[Much of the literature has been on methodologies of assessing student performance and how to improve it. This has drawn attention away from examining methods of evaluating teacher performance–and how to improve it–which is where the greater emphasis should be to improve student performance. The following article explains the concept. — Joe Padre]
“Human resources” is out, “human capital” is in. How a simple departmental name change has propelled the use of data-driven, observation-based systems that recognize teachers as the primary influence on student achievement.
From THE Journal, 05/01/10
People magazine would be a fine guess, but it’s actually how Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Sheri Frost Leo describes her district’s current method of evaluating teacher performance: a two-page checklist of categories providing information—such as whether the teacher supports an anti-graffiti campaign—that doesn’t reveal anything other than how useless its determinations are.
“There’s no way to categorize or analyze the information, and there’s no way for a principal, much less someone at the district level, to figure out diagnostically where teachers are struggling,” says Frost Leo. “A teacher signs it and then it goes into a drawer.”
Frost Leo is the project manager for a pilot program that aims to fix all that. The Excellence in Teaching Project discards frivolous checklists in favor of a purposeful online, observation-based process of assessing teachers’ performance. Twice a year principals and assistant principals visit teachers in their classrooms for the length of a lesson and take notes on what they see and hear. They enter their observations into the district’s custom-built data-gathering tool, the Framework for Teaching. The application takes its name from and is modeled after the rubric created by educational consultant Charlotte Danielson, which breaks down teaching into four domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibility. Teachers are scored in 10 categories across the two domains that can be observed in the classroom: classroom environment and instruction.
“The purpose of the framework is to describe what ‘good’ looks like and what ‘not so good’ looks like,” Frost Leo says. “It captures how complex teaching is.”
The classroom observations, however, aren’t intended to only judge teacher performance; they’re meant to improve it. They allow both the school and the district to use data to call out deficiencies in teachers’ instructional practices, and to then follow up with conversations and professional development opportunities that target those areas. “At the crux of improving schools is improving instruction,” Frost Leo says. “You can’t improve instruction and student achievement unless you work with people.”
Changing the Terms
That sentiment, as simple as it sounds, could stand as a manifesto for an emerging movement in K-12 that regards teachers as education’s most important asset, and looks to devise a comprehensive strategy around their growth. It’s an approach taken from the private sector known as human capital management. In the leanest terms, HCM aligns the development of workers (teachers) to organizational goals (student achievement). According to the Aspen Institute, a think tank headquartered in Washington, DC, that has drawn up a framework for implementing human capital management in school districts, it is a strategy that “requires the leadership of the teaching and learning side of the house, finance, the people who supervise principals, information technology, and the superintendent.”
HCM broke into the K-12 environment only a couple of years ago. Frost Leo says the Excellence in Teaching Project, which launched in fall 2008, put Chicago out ahead of the trend. “We already had this pilot under way before it really got hot.” But now human capital has become, in the words of one district administrator, the “it” term. “Everybody’s talking teacher effectiveness,” Frost Leo says. “Everybody’s talking teacher evaluation.”
As an indication of how new the term is, Frost Leo’s job is housed in CPS’ Office of Human Capital, which up until just last December was known as the Department of Human Resources. It was rechristened upon the arrival of the district’s new chief human capital officer, Alicia Winckler.
“The renaming stresses that there are strategic ways to think about people and improve their skills and capacities and performance in ways that human resources didn’t really get to,” Frost Leo says.
“It hardly matters, to be honest. It’s semantics. We’re the same department doing the same things, but human resources as a term is fraught with associations of bureaucracy and processing. ‘Human capital’ tries to communicate to people that people matter.”
Making the Right Hire
BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN to develop talent you have to identify it. So, naturally, one of the eight elements the Washington, DC-based Aspen Institute (aspeninstitute.org) includes in its framework for human capital management in K-12 education is recruitment.To make it a faster, easier process, Wichita Public Schools began using General ASP’s AppliTrack (generalasp.com) in the spring of 2008 to help the 50,000-student district find teachers with an aptitude for teaching kids from diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. The application management system enables a district to filter applications for criteria such as bilingualism both for new hires and internal transfers. Bilingual capability is an especially preferred trait in this minority-majority district.
Previously, hiring managers such as principals and curriculum coordinators went to human resources to sort through hard copies on file. Now applicants go online to submit their materials. This has not just made the process more efficient, but also increased the district’s visibility, drawing 13,000 applicants in the last two years, according to Shelly Martin, the district’s director of licensed personnel.
“Instead of having 10 applicants to select from, we have 50,” Martin says. “It widens our net. We may still interview only five, but the caliber is higher. Any time you have a bigger volume, you can be more selective.”
Martin says the technology has enabled the district to expand what was a very limited Chinese program. “Last year we hired three Mandarin Chinese teachers,” she says, adding that none of the three hires were local; one came from China. “I don’t believe we would have ever found them without having a presence on the web.”
Sending the recruiting process online has also served to shorten it. “Before, if I found a great Mandarin Chinese applicant, for example, I would have to get the principal at the school that had that program down here to look at the application. Now they can just open it up on their desktop. The contact information is right there. They can schedule an interview, e-mail the candidate. It really makes things quicker. We’re first on the scene for those really good applicants.”Martin says the technology has enabled the district to expand what was a very limited Chinese program. “Last year we hired three Mandarin Chinese teachers,” she says, adding that none of the three hires were local; one came from China. “I don’t believe we would have ever found them without having a presence on the web.”
The Office of Human Capital in DC Public Schools in Washington, DC, came into being much as Chicago’s did. A desire to get the district thinking strategically about its teachers led the incoming district chancellor three years ago to cede part of human resources into a newly formed department. Benefits and payroll responsibilities were left to HR, while the human capital group was devoted to policies that govern teacher recruitment, evaluation, selection, compensation, career ladder, retention, and professional development. A new, web-based teacher evaluation system soon resulted from the split.
Like Frost Leo, Jason Kamras, DC’s director of human capital strategy, held a dim view of his district’s old, paper-based approach to assessing teachers. “It was cumbersome, somewhat confusing, not well aligned to student achievement, and did not reflect the latest research on what good teaching looks like,” he says. “It didn’t require many observations, so teachers felt it wasn’t particularly fair.”
The district spent more than a year crafting a new system, holding more than 50 focus groups with school personnel. “We wanted something revolutionary and comprehensive that pushed observation practice and incorporated student achievement into the process,” Kamras says. “We came to the conclusion we’d have to build it from the ground up.”
The finished product, which the district named Impact, debuted last fall. It requires administrators to assess teachers’ work during five 30-minute classroom observations conducted over the course of the year. They score teachers on a scale of 1 to 4—ineffective, minimally effective, effective, or highly effective—and upload their findings into the online system firsthand. Principals hold a post-observation conference in which all the ratings and comments are discussed with the teacher and a plan for growth is developed. The teacher is connected with resources in and out of the building to assist that growth plan, such as instructional coaches and workshops.
The real point of an observation-based process, Kamras says, is to allow for data-driven decision-making across the entire human capital management spectrum. The Aspen Institute’s HCM framework names eight elements of an effective strategy for developing a strong teacher corps. Performance management—defining teacher excellence and then applying professional development to help teachers achieve it—is only one strand of it. Kamras says his office hopes to eventually use the data generated from its new evaluation system to influence a host of decisions that come under the tent of human capital, such as tenure, promotion, compensation, and recruitment.
“We’d like to compensate our higher performers more,” he says. “We’d like to promote or give leadership opportunities to our highest performers. To do that, we need to know who our highest performers are. This lets us do that. We’d like to make sure that we are bringing in teachers from the best pipelines. If we look at pipeline A and pipeline B, and we find out that everybody coming from pipeline A does very well based on our evaluation data but everybody from pipeline B doesn’t, then it doesn’t make sense for us to keep going back to pipeline B. Using all this information helps us get the right people in the right places.”
Human Capital Technologies
While the Chicago and DC school districts use applications created in-house to gather and keep teacher observation data, some districts have turned to outside providers to help advance human capital strategies. Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview School District 89, a small (5,400 students) district in Melrose Park, IL, outside Chicago, supplies its classroom observers with handheld devices furnished with technology from K-12 solutions company Teachscape, whose Classroom Walkthrough solution provides users with a framework for recording their notes on what teachers are doing in the classroom. The observers are looking in particular for signs of three high-yield teaching strategies: setting objectives, providing feedback and recognition, and cooperative learning (small group vs. whole class).
Classroom Walkthrough is one of the four software suites that make up the Teachscape XL platform, comprising what the company calls an “instructional improvement system.” District 89 began using the whole package last fall to develop teacher practices aimed primarily at improving student literacy.
After school administrators and teacher-leaders capture their observations on their handhelds—the software is compatible with several devices, including iPhones and BlackBerrys—they upload them to the Teachscape website, where they can run different reports to find answers within the data. According to David Ballard, the district’s executive director of curriculum services, the purpose of doing the walk-throughs is not to focus on the merits of individual teachers, but to look at districtwide trends in classroom instruction.
“It helps us see patterns across buildings and grade levels,” Ballard says. “Am I seeing an increase in the use of high-yield strategies? Am I seeing an increase in the way instruction is being differentiated? Am I seeing a difference in grouping strategies? Our administrators do at least 15 walks per week. Depending on the size of the building, each teacher probably gets observed three or four times per month.”
In support of the observation data, Teachscape provides an abundance of professional development resources. Principals can point teachers to video clips of different instructional strategies being implemented, as well as content resources and lesson plans for core subject matter. “This goes hand in hand with trying to change our entire culture, from one that is compliance driven to one that is a culture of professional learning,” Ballard says. “This is a tool that’s helping us to make that transformation—to engage teachers in thinking about their work and what’s going on with their students, and provide them with resources to do things in a different way.”
At Oak Grove Elementary School outside Atlanta, Principal Jennifer Scrivner is doing much the same thing: using technology to enable teachers to better know their students, which she says is at the heart of improving teaching practice. “The better that teachers know their students, the better they’re able to teach them,” Scrivner says. “Thus, the students will perform better.”
Scrivner’s investment in two Wireless Generation programs was really an investment in her teachers. She wanted to equip them with assessment tools that would identify and help remediate student academic weaknesses. Scrivner made the purchases on the suggestion of teachers on an instructional leadership team, who wanted an alternative to pencil-and-paper assessments.
They got it in Wireless Generation’s mClass software, which makes it easier for teachers to monitor student performance. Teachers assess students one-on-one, asking them to read aloud a passage or solve a math problem while they follow along on a replica of the material on their Palm Pilots, which Scrivner purchased to run the software. The assessment comes with a scoring system of red-yellow-green, based on national norms that indicate where students should be by grade and time of year. The greater efficiency of the new system in relation to the old is dramatic.
“Paper and pencil took six staff members and 2.5 weeks to assess 800-plus kids,” Scrivner says. “Now I use four staff members and it takes one week. We just went light-years ahead in technology.’”
The second Wireless Generation tool Scrivner brought in is Burst, which moves ahead from where mClass leaves off. It analyzes assessment data, groups students of similar skill, and creates a 10-day sequence of 30-minute lesson plans that consist of five 5-minute activities plus one minute of transition. The plan provides the materials, the preparation, and information on how to conduct the lesson and how to vary its difficulty. After the “burst” is over, the teacher assesses students, uploads results, and begins the cycle anew with new lessons.
“The data allows teachers to differentiate the curriculum for students,” Scrivner says. “You can group them in small groups to achieve the instructional objectives and goals.” In turn, the school can use differentiated professional development on its teachers. For example, those with struggling readers receive help on teaching reading, while those with gifted students get training in instructing accelerated readers.
“Schools have to become universities for teachers,” Scrivner says. “If I can improve my classroom teachers’ ability to teach, student achievement will increase.”
That seems plain, though the sheer newness of these teacher growth strategies hasn’t allowed many conclusions about them to be drawn. In DC, Kamras says the district won’t know if the Impact evaluation system has lived up to its name until state test scores come back later this year. For now, preliminary data is being gathered from the classroom observations to see what skill areas teachers need to focus on. “One of the standards in our rubric for performance is ‘checking for understanding’—the methods with which you ensure that all of your students understand the concepts you are teaching at that moment,” he says. “It’s one of the areas we’ve found that our teachers struggle with the most, so it’s one of the areas that we’re trying to focus more of our professional development on.”
Likewise, Frost Leo says that it’s too soon to tell districtwide about Chicago’s new observation-based process. The first-year report delivered last summer did spotlight one area of weakness: the use of questioning and discussion techniques. “We found that across the board teachers do their worst at that,” Frost Leo says. “A lot of principals didn’t know that. They’ve never had data before.”
The district shares the observation data with the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, which is studying the Excellence in Teaching Project to determine if the online Framework for Teaching tool is predictive of student growth: Do teachers who look good according to the framework also have better student achievement? In the fall, the consortium will analyze data from this spring’s state exams to see whether a link can be made between teachers’ rubric scores and student performance.
Frost Leo says teachers’ influence on student achievement is inarguable. It’s just a matter of finding the right data model that isolates their contribution.
“Educational researchers have found time and time again that teachers are the greatest in-school factor of student success. You’d think that would be obvious, but for a while there were people out there, researchers even, saying, ‘Well, do teachers even matter? Is it all about the socioeconomic status of the students? Is it all about race? Is it all about the students’ peers?’ There was a concern that it doesn’t really matter what teacher your kid has. That’s not true. Teachers next door to each other have been shown to have vastly different outcomes with basically the same student—because teacher quality matters.”
[About the Author: Vanessa Hua is a freelance writer based in Claremont, CA.]