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`Diplomacy' undermines teacher evaluations

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau

SPRINGFIELD – Imagine you’re a student taking a class and you are guaranteed at least an “A”, or at worst a “B,” no matter how well or poorly you do your work.

How much effort would you give?

Professional educators would frown on a teacher who hands out grades in such a manner and yet that is comparable to how Illinois teachers themselves are graded.

“I get evaluations every day that are written so diplomatically, I’m left wondering, ‘Is this a good teacher or a bad teacher?’ I’d have to say that right now the evaluation system in the state is of little value. Just about everyone receives either an “excellent” or “superior” rating,” said Superintendent Glen “Max” McGee of Wilmette school district.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

In 1985, the Illinois Legislature passed a massive education reform package that among other things mandated routine evaluations of classroom teachers.

Since then, school principals have devoted more than 2.5 million hours toward evaluating tenured educators.

Not once has one of those evaluations resulted in a teacher receiving a pay raise.

And it is almost as rare for a teacher to be fired after receiving low marks on an evaluation.

In fact, in any given year since 1985, a first-grader could count on one hand the number of Illinois tenured teachers fired for not doing their job well.

Typically these evaluations consist of a principal meeting with a teacher and observing classroom instructions. An informal survey of Illinois principals conducted by Brian Schwartz of the Illinois Principals Association found that about three hours is devoted to evaluating a tenured teacher, which includes observation time, conferences and paperwork preparation.

They said it...
photo Gary Koeller, Moline High School principal: “The goal is to make a teacher better. If we are going to go through this evaluation process we need to be collaborative. We need to identify areas that they are deficient in. Nothing is more frustrating than to be told, “You’re not doing a good job. But, by the way, I don’t really know why you’re not.”

“These evaluations are absolutely meaningless,” contends Kevin Frelander, a certified teacher and speech therapist in Aurora East School District. “A principal shows up for 30 minutes every other year and watches you teach. Other than that, you can pretty much do whatever you want – once you have tenure.”

Before this reform was passed many Illinois school districts did not routinely evaluate teachers, according to a study conducted by Larry Janes, who was an education professor at Eastern Illinois University.

Now, state law requires all tenured teachers to be evaluated at least every two years. But it is unclear just what impact these evaluations are having on the quality of teaching.

Unlike evaluations performed in the private sector, which are often linked to pay raises, Illinois teachers do not receive any raises or bonuses based on how well they perform in the classroom.

In Illinois school districts, pay is linked to the amount of education and years of experience an instructor has obtained. Extra work assignments, such as coaching, can also boost a teacher’s paycheck. But the overall pay raise given instructors is negotiated in the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.

But Illinois school districts do not offer financial incentives based on a teacher’s job performance.

“Does a scientist seeking the Nobel Prize do it for the prize money? People who work in matters of the mind don’t improve their performance by dangling a bag of coins in front of their face,” said Jim Dougherty, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Not only does the evaluation process offer no financial incentives for good performance, it holds little chance for a tenured teacher to be disciplined for poor performance.

In the last 10 years, about 477,000 evaluations of Illinois tenured teachers have been performed, but only 513 received unsatisfactory evaluations, according to data collected by Small Newspaper Group after filing Freedom of Information Act requests with all of Illinois 876 school districts and achieving a 100 percent response.

In other words, only 1 out 930 evaluations result in a tenured teacher receiving an “unsatisfactory” rating.

“Our system of evaluating teachers has become purely ritualistic. Evaluations are delivered in a highly diplomatic manner and they hinge totally on the power to persuade a teacher, ”said Dan Lortie a retired University of Chicago sociologist who specializes in education issues.

But that was not the intent when the Legislature passed the 1985 reforms.

They said it...
photo Yvonne Vitosky, 3rd grade teacher. Leal Elementary School (Urbana): “More than just lip service needs to be given to how teachers are evaluated.”

Illinois law mandates that any tenured teacher who receives an unsatisfactory evaluation be placed into a formal remediation program in which intensive mentoring and continual evaluation is provided. If the instructor fails to improve sufficiently, the school district can recommend dismissal to a state hearing officer.

In every Illinois school district, but Chicago’s, the school board must defer to a hearing officer on whether a teacher should be fired. In Chicago, a hearing officer merely recommends to the Chicago Board of Education that a teacher be fired.

Small Newspaper Group filed Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests with all of Illinois’ 876 school districts to track the number of teachers placed in remediation.

Based on this evidence 83 percent of Illinois school districts have never listed any tenured teacher as unsatisfactory in the last 11 years.

“We are at the point now that teachers simply expect to receive an ‘excellent’ on their evaluation – no matter what their performance is,” said Nathaniel Anderson, an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Springfield and former superintendent of East St. Louis schools. “It’s a difficult situation because with tenure and union rules you can’t fire these bad teachers. But you have got to find a way to manage them.”

Often these underperformers are managed through low expectations of administrators.

“In Russia they used to say, ‘You pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.’ In our public schools it goes like this, ‘We don’t get paid a whole lot, so don’t expect a whole lot,” said Richard Manatt, professor emeritus at Iowa State University and a national authority on teacher evaluations.

Although education has historically been a low-paying field, the average salary for an Illinois teacher in the 2003-2004 school year was $53,820 and in Chicago that number rises to $62,241, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Although teachers salaries have climbed steadily over the past 20 years and Illinois taxpayers now allocate about $7 billion each year toward teacher salaries, little has changed in how the performance of individual teachers is measured or how they are held accountable.

They said it...
photo Bill Trelease, fine and applied arts teacher Northlawn School (Streator): “Most teacher evaluations are just scorecards. They really don’t give much direction on how to improve. ‘Remediation’ is scary word for teachers because it means they could get fired. Maybe calling it ‘retraining’ would be better. Obviously, bad teachers should be fired. But for the rest, evaluation should be about improving the teacher ”
“Our evaluations are pretty milquetoast,” said Sandy Hovonick, a fifth-grade English teacher from Rock Island, who also heads the union representing the district’s teachers.

Increasingly teachers are turning to fellow teachers to receive constructive criticism and tips on improving. While peer review has value, it can’t be a substitute for a supervisor providing honest, forthright input, Janes said.

He added that when dealing with chronic underperformers it may only be the feedback of a school principal or other supervisor that can coerce improvements.

But much of the problem with evaluations lies with administrators unwilling to confront poor instruction.

“What we are looking at in Illinois is scandalous. Evaluations have turned into ritualistic endeavors – everybody receives a good evaluation. Teacher unions like it because it protects their members. Most administrators like it because they don’t like to rock the boat and that’s the sort of evaluation they get from their superintendents,” Manatt said.

Manatt has worked extensively in Illinois as a consultant and has reviewed numerous evaluation plans and has appeared as an expert witness for both Illinois school districts and teacher unions in dismissal cases.

Unlike much of what happens in public schools, employee evaluations receive little scrutiny from reporters or the general public. The records are sealed in personnel files and in most cases are exempt from inspection.

The 1985 reform legislation was intended to make it easier to fire those who don’t teach at an acceptable level.

“When this first passed, there was talk that there wouldn’t even be a hearing for a teacher who failed to make it through remediation. Of course it didn’t work out that way,” said Stephen Katz, general counsel for Rockford Public Schools.

But those legislative changes have at best had little effect on weeding out incompetent instructors.

A 1985 report from the Illinois State Board of Education, issued just before the passage of the legislation, found that about 3 teachers per year were fired for incompetence in the nine previous years.

But a Small Newspaper Group analysis of hearing officer decisions found that only an average of two teachers per year are fired for poor performance under the reform legislation.

“I know that there are a lot of teachers out there who shouldn’t be teaching,” said former Lt. Gov. Robert Kustra, who was a key player in the creation of the 1985 education reforms. “To be frank, when we passed this legislation, my thoughts were to just fire all of the bad teachers.”

But former state superintendent Bob Leininger was even more blunt.

“Only two teachers in the entire state are fired each year for poor performance? Hell, there isn’t a school district in the entire state that doesn’t have at least two teachers who don’t need to be fired.”

But evaluating a teacher is difficult because much of what happens in a classroom is difficult to quantify. In most cases a principal spends only a few hours every two years in a tenured teacher’s classroom and writes an evaluation on what was observed.

Manatt has used a more complex model for evaluation that has teachers rated by their peers, students, principals and parents. The study also factors in how much a student’s tested knowledge has improved during a given period.

Based on his research, Manatt contends about 3 percent of tenured teachers are not functioning at a competent level.

By this estimate 2,850 tenured Illinois teachers per year should be placed in an intensive remediation program geared toward improving their classroom performance or moving them out of teaching.

Manatt’s estimate is a conservative one.

Former Stanford University professor Edwin Bridges, who wrote the book “The Incompetent Teacher” pegs the number of inept teachers at 5 percent.

“For the most part, these teachers want to improve but they just don’t know how. Almost all teachers can be improved. I’m not talking about a teacher who will go and grab a student’s crotch – nothing can be done for them. But simple poor performance in the classroom can be corrected over time,” Manatt said.

But seldom do the formal remediations that do take place in Illinois actually result in the rehabilitation of a teacher.

“If it gets to the point that a teacher receives an unsatisfactory on her evaluation – that principal has one goal – fire her,” said Nicholas Cannella, a senior staffer with the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.