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District, union blaze a trail to teacher improvement

Evaluation process avoids political hot potato of test scores
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Leslie O'Dell, principal at Jason Lee School in Northeast Portland, visits a classroom last week to use Portland Public Schools' new teacher evaluation tool, hailed as a major collaboration between the district and teachers' union.

Julie Pedersen’s performance evaluation from last year is stuffed in her classroom drawer somewhere — she doesn’t look at it much. “It’s basically meaningless,” says the teacher of 12 years at Northeast Portland’s Jason Lee K-8 School. “It didn’t give me specific examples of how I could improve.” That’s been the status quo in Portland Public Schools for 30 years, meaning that any talk of improving classroom teaching and learning has been toothless without a means of getting there. That’s all set to change this month. Principals at every PPS school are debuting the new evaluation system that district leaders and the Portland Association of Teachers collaboratively hammered out this past year in an unprecedented display of unity. “It’s so important teachers feel like we’re being respected and this is not just coming from the top down, but something we have a voice in,” says Pedersen, who helped train her building colleagues in the new system. “It’s a great document for self-reflection — basically a recipe of how to use best practices in your classroom,” she adds. “Instead of ‘you should do better,’ this really very clearly spells it out, in every aspect of our job.” The system’s rollout did not come overnight. Two parent advocacy groups, Portland Stand for Children and Community and Parents for Public Schools, had pushed the issue to the forefront in past years during talks on ways to boost achievement in schools. The district agreed to roll out a pilot program last fall at Roosevelt High School, using federal school improvement grant funds. The district then named a 10-person work group of teachers, principals, administrators and union representatives to refine the process. At first, the group was “at odds” in its approach, says Sascha Perrins, the PPS regional administrator who has overseen the project and served as principal at Jason Lee K-8 School until last year. The work group soon found its common ground, then put the tool into writing and unveiled it during the summer to 344 teachers and principals, representing every school, in a two-day workshop. The representatives then brought it back to their buildings and trained their own teaching force, where it remains a work in progress. “We’re all navigating this together,” says Leslie O’Dell, principal at Jason Lee, a school of 480 students near Madison High School. The school was the only one in the district to be recognized by the Oregon Department of Education this year with a “Student Success Award” for bridging the achievement gap between students. Last year, 100 percent of kindergartners were at grade level — an “astounding” feat, Perrins says. The school is 75 percent high-poverty with a student body that reflects its neighborhood diversity: a third of the population is white, nearly another third are Asian, and the last third are black and Hispanic. Perrins, who led the school for three years, attributes the success to one thing: a focused effort on good teaching. “Kids do better when teachers teach better,” he says. “They would be in each other’s classrooms, the door was open; it’s not an isolated practice.” A Nike Innovation fund also helped implement a process at the school to diagnose where students were struggling and how adults could address that. “A whole bunch of pieces fell into place,” Perrins says. O’Dell saw that transformation as an assistant principal before she stepped into Perrins’ place this year to lead the school. The new teacher evaluation tool will help propel that to greater heights, she says. “Nobody goes into education, in my opinion, for any reason except that they want to be great teachers — they want to impact the world in a positive way and make a difference,” says O’Dell. Breaking into chunks The first evaluations are happening this month; principals will hand them in to PPS leaders just before winter break. The new tool adopts the work of Charlotte Danielson, a New Jersey-based education consultant, called “Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching.” The tool recognizes the complexity of teaching. It divides each aspect into several categories to allow for precise diagnoses in four areas of teaching responsibility, called “domains.” They are: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Teachers are evaluated on 22 “components” within those domains, and 76 smaller elements within those. For example, in the area narrowly defined as “engaging students in learning,” the rubric breaks it into four even smaller chunks for assessment: activities and assignments, grouping of students, instructional materials and resources, and structure and pacing. Teachers might receive a “distinguished” mark — the highest of “proficient,” “developing” or “unsatisfactory”— in those areas if the lesson’s structure is “highly coherent, allowing for reflection and closure,” and the pacing of the lesson is appropriate for all students. New teachers, including the 65 PPS hired this year, are evaluated each of the first three years of their career, then every other year. The process includes a pre-evaluation interview, direct observations by administrators, a post-observation conference and a post-evaluation interview when the teacher is given a copy of the report, which includes suggestions, directions or commendations. A significant number of “unsatisfactory” marks would trigger a formal plan of support or plan of assistance for the teacher, based on the supervisor’s discretion. Those plans are spelled out in the union contract. In their fourth year, teachers who don’t have any unsatisfactory marks may take on a “professional growth project” involving directed research, a video project, portfolio, peer coaching or another method. “This system is built for getting people better,” Perrins says. The October 2011 handbook on the new evaluation tool is a working document, Perrins says, and will likely be updated within months to reflect one more factor —student achievement. The district and union have agreed to include student achievement as a factor in teachers’ evaluations, but it will reflect a student’s progress rather than a flat-out test score. Tying teacher performance to test scores — which is not the plan for Portland — is a major hot potato in education reform nationally. Perrins says the work group is meeting now to figure out the nuances. “Like many places, what we’re wrestling through is how do you not oversimplify it and get it wrong,” he says. “It needs to be about growth, not a static measure.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.