On a recent afternoon veteran social studies teacher Robert Waldo sat in his Sacramento classroom explaining the goals of the next lesson in his Advanced Placement Government class. He wants his students to understand the evolving powers of the presidency and how the job has grown more powerful over the years.
Kalei Eskridge, a fellow teacher, sat across from Waldo in the otherwise empty room at El Camino Fundamental High School. Eskridge is central to San Juan Unified’s System of Professional Growth, a teacher evaluation program that began in 2016 as a joint effort between the school district and its teachers’ union.
Eskridge is among 12 “peer facilitators” who have stepped away from the classroom and now work full-time evaluating and mentoring other teachers in the district.
Although the district has used peer review for many years, the program had been limited to helping and reviewing struggling teachers. The new system allows all teachers due for a regular review the opportunity to receive feedback from another teacher as part of the evaluation process.
Before, there would be a planning conference, an observation and then teachers would be told how they scored and be offered suggestions, said Cheryl Dultz, a teacher who works as the program’s “facilitator mentor,” offering training and support to teachers and administrators. “(Now) instead of one and done, there are multiple opportunities for feedback.”
Although Waldo has undergone many performance reviews during his 19-year teaching career at San Juan Unified, this was his first time being appraised under the new evaluation system.
He said he was surprised the experience left him invigorated.
“It’s invaluable because I haven’t talked to someone from outside the building, or even really inside the building, about teaching and learning and having conversations about open-ended educational questions,” Waldo said. “Because, I think, under the previous system, especially if you are perceived as a strong teacher, sometimes they were just looking to sign your paperwork off. At least you get an opportunity to grow as a teacher and get some perspective.”
The collaboration between teachers and the district in developing the program, as well as the use of the teachers as evaluators and members of advisory panels, makes the San Juan program one of the few with such intense teacher participation.
“Many California school districts, along with states and districts around the country, are making new investments in their teacher evaluation programs,” according to “Can Teacher Evaluation Programs Improve Teaching?” a report by Virginia Lovison and Eric. S. Taylor of Harvard University, released last month. The report was included in “Getting Down to Facts II,” a research project focused on a wide array of statewide education issues.
California has no state-mandated or even state model teacher evaluation program, but schools still must evaluate teachers under the Stull Act, which leaves it to districts to develop a system, according to the report.
“The previous statement is not surprising to most California educators, but would be surprising to educators in other states where statewide evaluation programs have become the norm in recent years,” the report states.
The Stull Act requires that districts evaluate teachers and designate them either as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The provisions of the Stull Act, including one that requires that teacher evaluations include student progress toward state standards measured by state-adopted tests, among other things, have been largely ignored, according to the study. Legislative efforts to change the law in recent years have been unsuccessful.
The Harvard report examines innovative teacher evaluation systems in the Poway, San Juan, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Jose unified school districts.
Like San Juan Unified, the Los Angeles evaluation model also includes classroom observations, pre- and post-observation conferences and peer assistance for teachers who don’t meet standards.
“The evaluation time is not what it used to be — a gotcha,” said Ileana Dávalos, director of Professional Learning and Leadership Development at Los Angeles Unified.
The district also has a personalized online professional development program for teachers.
Long Beach Unified offers a similar online program that complements the evaluation process but is not required.
“It’s more like being assigned a personal trainer,” said Nader Imad Twal, program administrator of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development for Long Beach Unified. “You have goals. You set those goals. You have someone join you in the journey and coaching you along the way. It’s moving from compliance to continual improvement.”
Eskridge said the evaluation process gives teachers a chance to reflect out loud and to open their minds to other ways of teaching.
“I’ve been in 50 classrooms in the last two years — by the end of this year, close to 80. I know personally I will be a better teacher when I go back in the classroom, having had an opportunity to have these conversations,” Eskridge said.
The district’s System of Professional Growth is split into three parts: Professional Practice, Advisory, and Peer Assistance and Review. The Professional Practice phase includes the regular evaluations given to teachers every two, three or five years — depending on the number of years they have been teaching. The Advisory and Peer Assistance and Review portions of the program are meant to help struggling teachers by adding oversight and assigning other teachers as mentors.
That help isn’t limited to teachers who are targeted for support. Teachers who want help in a specific area of teaching can also ask to take part in the Advisory phase of the program.
Teachers who are being evaluated will have two or three formal classroom observations by either a San Juan Unified administrator or peer facilitator. The evaluation also will include meetings between the evaluator and teacher before and after the observations, reflective conversations and an end-of-the-year debriefing.
During reflective conversations teachers are asked to bring evidence of their choosing, like student work, a teaching journal, examples of goal setting, student assessments and lesson plans to show their progress as a teacher.
Teacher involvement in evaluations in San Juan Unified actually began almost 20 years ago when district officials agreed to include teachers in deciding what to do with permanent teachers who had unsatisfactory evaluations, as part of its Peer Assistance and Review program.
In 2011, the San Juan Teachers Association — the district’s union — and the school board both voted overwhelmingly for a new evaluation system, according to district officials. The program officially started the 2016-17 school year.
The Advisory phase of the evaluation program catches struggling teachers before they fail, by assigning them to a consulting teacher who works with them two hours a week to improve their practice, said Shannan Brown, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association.
Consulting teachers have been released from their classroom duties to work full-time with teachers who have been referred to them for support, as well as with teachers who request support, and first- and second-year teachers.
If the teacher receives two or more ratings of unsatisfactory performance during the Advisory phase he or she can be referred to Peer Assistance and Review. The teacher must spend at least three hours a week working with a consulting teacher. Every six weeks a report on the teacher’s progress toward meeting standards is submitted to a panel of administrators and teachers, Brown said.
The panel will decide if the teacher is making progress and needs fewer hours of support, or whether the teacher should be dismissed.
Despite the enthusiasm for the evaluation programs, there’s no evidence they are making a difference in classrooms. Brown said that San Juan Unified is tracking its progress, but that it will take a few years to determine whether teaching is improving.
“For now, we use practitioner and facilitator focus groups, document review and feedback from various surveys,” Brown said. She said there is also feedback from individual peer and administrative facilitators.
In the last seven years 63 percent of the teachers in San Juan Unified who were referred to Peer Assistance and Review successfully completed the program and met standards, 25 percent choose to resign or retire and 12 percent were dismissed, Brown said.
This year the System of Professional Growth program employs 12 full-time peer facilitators, with a caseload of about 25 teachers each, and two part-time facilitators to help evaluate the district’s teachers. Peer facilitators evaluate about 25 percent of the district’s 1,300 teachers, while administrators evaluate 75 percent. All peer facilitators are supervised by an administrator who signs off on evaluations, Brown said.
Peer facilitators are required to have five years of teaching experience and must go through a rigorous selection process that includes a letter of recommendation from a direct supervisor, a written evaluation, interview and observation, Brown said.
Peer facilitators receive a stipend of $4,500 on top of their regular salary and consulting teachers earn a $5,507 stipend. The program costs San Juan Unified about $2 million annually, said Raj Rai, district spokeswoman.
But can colleagues effectively judge their peers? Dultz says the system has checks and balances to ensure fairness, including the supervision of administrators, who still have the power to recommend a teacher be given assistance.
There were skeptics when the district rolled out the prototype, Dultz said. “Some people felt comfortable with the old system. It was less intensive.”