Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Teachers working into pay-for-performance

Some complain of stress, more work

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kindergarten teacher Jennifer English was "very nervous and stressed" during her first unannounced review.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's unnerving, some teachers in Cincinnati Public Schools say.

        Any time during any school day, a colleague can walk into their classrooms, watch them work and judge how well they do.

        The surprise visits are at the heart of a bold 4-month-old experiment as Cincinnati launches the nation's first attempt to promote and pay teachers based on how well they teach — not on how long they've been teaching.

        But now, to ensure the program's success, half of the surprise visits will be replaced with scheduled reviews, starting immediately.

        “Very nervous and stressed,” is how kindergarten teacher Jennifer English described her first unannounced review. It was not, the Bramble Academy teacher says, the nurturing experience she expected.

        An evaluator slipped into the room and sat in a corner, scribbling notes. Students were excited by the visitor. Miss English had to quiet down the class and keep them on task. At the same time, she felt pressure to suddenly shine while teaching her lesson.

  Under a new pay scale based on performance, teachers in Cincinnati Public Schools are graded on 16 criteria in four areas called “domains.”
  On the 1-4 scale, performance is ranked: distinguished (4), proficient (3), basic (2), and unsatisfactory (1). Scores are combined for an overall score in each domain.
  • Planning and preparing for student learning
  Teachers must get to know their students and prepare lessons that include the students' cultural heritage, interests and community. Teachers must ensure that students understand what is expected of them, address individual learning needs, and assess students based on standards and use of appropriate instructional materials.
  • Creating an environment for learning
  Teachers must create a classroom where all students feel safe, welcomed and are encouraged to participate and do their best.
  • Teaching for learning
  Teachers must understand what students need to know to learn new material. They should make students aware of what they are expected to learn and produce. Teachers must provide opportunities for classroom discussions that let all students participate. They should also help students understand the real-world applications of what they are learning. Teachers must give timely feedback to students on their work, explaining how they can improve. And teachers must also adjust their methods to respond to differences in student experiences and traditions.
  • Professionalism
  Teachers must track students' social and academic progress. They must encourage parent involvement and keep families informed of students' performance. Teachers should work as a team with others in the school building. And teachers improve their own knowledge by taking professional development training.
  Source: Cincinnati Public Schools
        The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers estimates that about 75 teachers — or one in every school — feel as unsettled as Miss English.

        “We expected that teachers would have some additional stresses because they have not been evaluated with this kind of regularity and care in the past,” said Rick Beck, president of the teachers union.

        Cincinnati's experience with its new pay-for-performance teaching plan is breaking new ground for rewarding teachers who meet specific, high standards in 16 areas of professionalism and helping students learn.

        Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor who helped design Cincinnati's system and works with school districts nationwide, said everybody is watching Cincinnati.

        “Everybody wants it to succeed, and that includes the unions and top policy people,” Mr. Odden said. “They see it as a real substantive and bold effort that could be good for the education system. Cincinnati is blazing the trail trying to make it work.”

        Other states, like Iowa and Kentucky, are considering programs like Cincinnati's. The Kentucky General Assembly will likely consider bills on alternative ways to pay teachers in its February session.

        Closer to home, Lakota Schools are negotiating with its teachers union to include pay-for-performance pay structures in a new contract. The district's superintendent is already evaluated and compensated based on performance.

        The system goes against a century of rewarding teachers on the basis of seniority, a system that has come into question because it does little to hold teachers accountable for how well or how poorly they teach.

        While tenure was created to protect academic freedom, critics say the practice has turned into a way to protect poor teachers. In most U.S. public school districts, all teachers receive the same raises, negotiated by union contracts. Classroom performance is judged by the principal in an annual visit.

        Cincinnati's plan was approved in September by two-thirds of the 3,100 members of the teachers union.

        By nearly everyone's account, it has meant more work.

        For teachers, there is a 75-page book of standards and rules to learn and live by. It includes all components of the evaluation system — from copies of evaluation forms to examples of expected teaching practices.

        Teachers also have more self-appraisals to do, and there's paperwork for reflections on the job. Portfolios of lessons and student work must be maintained.

        For evaluators — the specially trained teachers and principals who review teachers' work — there are observations to make, reports to write and meetings with higher-ups. Each evaluator must conduct four 40-minute surprise reviews a year for each of 40 teachers. Principals conduct two evaluations for their teachers on comprehensive review.

        The process started in October for 600 teachers who are in their third, 17th and 22nd years.

        Teachers face the comprehensive review every five years. In intervening years, they are reviewed by their principals, do self-appraisals and receive cost-of-living raises.

        "The process has not been without bumps, and we expect to have more,” says Kathleen Ware, the associate superintendent who helped create the system. “There are still a lot of questions, but overall we feel it's going well.”

        Those who created the system say good teachers will simply do what they've always done. Many teachers agree but say learning a system takes time.

        Ed Jaspers, a special education teacher at Western Hills High, said the added paperwork and more frequent classroom visits are worth the hassle.

        “It makes you think. It really helps you to focus on what you're doing and what you are doing to improve,” he said. “Sometimes we don't have the time to do that. This forces you to do it.”

        Still uncertain are teachers who have had experiences like Miss English, the third-year Bramble kindergarten teacher.

        “I voted for this,” she said. “I went through peer evaluation as a first-year teacher and felt it was very beneficial. That's why I voted for this. I hoped it would help teachers and kids.”

        Yet her results on that first evaluation “were not very good,” she said. She took her concerns to her principal, Christine Robertson, and they discussed ways Miss English can improve.

        Mrs. Robertson said teachers need to remember they are not expected to show every possible skill in one observation.

        “On the other hand, sometimes when I do an observation, if something is not seen in that observation, even if I know it happens all the time, it doesn't count.”

        Wanda Jones, a teacher-turned-evaluator, said the more she works with the new system, the more she sees it as a valuable tool. She said she learns something new from each review, including an awareness that teachers offer a large mix of abilities.

        “Some are just so outstanding they help me to develop a standard for what I'm looking for,” Ms. Jones said.

        “Some are still struggling, and their observation reports reflect that.”

        Before the year is out, the system will undergo several changes to smooth out rough edges, said Mr. Beck of the teachers union.

        Most significant is the switch to notify teachers of some classroom observations. Now teachers will be told two days prior to the week the observation will occur for three of the six required visits.

        “We need to figure out what kind of support we can provide and if there are any design changes we can make,” he said.

        Also, to reduce the caseload, teachers closest to retiring will not be evaluated.

        And the biggest hurdle to the plan may come next year. That's when the compensation part of the plan kicks in, subject to another vote by the teachers' union. If 70 percent vote against it, the pay plan would be scrapped.

        Mr. Beck is optimistic that will not happen.

        But he said he hopes teachers understand that the classroom reviews are not meant to be mentoring experiences.

        “The comprehensive evaluation is the diagnosis, and then you get the prescription,” Mr. Beck said. “It's those years in between evaluations when we expect teachers to do the kinds of professional development and growth activities to strengthen weak areas. That's where the nurturing relationships are expected to happen.

        “So the process can appear to be cold.

        “And because teaching is a nurturing kind of field, this seems stark.”


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