Soon, a more stringent teacher evaluation system is coming to Louisiana to identify for retention the most effective teachers in the state, while also removing those who underperform from the classroom. Yet, even as more details of the new system are coming to light, many teachers whose performance will now be held up to scrutiny remain in the dark about what kind of an impact it will have on their careers.
In theory, teachers will be evaluated in two ways: by their principals and by how well their students are learning. The goal is to provide a balanced view of teacher performance without either facet overshadowing the other. Although the new approach easily lends itself to a summary, the details remain quite murky. In particular, many are wondering exactly how "student learning targets" – on which the student progress part of the evaluation will be based – are going to be determined.
Suffering a particularly acute sense of confusion are teachers in subjects where a standardized approach to determining student progress can not be readily applied. Alexandra LaPres, who teachers drama at the Chalmette High School, wonders how students' progress is to be measured in a class with a large practicum component like hers.
In her classes, children put on plays. They study the material, they learn their lines and at the end of the semester they perform in front of their peers and families. Yet now she is wondering if modifying the format wouldn't serve her better in the long term — she is considering adding more tests, for example, to produce a set of numbers that can be easily understood.
Scott Steckler can understand LaPres's pain all too well. Steckler signed up his school – George Cox Elementary in Gretna – for last year's pilot program to get some early experience with the new system. He said that initially he was excited to try it, but that feeling fled fairly quickly once he was actually exposed to the nitty gritty of the new assessments.
A three-decade veteran principal, Steckler figured he and his faculty would benefit from early exposure to the plan. But he soon faced a ballooning workload and wondered what he had gotten himself into. Only two of the 15 participating teachers in Cox's pilot, worked in grade levels and subjects with standardized state tests. In the other subjects — among them kindergarten, physical education and the library — the principal and each teacher had to agree on a student growth goal. The evaluations quickly became a full-time job for Steckler as he conferred with teachers, formulated standards and goals and refined them, all on top of spending more time observing teachers in action.
To ease the confusion, Jefferson Parish officials decided to impose their own student learning targets to be used by all principals in the parish schools. Steckler appreciates the district lifting some of the burden off his shoulders but still thinks that the "one size fits all" approach is counterproductive.
"If I were a brand-new principal, I would be really pleased," Steckler said. As a senior principal, he said, "I would prefer it if the teacher and I could decide."
Meanwhile, the woman who created the evaluation system on which the Louisiana assessment program is based believes that – as implemented – it is not complex enough. Specifically, Charlotte Danielson is worried that the assessment checklist used by those observing teachers in the classroom decreases accuracy. She also took issue with the short evaluation period, pointing out that before Tennessee adopted a program like this it piloted it in several districts for a year. A simple nine-school experiment might not have been enough to iron out all the kinks.