Using teacher expertise to improve policy

In the political and public realms, linking evaluations to student growth seems like common sense. Research consistently indicates that teachers are the most important school-based variable in a student’s educational growth. But somehow the school-based segment of that conclusion is frequently omitted. In reality, innumerable factors both inside and outside schools affect student growth.

By Bill Farmer

The Illinois New Millennium Initiative has been doing some terrific work in response to the state’s recent efforts to reform its teacher evaluation systems. I’ve asked Bill Farmer, an Illinois NMI member and high school science teacher in Evanston, Illinois, to share his thoughts about the team’s recent report and interactions with state policymakers.

–-Barnett Berry

Like many other financially strained states, Illinois is engaged in significant educational policy reform propelled by the carrot of Race to the Top federal funds. One of the primary products of this reform is Senate Bill 315, passed in January 2010. SB 315, more commonly known as the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), provides the framework for a major overhaul of teacher and principal evaluation systems, using student growth as a significant component of evaluations.

Illinois teachers have long recognized the flaws in current evaluation systems and have been advocating for an improved model that provides useful, timely feedback and professional support that can enhance classroom practice. In fact, in 1984 Art Wise and Linda Darling-Hammond, both then at the RAND Corporation, identified many of the same evaluation problems reformers and teachers are concerned about today.* Almost 30 years ago Wise and Darling-Hammond pointed out that we need clearly defined standards of professional excellence, well-trained and pre-qualified evaluators, and more frequent feedback. And today PERA is calling for similar guidelines for a teacher evaluation system.

The Complex Task of Measuring Student Growth

In the political and public realms, linking evaluations to student growth seems like common sense. Research consistently indicates that teachers are the most important school-based variable in a student’s educational growth. But somehow the school-based segment of that conclusion is frequently omitted. In reality, innumerable factors both inside and outside schools affect student growth.

And although many of us educators are already frequently monitoring student growth in our individual classrooms, systematizing such a complex measurement is an infinitely challenging task. This is particularly the case when trying to quantify an individual teacher’s contribution to student learning. Teachers often teach multiple grade levels and courses, spend varying amounts of time with students, and are aided by specialist teachers. Team teaching, which is much needed, can confound efforts to identify which teacher is responsible for student learning gains.

Involving Teachers in the Implementation Process

Implementing PERA is the responsibility of a joint committee called the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC). Of this group of roughly 30 education stakeholders, only one is a current K-12 teacher. 

Around the same time PEAC was organizing, the Illinois New Millennium Initiative was assembling a dynamic group of early-career and veteran teachers to do the exact same thing. With such a huge transformation under way in Illinois, our goal was – and is – to bring teacher voice to the forefront of the conversation around the implementation of PERA.

Our NMI team’s virtual community provided a way for teachers to share research on teacher evaluation systems, helping us better understand the complicated matrix of educational policy in Illinois and around the country.

We then combined this knowledge with our own teaching experiences to write our report, “Measuring Learning, Supporting Teaching: Classroom Experts’ Recommendations for an Effective Educator Evaluation System.”

Making Our Teacher Voices Heard

Since the report’s release, key stakeholders and educators have taken notice.

The NMI team has hosted webinars with members of PEAC to share our recommendations and provide feedback on PEAC’s work. NMI teachers have also attended monthly PEAC meetings to make connections and share perspectives from the classroom. These experiences have made us feel like our teacher voices are being heard and considered.

This month, we plan to attend regional teacher forums PEAC is sponsoring to present its progress and solicit teacher feedback. We’re eager to engage in (and maybe even help initiate) the next layers of policy reform that will strengthen our professional practice and produce better student outcomes. Evaluation reforms of 30 years ago never bore much fruit because teachers weren’t involved in implementing them. NMI teachers are ready to help lead the way.

*Wise, A. E., Darling-Hammond, L., McLaughlin, M. W. & Bernstein, H. T. (1984). Teacher Evaluation: A study of effective practices. Santa Monica, CA. RAND.