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In Jeffco, a school where teacher evaluations are a team effort

When North Arvada Middle School started an overhaul of its teacher evaluations three years ago, Barbara Aswege could not have been more opposed.

“I was the dragon lady,” said Aswege, who teaches social studies. She objected to observations, ignored feedback and fought the school administration every step of the way.

But as the end of the year approached, she noticed something: her teaching hadn’t improved, at all.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere,” she said. So she started to reconsider her position, asking for books to read over the summer.

Aswege’s attitude adjustment is one that state and district official hope to see replicated across the state with the rollout of Senate Bill 191, which governs how teachers and other school staff are evaluated. That law, which went into full effect this year, mandates more frequent classroom observations intended to assess teachers’ practices on an extensive list of standards and the inclusion of student test scores in year-end evaluations. While proponents say the law is intended to help teachers improve, many districts have struggled to provide teachers with the additional help and training needed to get better.

But at North Arvada, teachers get evaluated frequently, but they also receive lots of support, including regular meetings with a trainer and a team of teachers who help each other with curriculum and instruction.

The primary goal, says North Arvada’s principal Dana Ellis, is to help teachers get better if they can.

“If you don’t have a structure and system built in a school, teachers don’t have much of a chance,” said Ellis.

As part of a Jefferson County School District pilot, teams of teachers at North Arvada set goals for student learning that they feel are reasonable, take more time to plan their teaching and receive far more support and feedback than in a more traditional system. In return, they are expected to deliver on the goals they set or they risk losing out on a year-end bonus of up to $15,000.

While the impact on student learning is still unclear, Aswege and other North Arvada teachers say the overhaul drove a radical shift in the way they teach. On a recent afternoon, two years after Aswege’s vocal protests began to peter out, she welcomed three observers into her room to give notes on a lesson plan that required students to give each other feedback on their writing.

“I’m constantly begging them to come in my room,” Aswege said. Ellis and a team of trained former teachers observe individual teachers at the school as many as 20 times in a semester.

After teachers get observed, they follow up with conversations with coaches and master teachers on how to respond to the criticism they receive. In Aswege’s case, that meant coming up with a way to teach students how to give feedback by modeling it herself and videotaping particularly successful conversations between students.

Barbara Aswege works through the feedback she received with her master teacher, Shareen Connors.

Barbara Aswege works through the feedback she received with her master teacher, Shareen Connors.

In addition to changing the way individual teachers teach, the program has also driven a change in the way teachers and administrators spend their time. Ellis and her team have overhauled the daily workings of the school to create more time for teachers to work together, to plan ahead for instruction and reflect on their teaching. And administrators are asked place spending time in classrooms and supporting teachers at the very top of their priorities.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ellis rearranged the school day so groups of teachers could plan for next school year. A group of language arts teachers were in the midst of mapping out exactly what students should learn next year — and how to measure whether their students learned it. Across the building, the math team reflected on the successes and failings of that school year.

Ellis said that planning time is all in service of the law’s first objective: helping teachers become better at instruction. In order to improve, teachers need an environment where they can try new things and see if they succeed or fail — and bouncing ideas of their peers is big part of that.

In spite of the school staff’s enthusiasm for the changes at North Arvada, they aren’t likely to go statewide anytime soon. For one, the pilot was funded through a federal grant that runs out next year and schools like North Arvada aren’t yet sure how they will continue their work after it does.

For another, the district’s preliminary findings indicate that the program’s success still depends on the person in the principal’s chair. At schools where leadership was weak, a preliminary report found teachers were less likely to seek out ways to improve and to report that the team collaborations were useful.

And the end goal — improvements in student performance — has not yet been achieved. While district officials caution it may still be too early tell, the district has not seen a significant impact on student achievement.

Still, it has given principals like Ellis a way to quickly assess whether a teacher is up for the challenge and make informed decisions about hiring and firing — also a key objective of the new evaluation system’s architects.

That has proved the more contested half of the law. In neighboring Denver Public Schools, teachers say elements of the law have been used to punish those who speak out to administrators and push out more experienced teachers. The Denver teachers’ union filed suit to have that provision eliminated from the law.

So far, that controversy doesn’t exist in Jeffco. But teachers have felt the effect of the system in other ways, especially those who did not receive their anticipated bonus.

“It’s been a mental shift for some schools,” said Ashley Kelley, one of the pilot’s trained observers. “If you’re not making growth, you’re not going to get that payout.”

But Ellis said that the new system helps her lay out very clear about the expectations for her teachers from the day they walk in the door.

Ellis said she puts teachers entering the school or switching classrooms on what she calls a “steep learning curve,” with intensive supports along the way. She expects to see results within a matter of months. For example, a teacher whose students had made only incremental progress on their learning goals for months on end was dismissed mid-year. The teacher replacement? She saw a ten percent jump in just three months.

“If you have a marginal or better teacher, they can handle it,” Ellis said. “Marginal or worse, they can’t.”