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Indianapolis Public Schools seeks better way to grade teachers

Indianapolis Public School is looking for a new system to evaluate teachers.
Indianapolis Public School is looking for a new system to evaluate teachers.
Alan Petersime

The system Indianapolis Public Schools uses to evaluate teachers is under fire from all sides: Teachers say it’s unfair. Their bosses say it’s inaccurate. And both sides say it doesn’t do enough to help educators improve.

The state’s largest school district is on the hunt for a different model. It wants to implement a new system as soon as next year but many questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is how many teachers will earn poor ratings and face consequences such as missed raises or possibly termination.

The district struggles with persistently low student test scores. Nearly half of its 66 schools earned D or F ratings from the state last year. But teacher evaluations have so far remained overwhelmingly positive — 91 percent of teachers were rated effective or better last year.

For some advocates, that’s a clear sign that the evaluation process isn’t accurately measuring teacher quality.

The goal of teaching is improving student learning, said Dan Weisberg, CEO of the New Teacher Project, which helps design teacher evaluation systems. If students are not succeeding, then the work that teachers and administrators are doing is not good enough.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Weisberg said.

But others say that teachers shouldn’t be held responsible for low test scores since exams can be affected by many factors. For example, schools with large numbers of students facing learning barriers, such as English language learners, typically have much lower ratings from the state.

People assume that a school with low test scores has bad teachers, said IPS teachers union president Rhondalyn Cornett.

“That’s just not really true,” she said.

Indiana law requires test scores to be a “significant” factor in teachers evaluations. But how districts incorporate them into their rating systems varies from district to district. And for this year at least, no Indiana districts are penalizing teachers for test score drops since new tougher standards led to a significant state-wide drop in 2015 ISTEP scores. Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation earlier this year that ordered districts to hold schools and teachers harmless from the lower scores.

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is critical of the letter grades the state assigns to schools, but he agrees that the evaluation process needs revamping. When evaluations results came out in 2014, he said that some failing schools must have more ineffective teachers than the evaluations revealed.

“I’m not saying the instrument will be a panacea for us in terms of skewing the numbers one way or the other,” he told Chalkbeat last week. “But it would give me more confidence in the results.”

As the district considers its options, there’s a lot at stake for teachers. Those rated “ineffective” or “improvement necessary” — the two lowest ratings — are not eligible for raises. Teachers who get the lowest “ineffective” rating can be fired, as can those who’ve received multiple “improvement necessary” ratings.

Effective is by far the most common designation — 70 percent of IPS teachers were rated effective last year. Another 21 percent of teachers were rated highly effective. Just 5.5 percent of teachers ended up in the bottom tiers, with ratings of “ineffective” or “improvement necessary.”

That’s fairly common, Weisberg said. Across the country there’s resistance to giving teachers low marks.

“If you have an evaluation system that tells you everyone is the same, that’s useless,” he said.

The current teacher evaluation system is also unpopular with teachers. Cornett, who is on the committee of teachers and administrators charged with devising a new system, called the current system opaque and subjective.

“Depending on an administrator’s feelings towards a teacher, they can kind of make it look how they want it to look,” Cornett said. “I don’t think it reflects what’s really going on in the classroom.”

The latest union contract hinted at the possibility the district might push for more teachers to earn low ratings because it estimates that 15 percent of teachers will be rated “ineffective” or “improvement necessary,” far more than usually fall into the bottom tiers. Cornett said that’s a sign that IPS is hoping to increase the number of teachers who get low ratings, but district officials say that’s just an estimate, not a goal.

Mindy Schlegel, who is charged with recruiting and retaining IPS teachers, said that the search for a new evaluation process is not aimed at raising the bar for teachers. It’s about finding a more accurate, transparent approach that provides useful feedback to teachers.

A better evaluation system would have fewer teachers clustered in the effective category and more teachers rated either “highly effective” or “improvement necessary,” she said.

“Do we need some more differentiation in there? Probably yes,” Schlegel said.

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