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Area schools now a laboratory for evaluating teachers
By Francisco Vara-Orta
LYTLE — Four students huddled with their fourth-grade science teacher, Natalie Lopez, on a Thursday morning before winter break, anxious about their video presentation of the seasons of the year and asking how to add background music.
The class at Lytle Elementary School had broken into groups to study patterns in the natural world, with their presentations due the next day. Students were brainstorming and busy, some flinging paper cutouts, glue and printed titles onto cardboard, others rehearsing in a nearby lobby, planning to merge their video with in-person interaction.
Lopez, who has worked at Lytle Independent School District for 20 years, coordinated the chaos with a light touch, giving advice, feedback and approval. It wasn’t a traditional class lecture style — but it was exactly what her bosses wanted.
“Natalie is learning to let go and let the students better empower themselves,” said Debbie Gouard, a longtime classroom teacher who now has a different job, evaluating teachers at the district almost daily. “We worry about if students are getting the right information in that approach, but we are rethinking teaching … showing them how to find the information on their own.”
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Lytle ISD, having tried teacher evaluation models since 2007 that offer regular feedback, is a step ahead of most Texas school districts. But not for long. The state will soon acquiesce to a sweeping national push to up the rigor in its teacher evaluations and is developing a new model that must be in place within two years.
For now, the impending change helps fuel a wide range of experiments. Four area districts — Lytle, Southside and Somerset ISDs and the Jubilee Academic Center, a locally based charter system with more than a dozen Texas campuses — are trying out new methods, fueled by grants and significant investments of their own money.
All four use, to varying degrees, student test scores as a teacher performance yardstick, an element that has made such reforms controversial nationwide.
Most school districts in Texas — including most in Bexar County, which has nearly 22,000 public school teachers — use a method developed 17 years ago and widely criticized as lax.
It only requires veterans to be assessed once every five years and doesn’t challenge them, but the new models can make them feel defensive or disrespected, Gouard said.
“At first, you are like, 'Oh my God, all these people are coming in the room,’ and even as a veteran, you get a little nervous,” Lopez said of the scrutiny. “But I like the feedback from other teachers. … The biggest challenge is changing people’s mindset and proving that these folks are not coming in to attack you.”
Pushed to improve
Teachers and their unions nationwide are wary of linking student performance to teacher evaluations because the results of any evaluation system help determine who gets a promotion or more pay, who is considered in need of retraining and support — and who might need to find another career.
But teachers interviewed at the four districts say they have generally embraced the changes because they want to know how to improve and they’re getting more feedback — and because good evaluations can bring pay bonuses.
Overall, Lopez has done well under Lytle’s new system, with high scores and annual pay bonuses in amounts the district won’t make public — they can be up to $2,000 per year at that district.
Evaluations are protected by state law as confidential but Lopez agreed to discuss hers. She teaches math and science, high-pressure subjects because policymakers want them tested with increasing rigor.
The feedback has been valuable, she said. A few years ago, her principal observed that students might be more engaged if she used iPads for her lessons instead of pencils and paper. It worked, she said.
This school year, Gouard suggested Lopez give students more control over how they study science, providing the lesson’s ingredients but letting them design the recipe.
“It’s preparing them at fourth grade on presenting to others, a real-world life skill, and I am acting more as a facilitator in this approach,” Lopez said.
She lectured about earth patterns to her fourth-graders, discussed ideas for their presentations and gave them a couple of days to work on them, using iPads for video and computers to print material for larger displays.
The day before the presentations, Lopez presided over small flurries of activity. When Sarah Ytuarte, Yadi Mendez, Marissa Lopez and Angel Garcia asked for help on their video of the seasons, Lopez suggested the same iPad could stream music off the Internet as they reshot it.
A group of girls used Oreo cookies to illustrate the phases of the moon, removing precise amounts of icing to denote the waxing and waning against the dark backgrounds.
“I really like the way you made the Earth tilt,” Lopez told Ricky Sandoval, regarding his diorama of the planet.
Nivea Sanchez asked Lopez to proofread a line of text she had printed for her display. “Is that the right spelling?” Lopez asked, noticing the word “which” misspelled as “witch.” Sanchez whisked back to the computer to correct it.
There was action all over, but the students were orderly and eager to explain their projects to anyone walking by.
Sometimes Gouard, one of two full-time evaluators at the elementary school, will pop in for a visit for a few minutes to see how teachers such as Lopez are doing and offer some casual feedback. At least once a year, she will conduct a formal evaluation of the teacher, usually in addition to two formal assessments by other administrative officials.
“Oddly enough, newer teachers grow faster, as younger ones are willing to take more risks,” said Gouard, who has known Lopez for years. “Natalie is near the top of the bunch, but she still worries about if she’s reaching students, and of course, like most of us, about testing.”
Lopez partly attributes her receptiveness to peer reviews to her previous jobs in other fields, including in human resources at the Kroger Co. A native of Kansas who grew up here and got a business degree at St. Mary’s University, she turned to teaching when the grocery chain closed its stores here and later earned a master’s in education.
“A key factor in this whole evaluation process is about relationships, and if you have good relationships with your students, they will learn. And if you have good relationships with your superiors, you will learn, and not feel attacked when they offer feedback which should be constructive,” Lopez said.
Texas late to change
The biggest drawback of the new models is the time and staffing they require. Districts must assign at least one employee per campus to conduct evaluations, but they often pull in others to help.
The federal government has applied both pressure and funding incentives to get Texas to move away from its current model, the Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS. After Texas Republican lawmakers tried but failed to overhaul it in 2013, the Texas Education Agency decided to do so on its own, to qualify for a waiver from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
TEA officials say Texas benefited from waiting, learning from other states whose reforms required legislative fights and sometimes landed them in court. The new model — the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS — began on a trial basis in the fall at about 60 districts.
In Bexar County, the only district to volunteer for it was Jubilee. Next school year, about 200 districts will try T-TESS. It scores 80 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on measures of teaching effectiveness and classroom observations. The rest is based on “student growth” — that is, test scores — through a complex formula that won’t be counted during the pilot years, officials said.
In a recent visit to San Antonio, Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the parent body of the Texas State Teachers Association, said the jury is still out on which new system is more effective, but any reliance on standardized test scores isn’t a good way to judge teachers.
“What would be better is assessing teachers on how they use that (test) data in figuring out how to better serve students,” she said.
T-TESS will go statewide in the 2016-17 school year, but under current law, school districts won’t necessarily have to adopt it. Other, privately developed models are out there.
Southside ISD is using the Stronge Teacher Evaluation System. Somerset ISD signed onto the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Lytle adopted the Framework for Teaching, a rubric also known as the Charlotte Danielson model. A few San Antonio Independent School District campuses are using it, too, as part of a turnaround initiative.
Administrators at Southside, Somerset and Lytle said teachers there supported the idea and got to vote on which one to use, a condition of federal funding. Some teachers said it sparked some resistance and employee turnover.
But teachers agree the existing PDAS system is weak and subjective, centering on a single 45-minute observation annually, which veteran teachers can skip for up to five years. About 96 percent of all Texas teachers get a passing grade.
Brandon Robinson, in his 10th year of teaching in Southside, helps conduct high school class observations. Unlike PDAS, the Stronge model allows teachers to argue for including anecdotal evidence of teacher impact, such as letters and e-mails from parents and students.
“Much has changed in education, and the new model allows you to illustrate you and your students’ progress,” he said.
None of the four new systems design evaluations as punitive, a key difference from how some other states have handled the changes. Jubilee, Southside, Somerset and Lytle officials agree that the goal is professional development, not singling out “bad” teachers.
Results are linked to bonuses or larger raises — but not pay cuts, which made it an easier sell.
“I think that’s what has scared some teachers, but as long as your teachers know what to expect, then they’ll know how to prepare,” said Jennifer Moreno, a Jubilee principal who oversees some of the 180 teachers within the charter district.
Jubilee isn’t getting state funding for pay bonuses tied to T-TESS this year, but is using its own money to provide up to $3,000 a year for high-performance teaching. Moreno said Jubilee’s teachers generally get lower starting pay than their peers who teach at traditional public schools, adding, “They’re not in it for the money.”
How they differ
Before the Obama administration began pushing teacher evaluation reform, Texas had experimented with new models linking test scores to teacher pay, but lawmakers cut off funding when its effectiveness proved modest. Southside, Lytle, Judson and Somerset ISDs participated in that initial effort at some campuses, opting to use the TAP method.
Somerset, with 235 teachers, began using TAP district-wide in 2013, allocating $1 million a year for it. For the first time in years, all its campuses met state accountability standards for 2013-14. Administrators believe the program helped achieve that.
In evaluating teachers and administrators, TAP puts much more weight on student test scores than the other methods. Somerset ties their pay raises — ranging as high as $12,000 a year — to those evaluations.
Lytle ISD, which in 2012 was judged one of the best districts in the state in the rigorous H-E-B Excellence in Education competition, started using the Danielson model last school year at its four campuses with roughly 120 teachers. The district has spent $4.7 million in eight years on teacher evaluation programs, helped by $3.4 million in state and federal grants, superintendent Michelle Carroll Smith said.
With a $2 million grant acquired this year, Southside ISD started using the Stronge model in August to evaluate its 350 teachers across its eight campuses.
The Legislature’s next move is anyone’s guess, said Jennifer Canaday, governmental relations manager for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. ATPE generally supports giving bonuses for good performance, but, along with the state’s three other main teacher groups, is leery about tying salaries to evaluations and opposes basing them on student test scores.
The groups also have said that school districts should be vigilant about vetting any new evaluation system, especially those being sold by for-profit companies that would require more public spending.
Administrators piloting the new programs here concede they have an advantage: their districts are smaller and can more easily manage such a change.
“We might be small, but it doesn’t mean we can’t show our capabilities to help lead the way,” Lytle’s Smith said.
Gouard, with 25 years in education, cautions others not to expect some overnight miracle from a new teacher evaluation system. As someone who was teaching down the hall from Lopez less than three years ago, Gouard said she vividly recalls the pressures her colleagues endure on a day-to-day basis. That perspective helps frame her approach in building a relationship with those she evaluates, she explained.
“It’s all about trust,” said Gouard, who has known Lopez for a decade. “If we don’t trust each other, it won’t work.”