession is we get defensive and then we’re not acknowledging we have to find ways to grapple with the reality that some teachers are not meant to be in the profession.”
Despite the controversy and heated debate, Aspire officials hope their evaluation system can serve as a model for other schools, offering an alternative to the pass/fail feedback that many teachers work under now.
That was the intent of charter schools from the start – to have the flexibility to try new things and catalyze change in public education, Gallagher said.
“We want to serve as that beacon of innovation,” he said. “We want to be the kayak that can move nimbly and experiment with some things … and pull some traditional districts with us.”
Source: San Francisco Chronicle – by Jill Tucker