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Measuring teacher effectiveness in Charlottesville, Albemarle

Just as Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams are used to assess student achievement in the classroom, each year the teachers delivering that instruction face an evaluation process of their own.

Locally, educators have reacted well to six of the seven areas in which they are measured. The value that student academic growth holds in a teacher’s evaluation, however, is a concern for some.

“You can’t really separate out, unfortunately, the standardized test movement and teacher evaluations now that they have been so tightly linked by the federal government,” said Bekah Saxon, director of Blue Ridge UniServ — an organization that supports local education associations.

Every year, school principals throughout the commonwealth observe their teachers and evaluate them in seven areas: professional knowledge; instructional planning; instructional delivery; student learning and assessment thereof; learning environment; professionalism; and student academic progress.

Each focus area accounts for 10 percent of a teacher’s final score, except for student academic progress, which accounts for 40 percent.

“Our measures aren’t just a one-snapshot moment in time to make sure the students are making academic growth.”

Carole Nelson, Charlottesville City Schools

Carole Nelson, Charlottesville City Schools

Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, said teachers have responded well to the observation method of evaluation. The student academic progress category, Pianta said, is the most controversial because two teachers could deliver the same curriculum in the same manner to two different classes, which could then produce two different levels of test scores.

“Is that because of the kids you were teaching, or is that because you’re a better teacher?” Pianta said.

Saxon said Charlottesville and Albemarle are in different places when it comes to measuring a student’s academic growth.

“In Charlottesville, the concern really is how much the student achievement piece is linked to standardized test scores, and in addition to that, once [a teacher] hits the point of needing to improve, the process really requires that there be a lot of trust between the administrator and the employee,” Saxon said.

“Albemarle, having the instructional coaches in place for a very long time, is further along in that trust building process than Charlottesville,” she said. Charlottesville is in its first year of a new instructional coaching model, which sees more-experienced educators offer support to fellow teachers in the same building.

But Carole Nelson, human resources director for Charlottesville City Schools, said the division tries to look at academic progress holistically.

“Our measures aren’t just a one-snapshot moment in time to make sure the students are making academic growth,” Nelson said.

Despite that, Saxon said a complicating factor is that performance goals vary between schools.

“I think the reality is that in any school where there is a high concentration of students who aren’t passing the test, the focus becomes on aligning all of your resources on getting the kids to pass the test, and the county has fewer schools in that situation,” Saxon said.

“I suspect that if I spoke to the teachers specifically at the schools in the county that are in danger of not making their required achievement progress, those teachers would have a different perspective than teachers in more affluent areas where the scores come easily to the students,” she added.

Methodology

Charlottesville and Albemarle conduct similar evaluations that are based on state guidelines and criteria. At the start of each school year, in collaboration with their principal, teachers in both divisions complete a self-assessment to develop goals that they hope to attain that year.

In addition to ongoing check-ins, such as mid-year observations, teachers are evaluated in the spring.

While there is some flexibility in this approach to goal-making, Matt Haas, assistant superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, said teachers should create goals that work in the context of a school’s challenges.

“[Goals] should be aligned with the goals for the school, so if I’m a [math] teacher at one of the elementary schools and our overall school results for students in math aren’t where they should be … then really it makes sense for one of my goals to push the kids’ performance in math,” he said.

Despite that emphasis, Haas said, the division doesn’t encourage its teachers to employ the “drill and kill” method of test preparation, which sees teachers teaching to the test in the weeks leading up to the exam.

Performance

Albemarle has more than 1,200 teachers in the division, and Charlottesville has about 420. However, only non-tenured teachers are evaluated each year for the first three years. Other teachers are evaluated every three years, unless a need to do so more often arises.

Within the seven focus areas, Albemarle’s teachers are evaluated on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest score. From lowest to highest, those scores equate to the following classifications: unacceptable; needs improvement; applies; integrates; and innovates.

Based on the 480 evaluations of Albemarle teachers completed in the 2013-14 school year, no one was rated as unacceptable; four were rated as needs improvement; 188 earned applies; 249 were rated integrates; and 39 received the innovates designation.

In Charlottesville, teachers are evaluated on a scale of one to four, with four being the highest score. From lowest to highest, Charlottesville’s classifications are: unacceptable; developing/needs improvement; proficient; and exemplary.

Charlottesville City Schools was unable to provide a summary of evaluation data to Charlottesville Tomorrow because it has not been saved in a database. School spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said the city has implemented an electronic evaluation system this school year which will allow the division to aggregate data more quickly in the future.

Reactions

Anne Geraty, a teacher at Meriwether Lewis Elementary and former president of the Albemarle Education Association, characterized the county’s model as “very fair,” and she praised the division for aiming to help teachers develop their craft.

That said, Geraty said the current state of evaluations has created a lot of work for teachers and administrators.

Saxon agreed.

“I think both divisions are doing their best to make the process as efficient and streamlined as possible … but it’s a growing process and it’s stressful when all of a sudden the measures used to evaluate you are new and different,” Saxon said.

Larger than the metrics, both divisions said they think the data being collected should be used to help teachers improve.

“Evaluations help document the good work that our teachers do,” said Rosa Atkins, superintendent of Charlottesville schools. “It’s an opportunity for teachers to see their own growth as professionals, and it’s an opportunity for self-reflection.”

Albemarle’s Haas is on the same page.

“[The appraisal] is built with the idea that we’re lifelong learners, that we’re here to learn and grow and that you can always get better,” he said. “And you measure against performance standards.”