Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation

Next spring, we will release the book, Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel. The following original essay by Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp will be included in the book. In it, Stan discusses some of the problems with the current conversations around teacher quality, and examines better alternatives.  


Stan Karpby Stan Karp

So what’s the alternative? If narrow, test-based evaluation of teachers is unfair, unreliable, and has negative effects on kids, classrooms, and curricula, what’s a better approach?

By demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, the corporate reform movement has actually undermined serious efforts to improve teacher quality and evaluation.  For example, there is a lot of common ground among educators, parents, and administrators on the need for:

  • better support and evaluation before new teachers get tenure (or leave the profession, as nearly 50% do within 5 years).
  • reasonable, timely procedures for resolving tenure hearings when they are initiated.
  • a credible intervention process to remediate and if necessary remove ineffective teachers, tenured or non-tenured.

Good models for each of these ideas exist, many with strong teacher union support. But overreaching by corporate reformers has detached the issue of teacher quality from the conditions that produce it. Class sizes are growing and professional development budgets are shrinking. Federal and state plans are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into data systems and tests designed to replace collaborative professional culture and experienced instructional leadership with a kind of “psychometric astrology.”  These data-driven formulas lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible.  Instead of “elevating the profession,” corporate reform is eroding it.

But better alternatives do exist. One promising model is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth System (PGS), which has taken a collaborative approach to improving teacher quality for more than a decade. Several defining features make the Montgomery model very different than the test-based “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. The Montgomery Co. professional growth system:

  • was negotiated through collective bargaining rather than imposed by state or federal mandate.
  • is based on a clear, common vision of high quality professional teaching practice.
  • includes test scores as one of many indicators of student progress and teacher performance without rigidly weighted formulas.
  • includes a strong PAR (peer assistance and review) component for all novice and under-performing teachers, including those with tenure.
  • takes a broad, qualitative approach to promoting individual and system-wide teacher quality and continuous professional growth.

Developing and sustaining good teachers, rather than “getting rid of bad ones” has always been the main goal of the Montgomery system. But real consequences for persistently poor performance are part of the process. New York Times education reporter Michael Winerip wrote that the program “has worked beautifully for 11 years,” providing teachers with “extra support if they are performing poorly” and getting rid of those who do not improve.”

In 11 years, the PAR process has led to some 500 teachers being removed from the classroom in a countywide system of about 150,000 students with approximately 10,000 teachers and 200 schools. Over the same period, nearly 5,000 teachers have successfully completed the PAR process.[ii]

But PAR is only part of a professional growth system designed to improve teacher capacity throughout the system, not just identify and remove ineffective teachers. It’s a qualitative approach growing out of a shared vision of high quality professional practice. The PGS begins with “six clear standards for teacher performance, based on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards” and includes “performance criteria for how the standards are to be met and descriptive examples of observable teaching behaviors.”

The six standards are:[iii]

  • Standard 1: Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  • Standard 2: Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  • Standard 3: Teachers are responsible for establishing and managing student learning in a positive learning environment.
  • Standard 4: Teachers continually assess student progress, analyze the results, and adapt instruction to improve student achievement.
  • Standard 5: Teachers are committed to continuous improvement and professional development.
  • Standard 6: Teachers exhibit a high degree of professionalism

An extensive system of supports and professional development activities, including detailed protocols for assessing progress towards these goals, is outlined in various handbooks, evaluation rubrics and contractual agreements. The system also provides resources necessary to turn these ambitions into real commitments.

For example, the PAR system relies on 24 “consulting teachers” who are recruited from master teachers with 5 years of experience in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The consulting teachers (CT) make a commitment to work for three years as CTs and then return for at least two years to a school in a teaching or other non-administrative position. CTs receive special training to work intensively with an average of 16-18 “clients” who include new teachers and experienced teachers referred to PAR by their principals. The supports provided by CTs include:[iv]

  • Informal and formal observations
  • Written and verbal standards based feedback
  • Equitable Classroom Practice (“Look-Fors”)
  • Coaching sessions
  • Lesson planning
  • Model lessons
  • Co-teaching modeling
  • Peer observations
  • Classroom management
  • Time management
  • Alignment of school supports

CTs document their work, but do not do formal evaluations. Their reports go to the PAR panel made up of eight teachers appointed by the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and eight principals appointed by the administrators association. The panel reviews the documentation and makes a recommendation for non-renewal/dismissal, an additional year of PAR, or “release” to the “regular” PGS evaluation process that covers all staff. If either the client or the principal disagrees with the panel’s recommendation, he/she can initiate an appeals process that allows all parties to present additional info and speak to the panel, which ultimately reaffirms or alters its original decision. A tenured teacher dismissed through PAR does retain tenure rights and can appeal a dismissal decision. But in practice, the PAR process generally documents fully the basis for such decisions and formal challenges to PAR decisions are rare.

While the system is spelled out in detail, what really makes it possible is the level of trust and cooperation that grew out of years of developing a collaborative approach to issues of teacher quality. The commitment to collaboration between the MCEA and the district is summarized in unusual contract language:

We define collaboration as a process in which partners work together in a meaningful way and within a time frame that provides a real opportunity to shape results. The purpose of the process is to work together respectfully to resolve problems, address common issues, and identify opportunities for improvement. To be successful, the collaborative process must be taken seriously and be valued by both parties. The process must be given the time, personal involvement and commitment, hard work, and dedication that are required to be successful. The partners will identify and define issues of common concern, propose and evaluate solutions, and agree on recommendations.[v]

“It wouldn’t work without the level of trust we have here,” MCEA president Doug Prouty told the NY Times. Jerry D. Weast, former superintendent of the Montgomery County system, added “It took three to five years to build the trust to get PAR in place,” he explained. “Teachers had to see we weren’t playing gotcha.”[vi]

Beyond PAR, the larger PGS system is based on a belief that “good teaching is nurtured in a school and in a school system culture that values constant feedback, analysis, and refinement of the quality of teaching.” Formal performance evaluations are part of “a multi-year process of professional growth, continual reflection on goals and progress meeting those goals, and collegial interaction.” The aim is to support “a collaborative learning culture among teachers in each school, integrating individual growth plans into school plans, and utilizing student achievement and other data about student results.”[vii]

Besides teachers, there are separately articulated PGS standards and evaluation protocols for administrators, non-classroom professionals and support staff. Ideally, this contributes to a school-wide sense of accountability and collective purpose that helps sustain healthy school communities, and there is significant evidence that it works.

Over the past decade, student achievement as measured by Maryland’s state assessments has increased across-the-board in every student subgroup—by race, ethnicity, and income level. Achievement gaps have narrowed at all grade levels and in both math and reading. In grades 3 and 5 math, and grade 7 reading, the gap narrowed by 16 points; in grades 3 and 5 reading, it narrowed by over 20 points.[viii]

Beyond the test scores, 84% of Montgomery Co’s students go on to college and 63% earn degrees.[ix] The collaborative approach has also extended beyond teacher evaluation issues. For example, Broad Acres elementary school serves a population almost completely comprised of students of color and free/reduced lunch students. In 2000, it was on the verge of state takeover and a “reconstitution” that would have included wholesale replacement of school staff and leadership. But a collaborative approach initiated by MCEA and embraced by the school leadership led to a sustained process of renewal and reform that has dramatically improved student performance and school culture. According to the school’s principal, “The reason Broad Acres succeeded was teacher leadership; and everyone holding themselves accountable for every student.”[x]

These successes and the national debate about teacher quality have brought new attention to the Montgomery County PGS/PAR model. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told MCPS Supt. Weast, “you’re going where the country needs to go.”[xi] Yet the PGS approach is exactly the opposite from where federal policies have led the country.

Under the Obama Administration’s Race To the Top competition, states were pressured to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. Maryland won a $250 million RTTT grant by promising to base teacher ratings on state test results. Implementing the grant in MCPS would have meant dismantling a successful system developed by collective bargaining that works to improve results for teachers and students. After failing to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to continue using the PGS system, the Montgomery Co. school board withdrew from the state’s RTTT plans and had to forfeit its $12 million share of the grant funds.

If federal policy were serious about improving teacher quality it would be investing precisely in programs like peer assistance and review, which have significant costs. One Harvard study estimates the cost at $4,000-$7000 per participant.[xii] Instead the federal government has poured hundreds of millions into the development of more test-based data systems and pressed states to use them to rate both teachers and the college certification programs they came from. It’s wasted money chasing bad policy.

Montgomery County is not the only district that has implemented collaborative, peer approaches based on collective bargaining. Long-standing peer review programs in Toledo, Cincinnati, Rochester and elsewhere have shown various degrees of success. A recent in-depth study of two California districts using PAR programs reached some striking conclusions about the current push for new and better teacher evaluation models:[xiii]

The study compared the types and quality of support provided by Consulting Teachers in two districts using PAR, one near San Diego, the other near Sacramento. It also compared the work of the CTs with the more traditional performance reviews done by principals. Finally, it observed and analyzed the work of the joint labor-management PAR panels that reviewed the evaluations and recommendations of both the principals and the CTs.

“What we found,” wrote the study’s authors, “belies conventional wisdom.…integrating support and evaluation can be a more effective approach to improving instructional practice than isolating one from the other. The programs…clearly show that PAR is a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development.”

“In an era when policymakers are calling for better teacher evaluation, our research shows that peer review is far superior to principals’ evaluations in terms of rigor and comprehensiveness. Equally important, peer review offers a possible solution to the lack of capacity of the current system to both provide adequate teacher support and conduct thorough performance evaluations.”

The study confirmed another benefit that Montgomery teacher union leaders and administrators had previously demonstrated. Collaboration about core issues like teacher quality and evaluation has ancillary benefits. The PAR panels “turned out to be problem-solving arenas where district officials and union leaders collaboratively addressed operational and policy problems that might otherwise have ended up as grievances or gone unresolved….we were struck by the collaborative labor-management interactions that form the foundation of PAR. Though both [districts] have in the past experienced rocky union-district relations, PAR has served as a springboard for building strong connections. More than simple collaborative efforts, through PAR, management and unions are doing the hard work of confronting tough, high-stakes issues and reaching accord on how to proceed when decisions carry real and human consequences.”

Just as with student assessment, evaluation can be a tool for improving teaching and learning or an instrument of bad policy and external control. The key in both cases is to make sure that people, not tests, are the point of departure and that real collaboration among all parties shapes the process.

[i] Michael Winerip, Helping Teachers Help Themselves, New York Times, June 5, 2011

[ii] MCPS Schools at a Glance, 2010–2011, Office of Shared Accountability Montgomery County Public Schools. Webinar presentation by MCPS Consulting Teacher Team, Office of Human Resources and Development, 7/25/11

[iv] MCPS webinar presentation, 7/25/11

[v] Bonnie Cullison, former MCEA president, Union Leadership: How Teacher Professional Growth Systems Can Help Transform Schools, The Union Role in Systemic Change, Coalition for Educational Justice presentation, September 24, 2011

[vi] Winerip, New York Times June 5, 2011

[viii] Cullison

[ix] Winerip

[xi] Winerip

[xii] A User’s Guide to Peer Assistance and Review, Costs and Benefits of PAR, Harvard Graduate School of Education

[xiii] Julia E. Koppich & Daniel C. Humphrey, Getting Serious About Teacher Evaluation:A fresh look at peer assistance and review, Education Week, October 12, 2011