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.
Some Hancock boys are affiliated with gangs--on the day I visited, one had just been jumped the prior Sunday, though not injured seriously--and for years the school has adorned walls inside and out with student-painted tiles and murals to deter graffiti tagging. But academic performance has been steadily improving, and Boran expects Hancock to be removed from the city's probation list soon. Disciplinary incidents usually involve things like pot-smoking in the convent, not people getting hurt.
All of that makes a focus on instruction more plausible at Hancock than at some other schools.
Eleven miles northeast, where the notorious Cabrini Green public housing project once stood, Tara Stamps asks a young man to help her wheel a cart down the hall. It holds wrapped sandwiches, ripe bananas and chocolate milk for a few dozen sixth graders who are in the hall crying and hugging, too upset to eat in the cafeteria.
Stamps, a language arts teacher at Jenner Academy of the Arts, ushers the students and the food into her classroom while eating her own lunch: vegetable soup in a Styrofoam cup, consumed with a finger in the absence of a spoon. "We're here for you," she said, putting her arm around a child whose face is wet with tears. "You all are the blessing." Turning to a visitor, she notes wryly that work like this won't count in her evaluation.
At Jenner and dozens of other schools this spring, evaluations are taking a back seat to more complicated issues surrounding school closings and neighborhood violence. At Englewood's Harper High, where Michelle Obama recently visited in response to a public radio series about 29 current and former students being shot in a year's time, district data show administrators falling behind on teacher observations where Hancock is ahead of schedule.
It is the Friday before spring break. For months, Jenner staff, parents and students have been fighting to keep the school open. The day before, officials announced that Jenner--in a gleaming dozen-year-old building in the rapidly gentrifying Near North Side, across a courtyard from a new Cross Fit gym that replaced a beeper store--will remain open. But pending school board approval in late May, it will absorb students from a closing neighboring elementary/middle school, George Manierre, and become an International Baccalaureate school, which could involve staff changes. The students are frightened by the prospect of peers in rival gangs at Manierre coming to Jenner and their teachers leaving.
Stamps, 44, a neighborhood native whose mother was a prominent community activist, said the local alderman warned district officials at a recent hearing that "for those two schools to merge would be catastrophic."
"For that to just fall on deaf ears made me feel like, 'You are okay with blood on your hands,' " she said. "Because, essentially, that's the risk you run." She believes the move is one to make "poor people of color--and when I say color, I do mean black--that still reside in this community ... so uncomfortable, to just throw you into utter chaos, that you have no choice but to flee."
New Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, herself African-American, has fired back at those who criticize the school closings plan as racist. "To refuse to challenge the status quo that is failing thousands of African-American students year after year ... that's what I call racist," she said at a school board meeting in early April, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We cannot and should not allow gangs to dictate the future of the city or limit the futures of our children."
District officials say they will provide extra security for schools like Jenner as well as administrative support at both closing and receiving schools so principals can remain focused on instruction. Nonetheless, Stamps said the new teacher observations are barely a blip on the radar for tenured teachers at Jenner; she heard about them once last year during a training session. Though administrators are only required to evaluate non-tenured teachers this year, at Hancock Boran and her assistant principals are observing everyone so the entire staff can acclimate to the process. That's not so at Jenner, and with little information to go on, Stamps is skeptical.
"If there was the assurance that this was going to be used properly, I don't think teachers would be as anxious about it," said Stamps, recording secretary of the union's Black Caucus. "But when there's such an attack on so many other areas, it's just natural to be suspicious of this as well. Even if this could potentially have been a good thing, it's just the time at which it's being implemented."
Stamps is highly critical of the portion of the evaluation that will come from test score improvement. "I have children in my classroom who have witnessed not one, not two, but three and four homicides, deal with homelessness, deal with molestation, deal with bullying, deal with being relocated from one place to another, parents just trying to figure out how to survive," she said. "And then you want to know why they're not testing at grade levels? ... Then you want to tie--getting to your point--your teacher evaluations to how well your kids are doing on a test?"
At Robert Emmet Elementary, a school in the high-crime Austin neighborhood that's slated to be closed, special education teacher Tammie Vinson considers herself fortunate: "None of my students have actually been killed," said Vinson, 55, a union delegate who has taught at the school for the past three years and lives in the neighborhood. "Some of the students from our building have. Teachers who have been here for years are regularly going to funerals."
At closing schools, teachers' ratings on the old checklist evaluation will determine whether they get priority for jobs following their students to other schools or wind up in a substitute pool. Even though district officials consider the checklist flawed, right now it's all they have to go on.
"Teachers are feeling that we made a commitment to teach African-American students, Hispanic students, and now we're being penalized for our choice to want to work with these kids," Vinson said. Students have lost their motivation now that they know their school is likely closing, she said. "We're still here, and we've got work that needs to be done."
Each morning during the strike, Karen Boran would pull her car through the picket line outside her school, on a residential block steps from Pulaski Road's gas stations and fast-food establishments. She'd get out and hug her teachers, then go inside to an empty building. One day, she played the blues over the loudspeaker.
The strike's key issues included the use of test scores in evaluations--state law specified they had to be included; the questions were how and how much--and the implementation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's longer school day proposal without a proportionate pay raise.
But beyond particulars, the strike represented a boiling point in a national debate. On one side, business-minded reformers want educators held accountable for student performance. On the other, unions want more focus on the social problems contributing to low achievement and less emphasis on testing, which in Chicago takes up an extraordinary amount of time. (Since her appointment after the strike, Byrd-Bennett has acknowledged concerns of over-testing and is planning to scale back on the number of exams administered.) The 800 Chicago Teachers Union delegates representing rank-and-file membership opted last year not to endorse President Obama's re-election since he and his education secretary, former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, are seen as promoting the business reform agenda. The union's executive board ultimately endorsed the president reluctantly.
"Any sane person looks at the issues around the strike and sees both sides crystal clear," Boran said. "[Teachers] had to do what they had to do, and that wasn't personal... So, you let them go, you let them know that you care about them, that you love them, that you'll miss them. And then you welcome them when they come back, and you just try to go forward."
When it was over, with a deal providing an average 17 percent raise over four years while lengthening the school day by about an hour, Hancock's 58 teachers returned to welcome-back signs in the halls and colorful markers as welcome-back gifts from Boran. The school's college and career coach made a video interviewing staff and students about the strike and played it at a school healing ceremony where everyone recommitted to the Hancock goals of respect, integrity and responsibility.
Then the life went on. Evaluations got underway.
Michael Marzano, in his third year teaching environmental science at Hancock and eligible for tenure this fall, has been observed three times formally plus once informally since September. (An informal observation is unannounced, with no pre-observation meeting.) Hungry for specific feedback on his teaching, the 24-year-old has highlights and post-it notes throughout his copy of the observation criteria. He found the old system too easy. "It seemed like it was sort of haphazardly put together, and if you didn't get the best rating in any of the columns, you were really doing something wrong," said Marzano, whose career was inspired by a college summer internship with Teach For America's administrative offices.
The movement for new evaluations stemmed from research showing nearly all teachers under old systems were deemed satisfactory or better. Marzano cites a quote he read from Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor-turned-national face of the business-minded reformers. He remembers Rhee saying that, through the years in urban districts, teachers' ratings have increased as student achievement has declined. "How do you have a system full of superior teachers, and yet a decreasing student ability level?" Marzano said from a black lab table in his third-floor classroom.
Under Chicago's new system, continuous improvement is the point. Charlotte Danielson has written that the top category, distinguished, is "a good place to visit, but don't expect to live there." Boran gives the occasional 4 on a 1-to-4 scale in an individual category but not yet as anyone's average score. That can be tough for veterans accustomed to high personal achievement, which many are at Hancock; more than a quarter of teachers hold the prestigious National Board Certification. (Danielson defined a bottom 1 rating of unsatisfactory as doing harm to children, which is why Sue Sporte predicts this system may not easily weed out weak instructors.)
As a result of his observation feedback, Marzano is working to develop assessment questions sooner and incorporate more student choice into lessons. In a unit on energy efficiency, he allows students to select from among seven materials, from denim to cotton to wood chips, to insulate a cardboard house and test what they do to the temperature inside. On a bulletin board called the "parking lot," students can write random scientific curiosities: "Why do you throw up food whole sometimes if you chew it first?"
Upstairs on the fourth floor, Latin American history teacher Marco De Santiago is leading a class on rethinking Columbus Day. Students are in small groups discussing two articles with opposing viewpoints on Christopher Columbus's legacy. During their observation conference, De Santiago and Boran discussed how he can prod shy students to speak up more, and she gave him a graphic organizer to help kids formulate a position. Now De Santiago, a soft-spoken 36-year-old with a poster for the Social Justice Club hanging outside his door, uses a similar strategy he learned from the school literacy coach to prepare the class for a discussion. He walks around moderating as students divide their papers into quadrants for summarizing and questioning each article. Pinned to the ribbon holding his school ID around his neck is a red and white button reading "Support Our Schools! Don't Close Them!"
De Santiago likes the conversations that the observations are sparking at Hancock, but he worries how the evaluations will be used in other schools. His wife teaches in the system, too, and his brother is an assistant principal. "If used properly, this tool can be useful and really be that bridge between administration and the teachers to help us improve our practice, definitely," De Santiago said. "But with the climate being what it is right now in our district... this may be just a tool to justify the closing of a school." As with any evaluation, he noted, "it's subjective."
Both Marzano and De Santiago are holding out judgment on a secondary part of their evaluation: the assessments written by Chicago teachers to measure student progress beyond multiple choice tests in language arts and math. Teachers grade their own classes' work, prompting concerns over the temptation to deliberately mark low at the beginning of the year to show more improvement.
For her own evaluation, Boran will see half her rating come from intangible factors like her ability to build a school culture focused on college and career readiness. The other half will come from metrics including the graduation rate, attendance rate and, primarily, test scores. Principals will be eligible for bonuses up to $20,000 based on those numbers.
"Do I love it? I don't know," she said. "Part of me thinks, 'Yeah, make it more rigorous, of course.' And then you think, 'Why do I have to go through this, on top of everything else? I have a doctorate in reading and I have this, that and the other thing, and I'm still not good enough?' But that's just human."
The superhuman part of her is on board. "Well," she said, pausing, "in the end, our job is to increase student achievement, and in the end, we signed up to be responsible... I am fortunate enough and confident enough that we'll be O.K. I'll be O.K. The responsibility that you have as a school leader means you have to take all of it."
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.