Will New Teacher Evaluations Help or Hurt Chicago's Schools?

In the wake of a strike and amid a skyrocketing murder rate, teachers and administrators alike are trying to focus on instruction.

John_Hancock_(27_of_27).jpgKaren Boran (right), the first-year principal of John Hancock College Prep High School, spends about three hours on each teacher observation she does under Chicago's new evaluation model. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," she said. (Kim Willen)

CHICAGO -- Karen Boran reads and replies to about 200 emails a day. On a recent Thursday, her Google calendar shows not a single 15-minute interval free. The first meeting of the day for the petite 56-year-old principal of John Hancock College Prep High School is with a senior afraid she won't graduate because her attendance is below 90 percent. Second, Boran has to call in a teacher who's fallen behind on grade entries. Then comes the mother of a boy with special needs to discuss whether Hancock--a spunky neighborhood school in a yellow brick building that towers over the small square houses surrounding it--will still be the right placement for him as a fifth-year senior. Navigating her office to welcome visitors, Boran steps over piles of books displaced in a January storm that flooded 18 of 36 classrooms, requiring some to relocate to the auditorium.

By late morning, at last, Boran gets to the place where the Chicago Public Schools administration wants her spending the majority of her time: a classroom, to observe and assess the teacher's performance. As of early April, Boran and two assistant principals had collectively done 98 observations using the city's new teacher evaluation system. Boran's assessments take her three hours apiece, from reviewing pre-observation lesson plans to a post-evaluation conference and data entry. "And I'm fast," she said, typing furiously on her black wireless Dell laptop.

The new evaluation system, designed to keep administrators and teachers focused on instruction, is unrolling amid a historic--and historically distracting--year in the nation's third-largest school district. September brought an extended school day and Chicago's first teacher strike in a quarter century, which halted classes for seven days and spurred schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard to resign. One of the strike's central issues was the proposed inclusion of students' standardized test scores in teacher evaluations and pay. The year is ending with the district projecting a $1 billion deficit and massive protests over plans for 54 school closures. In between, the city murder rate has been steadily climbing, disproportionately impacting the young people who populate Chicago's most challenged schools.

New teacher evaluations are a centerpiece of the Obama administration's school reform agenda. Prodded by incentives of federal grant money and waivers from federal requirements, more than half the states have overhauled their evaluation systems in recent years. The new versions typically incorporate student growth on tests and in some places are the basis for bonuses and merit pay. Many policymakers, philanthropists and business-minded advocates are banking on them to transform academics and weed out subpar teachers.

But The New York Times recently reported that only 3 percent―or fewer―of teachers under new systems in Florida, Tennessee and Michigan were rated unsatisfactory, raising questions about how effective that agenda will be. "The hope of the business folks is that this ... will identify more failing teachers so they'll be gotten rid of. I'm just not sure that's going to happen," said Sue Sporte, research operations director at the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, which is studying the implementation of the evaluations in the Windy City. "If only 2.5 percent is rated unsatisfactory, I don't know how satisfactory that will be to the constituency that believes that kids are failing because teachers are awful."

Will the new evaluations prove a valuable tool or simply another drain on educators' already stretched time? The Consortium on Chicago School Research surveyed 700 principals and assistant principals and 900 teachers in December about the new process and will do so again in May. In a climate so politically and emotionally charged, however, the school district would not authorize the organization to release preliminary findings. A district spokesman said the data are "too preliminary to be of any value."

A 2010 Illinois state law gave Chicago until this year to replace its antiquated evaluation, a yes-or-no checklist in use since 1967 that included questions such as whether a teacher was dressed appropriately. The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools administration don't agree on much, but both sides saw the old checklist as useless. More than 2,300 teachers who participated in 200 district focus groups overwhelmingly said they wanted more feedback, and they wanted to be held accountable for their performance. Then the sticking point became, how?

During the strike, the union successfully warded off merit pay--for now, anyway. The weight that test score growth will have in the new evaluations will start out small and grow over the next two years to 30 percent, the minimum permitted under the state law. Teachers not in a tested subject will be marked on the school's average reading scores, with the idea that literacy should be a part of every class, from music to gym. In all grades and subjects, they will also be measured on teacher-written assessments involving hands-on tasks and written responses.

Chicago principals, who are not unionized, meanwhile have their own new evaluations, and 50 percent of their ratings from central office administrators will come from student growth measures. And the new teacher evaluations, heavily based on detailed classroom observations in lieu of more emphasis on test scores, drastically increase what was already a tremendous workload for principals and assistant principals. Administrators must pass an online state exam to be able to conduct an observation, a process for which preparation is supposed to take 40 hours but took Karen Boran many more.

"The principals are being asked to do a really difficult task," said Carol Caref, the Chicago Teachers Union's research director. "It's a huge, huge change for principals to be spending so much time with teachers."

How is Boran, a first-year principal, faring? "I'll sleep when I'm dead," she said. "It's all right."

Personal implications aside, Boran is excited by the potential for specific, constructive conversations. The observations, based on criteria developed by teacher effectiveness expert Charlotte Danielson, ask for evidence of a teacher's performance in 15 categories falling under four "domains." Domain 2A, for example, requires a classroom environment of respect and rapport. That means Boran is looking for the teacher to take time to understand why a student is falling behind or misbehaving and not just respond with a failing grade.

"I've got to think that any good school leader is looking at it and thinking, 'Thank you, Lord Jesus, we finally have a tool,' " said Boran, a white-haired mother of two who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. She came to Chicago to pursue stand-up comedy before finding a career in education and was an assistant principal at Hancock previously.

Boran considers herself blessed for other reasons, too: Despite numerous challenges, Hancock is in a good place to benefit from the evaluations, which count for non-tenured teachers this year and will be phased in for tenured teachers next year.

Originally a Catholic girls' school and still home to an empty convent that regularly shows up on Chicago ghost tours, Hancock today enrolls 953 students. Ninety-three percent are Latino, and 95 percent are low-income. Kids typically come from Mexican families where parents work two or three jobs to make ends meet. But family structures haven't been ravaged by drugs, violence and teenage pregnancy to the same extent as surrounding predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Since Chicago's RedEye Web site began tracking homicides by neighborhood in 2007, Hancock's West Elsdon community has seen six murders. Nearby Englewood, an African-American community, has had 128.

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Sara Neufeld is a contributing writer for The Hechinger Report.

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