Tough problem: How best to evaluate teachers

By Alexandra Tempus

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

In this Thursday, March 22, 2012 photo, teacher Todd Marder works with a group of St. Paul Music Academy students studying electrical circuits during an enrichment period in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota is developing a new statewide teacher evaluation tool that will take student performance into account.

Jim Mone, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Todd Marder changed careers from swim coach to science teacher, he wasn't ready for kindergarteners. But he said things changed when he met with a seasoned teacher who modeled lessons, suggested reading materials and did in-class observations as part of the school district's teacher evaluation process. The kindergarteners, he said, started listening.

"They haven't learned how to sit in a classroom yet and follow a teacher's instructions ... she had me really focus my energy correctly so that kindergarteners would respond," said Marder, 31, now in his second year at St. Paul Music Academy.

The mentoring that Marder found helpful may soon turn up in schools across Minnesota. Even as Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP lawmakers have skirmished this session over teacher performance issues, a group of over 39 teachers, administrators, parents and lawmakers has been quietly developing a new statewide tool for teacher evaluation.

Until recently, state law required only probationary teachers to be evaluated regularly. Some districts evaluated teachers as a requirement of Q Comp, the state program that pays schools when student test scores improve. Otherwise, districts could evaluate tenured teachers, but those reviews varied greatly from school to school in regularity and toughness.

A law passed last year will require all public school teachers to undergo evaluations with a standard tool by the 2014-15 school year.

Traditional evaluations typically involve an administrator watching a teacher work and rating them in areas such as classroom management, communication, engaging students and the lesson itself. In some schools, like Marder's, experienced teachers also perform these observations.

The new evaluation tool will be shaped by several requirements, including aspects of teacher peer review and professional development.

One contentious mandate will require 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on "student growth."

"That is a huge area of challenge," said Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, who works with the group. "We have to establish the measures of growth for subject areas that don't have any traditional testing mechanism: phy ed, choir, band."

Even for subjects like math and reading where student test scores are available, they won't help in assessing a teacher's performance, said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul teachers' union and co-chairwoman of the working group.

Brynaert said that many schools track student test scores by grade levels or other groupings, but there is no way to reliably trace a student's test score back to his or her teacher. That problem is compounded when students change teachers frequently, school administrators said.

Steve Dibb, director of school support at the Department of Education, said that teachers at Q Comp schools are measured by end-of-year goals set for students. Several Q Comp teachers have advocated for such an approach with the working group, he said.

The group has also heard about a pilot program in Minneapolis schools that draws complex links between students and each of their teachers to make test scores traceable, said David Heistad, the district's director of research, evaluation and assessment. Heistad, a working group member, said such a program could be more comprehensive statewide if some kind of standardized testing — now given to grades three through eight, 10 and 11— is expanded to cover more grade levels.

Ricker said expanding standardized testing would be time-consuming and expensive. She said classroom tests that teachers already write themselves are a simple, cost-saving solution for measuring effective teaching.

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