San Jose teachers, board adopt landmark teacher evaluation system

May 23, 2013

Breaking new ground in California, San Jose Unified has adopted an innovative teacher evaluation process that gives teachers a role in reviewing their peers and greatly revises the current – and some say outmoded – method of measuring teacher success.

The new system would deny automatic raises to unsatisfactory performers and give evaluators the option of adding another year to the probationary period for new teachers – a provision at odds with the state teachers union. Bucking a national trend, the new system will not use standardized test scores as a direct measure of performance.

The school board approved the contract, two years in the making, Thursday night. Seventy-two percent of San Jose teachers endorsed it, with three-quarters of teachers in the union voting, earlier this month.

San Jose Teachers Association President Jennifer Thomas and Superintendent Vincent Matthews relax after the school board unanimously approved the contract with teachers, with the new evaluation system, Thursday night. (John Fensterwald photo)

The agreement offers a model of collaboration between teachers and a district at a time when unions, school reformers and district leaders in California remain sharply divided over how to change the state’s largely ineffective evaluation law, the Stull Act, and who – teachers or the school board – should have the authority to determine what an evaluation system should comprise.

“Teachers, in concert with the district, have created something that puts teachers in the center of what happens with student achievement. There is the recognition that professional development is important, and so is student growth. The teacher’s voice is heard once again,” said English teacher and San Jose Teachers Association President Jennifer Thomas.

“To assist teachers to grow as professionals, it was important that management and the union work together,” said Superintendent Vincent Matthews. “We believe it will lead to greater student achievement.”

The new evaluation system won’t take effect for two years, and not all of the pieces are in place. A salary ladder that incorporates higher pay for model and master teachers will rely initially on outside funding that the district must now pursue.

Chief features include:

Currently in nearly all districts, the principal or assistant principal does evaluations, often based on hurried observations and a checklist of items that critics say don’t get to the heart of good teaching. Teachers view the process as either superficial or as a game of gotcha.

Under the San Jose contract, consulting teachers – a newly created position – will participate with principals in evaluating probationary teachers and, when requested, veteran teachers after a principal’s initial review. Six-member Teacher Quality Panels, split equally between teachers and administrators, but requiring a majority vote for actions, may review decisions at key points along the way and make recommendations to the school board. The Teacher Quality Panels are modeled after successful Peer Assistance and Review programs in San Juan Unified and Poway Unified, which are permitted under state law, but with added responsibilities. Thomas said including respected teachers on the teacher quality panels cuts both ways, as a protection from an inaccurate or unfair review and as an affirmation that it’s accurate. “There is accountability at both ends,” she said. “A teacher will tell another who is struggling, ‘You may not like your evaluation but it is not necessarily wrong.'”

Teachers will continue with a traditional step and column pay scale, based on experience and degrees. (Union and district negotiators had considered a more compressed pay schedule that might be more attractive to younger teachers, but it didn’t happen.) However, teachers whose evaluations are deemed unsatisfactory will lose an automatic yearly raise. After a year of work with a mentor teacher under an improvement plan, teachers whom the Teacher Quality Panel decides have improved will return to the salary schedule. Those who had not improved would face dismissal.

Model and master teachers will be selected for three-year assignments, paying in the range of $15,000 to $25,000 more per year, after a rigorous application process. Model teachers will be recognized as the best classroom practitioners and will get extra money for coaching and mentoring – roles they’re already informally assuming without official status, Thomas said. They’ll remain in their classrooms. Master teachers will have special assignments, such as designing curriculums and overseeing district projects, outside of the classroom. Moving ahead with these positions initially will depend on raising outside funding, between $7 million and $10 million a year, Matthews said. Thomas said she’s confident the district will be able to find the funding once the contract is ratified.

Under current state law, districts must decide by March of the second year whether to grant teachers permanent status or tenure, which provides due-process rights and job protections. A two-year probationary period is not a lot of time on which to base a decision, particularly in districts without effective mentoring and induction programs. In San Jose, Teacher Quality Panels could recommend a third year when they determine a teacher has potential but needs more time to develop, Thomas said.

The district will have to go to the Legislature for a waiver from the Education Code to extend the probationary period, and that may be hard to get. The nationwide trend has been to increase the probationary period to three to five years (see page  11). California is one of only a half-dozen states to grant tenure in less than three years. However, the California Teachers Association has opposed efforts to change the law.

All teachers will be evaluated every two years, and there are provisions permitting yearly updates, to track progress toward meeting improvement goals. Under the Stull Act, experienced teachers can be evaluated as infrequently as once every five years. Classroom walkthroughs, formal observations, interactions with the principal, feedback from peers, a student/parent survey and personal reflections will all factor into a review, without assigning specific weights or points that other evaluation systems quantify. Instead, a narrative by a consulting teacher and principal will detail strengths and weaknesses.

The rubric for judging will be the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, six broad standards broken down into specific skills that an effective teacher needs. These include engaging and supporting all students, understanding and organizing subject matter, planning instruction, designing lessons and learning experiences and creating assessments for learning.

Student test scores will be one gauge. But they won’t be used directly. Instead, evaluators will look at whether teachers learn from the results of assessments and use them to improve the way they teach, say, writing or fractions. If changes in teaching don’t lead to better results, then that will affect an evaluation, Matthews said.

This approach is different from using value-added measures of standardized tests as a significant component in an evaluation and separates the San Jose system from one favored by reform groups like StudentsFirst. In 2011, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the Stull Act does require the use of the state standardized test scores as a factor in a teacher evaluation and ordered Los Angeles Unified to incorporate them.

But San Jose’s approach also is more in line with the approach recommended in Greatness By Design, the report of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence, co-chaired by Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Long Beach Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser.

California standards tests – CSTs – won’t be used in the San Jose evaluations; the fact that the state is phasing them out in two years made that issue simpler to resolve. Common Core assessments that are being developed by a multi-state consortium to replace them, both end-of-year and practice tests, may be incorporated, depending on their quality.

“We believe the agreement complies with Stull Act, with the spirit of the law,” Matthews said, “and we will continue down that road until we’re told it’s the wrong road.”

San Jose’s system continues the Stull Act’s pass/fail grading system. The federal government, as a condition for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, is requiring that states adopt a minimum of three performance levels, such as “meets expectations, doesn’t meet expectations, and needs improvement.” But Matthews said that the binary system gives teachers the clearest indication of where they stand. And, with raises tied to evaluations, adding levels of performance would have shifted the focus of discussions from ways to improve to money.

Teachers and the district will move carefully to implement the system over the next two years, Thomas said. Details must be worked out and consulting teachers and principals fully trained.Last year, an effort to rewrite the Stull Act ended in acrimony over the issue of whether the criteria and standards behind a district’s evaluation should be subject to collective bargaining. All key aspects in the San Jose agreement were negotiated, under the assumption a system whose goal is continuous improvement is built on trust.

“It’s important that we work together to make the tools in an evaluation process as meaningful as possible,” Matthews said.

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