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One District’s Way: A Teacher Evaluation System

March 16, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

When Carol Hanson first started teaching back in 1980, professional development was slim, centering on one-time speakers and little other expert support.

By 2005, Hanson’s professional development “took flight” thanks to a new teacher evaluation system in her school district, St. Francis. Hanson describes it as “on-going, driven by people trained in specific areas.”

Unfortunately, her district is one of a rare few that has a fair metric to truly evaluate teacher and student performance. Minnesota doesn’t have a high-quality, comprehensive statewide teacher evaluation metric. Instead, many schools focus on high-stakes test scores to measure teacher quality, thanks to No Child Left Behind mandates. As most in education know, this measurement gives us only a narrow view of our overall education system.

While college acceptance rates and other factors indicate Minnesota educators are performing well, there is always room for growth. A comprehensive formal mechanism, like the one in place at St. Francis, can provide educators useful feedback.

St. Francis implemented its Student Performance Improvement Program (SPIP) district wide in 2005. Each of the 350 district teachers is part of a performance review team (PRT), comprised of the teacher, a peer who is typically a specialist assigned based on the teacher’s goal, a team leader who’s the teacher’s departmental head, and one administrator from the teacher’s school building.

The team meets in the fall to look at the teacher's goals for “student growth” and plan for the year. Rather than having set professional development days for the district, St. Francis teachers attend customized professional development training to meet their specific goals.

The teachers observe each other in action and follow a specific methodology to measure “evidence of student growth.” Recommendations for improvement and areas of teacher strength are provided throughout the year. In the spring, the team meets one last time to evaluate outcomes and “evidence of student growth.”

For the most part, teachers say this is fair, accurate and comprehensive. In fact, the St. Francis program is a collaborative effort between the teachers union (Education Minnesota) and the district. The union calls the St. Francis model a shining example of how working together can accomplish good things. However, it is time consuming and takes dedication and diligence to effectively complete.

Following the end-of-year evaluation, teachers are placed into one of three categories. The lowest is “in progress,” followed by “proficient,” and finally “established.” Teachers deemed “established” move forward on the salary schedule. “Proficient” teachers move forward, but with a limit of three times while in the same category (Changes in the salary schedule are only applicable after their third year of teaching). Teachers “in progress” do not move forward on the salary schedule. However, teachers “in progress” receive feedback to improve their performance and be able to advance to “proficient” the next year.

Randy Keillor, SPIP’s coordinator, notes that the point of the process is to give teachers the tools to improve and second chances to do so, not to be punitive. In six years, St. Francis has seen just one appeal, adds Keillor.

Keillor notes that St. Francis designed SPIP before the controversial Q Comp teacher merit pay system went in effect. However, to qualify for Q Comp revenue, St. Francis made a few “minor changes.” It is key to stress that the St. Francis evaluation program is successful because of the effectiveness of the evaluation and growth metrics, not simply because it provides a monetary incentive to teachers via Q Comp.

Other program successes include moving away from the old model where new teachers sink-or-swim but instead are provided with support and mentoring, customized staff development, and comprehensive reviews.

Several studies on SPIP indicate positive outcomes, such as greater student achievement and professional development. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) determined that SPIP's implementation had an explicit link between professional development to positive, observable classroom changes.

SPIP is completely voluntary but a 2010 Rutgers University study found that as of 2009, 90 percent of St. Francis teachers had chosen to participate in SPIP.

Several teachers, described their experiences of the evaluation very positively. Those observing Hanson, the teacher mentioned above, say they’ve learned a tremendous amount from watching her. Hanson’s assistant principal and team administrator believes that when teachers have multiple eyes watching them teach and providing feedback, teachers improve.

While coordinating schedules and completing paperwork can be cumbersome and time consuming, these teachers are committed to doing their share because they have and continue to see positive outcomes of SPIP.

The St. Francis teacher evaluation program illustrates the possibilities for a mechanism to flourish in their profession and for students learn and achieve greater academic success. The St. Francis model may not be the best for another school district. However, we can take away many lessons from its teacher evaluation program that can be modified to best fit the needs of each district, or the state as a whole.

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  • Dennis says:

    March 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Interesting…but quite vague on the actual “evaluation” process.  More explicit info. would help one be able to draw satisfying conclusions, etc.

  • Jennifer Godinez says:

    March 29, 2011 at 11:53 am

    We need to be careful in saying we have great college attainment rates - this is mainly for the White population, which masks lower attainment rates that exist for communities of color in MN.

    According to calculations reported by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the percentage of Minnesotans ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college is 9 percent lower for people of color than for whites. The gap is much higher for graduation rates at four-year institutions - 16 percent lower for all students of color, 12 percent for African-American students and 26 percent for Hispanic students.  Minnesota thus has one of the largest gaps in the nation between whites and people of color when it comes to degrees awarded per 100 college students, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.