Originally published November 26, 2012 at 6 a.m., updated November 26, 2012 at 12:44 p.m.
Across the country, school districts, state legislatures and teachers' unions are at odds over how to evaluate teachers. The Obama administration and some school reformers want student test scores factored in to teacher reviews. But another model in the Poway Unified School District is getting a lot of attention.
While the country debates using student test scores to evaluate teachers, Poway Unified's teacher peer review program continues to draw attention.
Carol Osborne has been the principal at Poway’s Morning Creek Elementary School for six years and believes the attention is warranted. In her first year at Morning Creek and with the district, Osborne hired a new teacher who was new to the school and new to teaching.
In her previous district, as in most districts, training new teachers was Osborne's responsibility. So she was blown away by Poway’s teacher consultants.
“For me as the principal, to be able to collaborate with this coach and the teacher and kind of talk about what the areas in need of support were and then have that coach in there modeling lessons, providing opportunities for her to go and observe other teachers and just all of the levels of support that were needed for that teacher,” she said.
For 25 years the highly-ranked Poway district has had teacher consultants mentor and evaluate teachers who are new to the profession. Teachers like Kendall Sczempka.
Sczempka is talking with her students about posters they’ll be making when Michelle Manos, one of the district’s consultants, arrives unannounced. She visits Sczempka’s class at least once a week.
While the third graders ask questions about how many images they can use on their posters and whether drawing everything out with pencil before finalizing it with marker is strictly necessary, Manos heads to a back corner and starts flipping through a couple of notebooks. She can’t always talk with teachers during these visits, so these notebooks are communication logs.
“This gives me an opportunity to write down things that I saw going well and then what we say next best steps or questions we might have," she said. "And then she will generally, before my next visit, spend some time answering those questions, reflecting on what I might have said in there.”
This afternoon Sczempka has a chance to break away while the students are working on their posters to thank Manos for suggestions from her last visit. A new strategy for introducing spelling words had the students quietly copying and paying attention, just as Manos thought it would.
For Sczempka, Manos’ surprise visits aren’t nerve wracking, because her comments aren’t directives from a superior, they're suggestions from another teacher.
“They’re not, 'oh you’re doing this wrong and you need to fix this,'" she said. "It’s, 'have you ever tried doing this with your spelling? Have you ever tried doing this with your social studies lesson?’ And it gives you the chance to say, 'yes I have and it totally didn’t work with us' or ‘oh my gosh, I never thought of this, let me give it a shot.'"
Sczempka and Manos meet regularly outside of class time. They talk about what Manos sees, but also any concerns Sczempka might have.
“You know, you’re in your room in isolation with 30 some students and you don’t ever have the opportunity in the moment to bounce an idea or ask for suggestions," Manos said. "You could go to the teacher next door. But that was often after school and sometimes as a new teacher, you don’t want to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing.”
During their first year in Poway, new teachers are evaluated by their consultant, after that the principal takes over. Teachers still get consultant support in their second year and veteran teachers whose performance is rated poorly can be referred for consultant support. Poway’s system of intensive peer review was singled out this fall in a state report on improving California’s teaching pool and has been cited as a model program in academic papers on studies of teacher peer review programs.
Christie Schmit oversees the program and she chalks that attention up to their success in retaining teachers and documenting their impact on students without taking the controversial step of figuring in student test scores.
“We have a clear continuum of teaching expectations," she said. "When we go in formally or informally, we’re gathering data on how many kids are participating, how many kids are engaged. We’re circulating and we’re looking at, what are the students doing in the independent work? And are they able to explain it if I ask? Do they have an understanding of what the purpose or the objective is?”
Most school districts in San Diego County and the state rely on principals to visit classrooms a few times a year to evaluate teachers. Through the Race To The Top federal grant program and the guidelines for states to apply for No Child Left Behind waivers, the Obama administration is pushing for evaluations that use student test scores. California hasn’t mandated it yet, but earlier this year a judge ruled in favor of Los Angeles Unified parents who argued the district had to include some measure of student growth in evaluations under long-standing state law.
Bill Lucia is president of EdVoice, a group that supported the parents suing L.A. schools. He said the work done in peer review programs is incredibly valuable, but without a measure of student performance, it could be incomplete.
“There has to be a purposeful effort to collect data on the kids’ actual learning of the grade-level expectations and the content and that’s been written into California law for 40 years," he said. "And the way you measure that is not just in engagement and how many times kids raise their hands, but have the kids mastered the standards.”
State tests aren’t the only way to measure that mastery, but Lucia said they may be the most cost-effective way.
But Carol Osborne, the Morning Creek principal, said Poway’s system accomplishes what any effective evaluation system should: it helps both good and struggling teachers improve while removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.
“In Poway they espouse that they hire strong people," she said. "And really, that first year, we make sure that we have the right people. And I have been on the same end where we did counsel somebody that teaching’s probably not the right career. I had never done that in 18 years of working in another district.”
Los Angeles Unified won’t likely be the only California school district to overhaul how it evaluates teachers. As more districts look to make changes, more will also likely be looking at Poway.