Teachers RISE to the occasion

Faculty, administrators see proposed evaluation system as an improvement

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As Pittsburgh Public Schools goes about putting performance pay into practice, it must face the challenge of crafting a fair way to evaluate teachers that will shutter the sense of a "gotcha culture" that long has pitted teachers against administrators.

Now the district is ready to roll out a teacher evaluation system this fall after initially testing it in 24 of the 66 city schools since May.

Currently, teachers are evaluated at the end of each year if they are tenured -- a status reached after three years of teaching. Nontenured teachers are evaluated once every semester, said Jody Spolar, the district's chief performance officer.

Part of the reason for the new model, Ms. Spolar said, was that the district's plan for teacher observations was inconsistent. Based on transparency, clear definitions of good and bad teaching and evidence-based evaluations, the new system is part of a larger series of initiatives backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teacher effectiveness.

"In the past, our teacher evaluation was a binary system that simply rated teachers satisfactory or unsatisfactory," said Cindi Muehlbauer, a longtime principal in the city schools, who is now on special assignment to help shepherd the model at district headquarters.

The new model -- known as the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation -- includes a series of teacher-principal meetings interspersed with observation of a teacher's lesson. The teacher and principal meet at least three times to discuss teaching style, lesson plans and the overall objective -- to make the classroom a sanctuary of learning.

In the end, the principal grades the teacher as unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or distinguished. But in a key difference under this system, the teacher has substantial input in the final report.

Even though there may be variations in how teachers assess themselves compared with their principals' final reports, at least both sides now will have a detailed conversation about improving the quality of teaching. That, school administrators said, is a significant step beyond the status quo.

Andrea Harhai, a first-grade teacher at Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 on the South Side, has 30 years of experience. One of the many skeptics in the teacher ranks, she saw the model as "yet another district initiative" when it launched in May.

Ms. Harhai, however, was among 12 of 20 teachers at Pittsburgh Phillips to undergo RISE evaluations, and she slowly changed her mind.

"One of the things I realized -- it made me rethink my lesson plan. I didn't change anything about it, but I found that in preparing for the evaluation I realized there are some things I can change or do better," she said.

"At first, I was nervous, but as I was teaching, [during observation] I realized, 'it's just another lesson,' and then I relaxed and continued my lesson," Ms. Harhai recalled.

After going through the evaluation, she added, " I also realized there are other things I didn't even know I was doing well until the principal pointed them out."

The model is designed around 24 principles that both teachers and administrators agree are elemental aspects of what defines effective teaching.

Under RISE, the principal and teacher use 12 factors as benchmarks.

Within the 12 factors are four key areas: the teacher's planning and preparation; the dynamics of the classroom; whether the teacher fosters a teaching and learning environment; and whether the teacher exhibits certain professional responsibilities in the classroom.

So far, some teachers who have been exposed to the new system say it is a significant improvement over previous evaluation methods. But they also say some wrinkles need to be ironed out, particularly in situations involving problem teachers.

Before RISE, teachers and administrators said there were not clear definitions of good teaching practices, and evaluations were not grounded in evidence or research on best methods. As a result, teachers often believed they were at the mercy of administrators' snapshot subjective judgments.

That will change with RISE, district superintendent Mark Roosevelt and teacher union President John Tarka said last year as they appealed to both sides to sign onto the new evaluation system.

Jerri Lippert, chief academic officer of Pittsburgh Public Schools, said all 2,700 or so teachers in the district will have at least one evaluation under the RISE system when it goes districtwide in the 2010-11 school year.

After that, every teacher will be evaluated at least twice a year. Then, officials said, the RISE model will be geared to meet different needs of novices and experienced teachers. Dr. Lippert said the district is in the process of crafting a model for those evaluations.

Danielle Harris, a curriculum coach at Pittsburgh Classical 6-8 in Crafton Heights, said the give and take between a teacher and a principal makes the new model instructive.

Ms. Harris, who has 12 years of teaching experience, said it initially unnerved her. But her fears quickly dissipated when she realized how much she was learning about her own teaching style.

"I now know what I need to work on," Ms. Harris said. "It was good to sit down with the principal and go over my whole teaching method before she came to observe me because then I knew what the standard of evaluation was."

What's more, Ms. Harris said, she has a sense of "how I can continue raising the standard for myself as a teacher."

At a professional development seminar last week, 61 teachers and principals watched a videotape of Ms. Harris' evaluation in which she scored high marks, mostly distinguished and proficient ratings.

As they watched her explain the elements of storytelling to her eighth-grade students and draw them into a discussion on how to identify "significant moments" from a text, teachers and administrators agreed the evaluation model worked as they envisioned it.

But Derrick Lopez, assistant superintendent of secondary schools, Dr. Muehlbauer, the principal on special assignment at district headquarters, and others wondered: While the model seems to work with demonstrably good teachers, what happens when the teacher is demonstrably bad? How will those conversations unfold, especially when a teacher's assessment is much higher than a principal's?

How to deal with that in a constructive way, they said, remains an unanswered question.

Pittsburgh Phillips principal Rodney Necciai said the RISE model already has proven itself by creating an ongoing dialogue between teachers and administrators about what works and what doesn't.

"It has given me a chance to have deeper conversations with my teachers about instruction methods," said Mr. Necciai, adding that he also has had teachers sit in on classes he has taught and had them critique his performance.

Anna Tarka-DiNunzio, a second-grade teacher and one of two union representatives at the school, said teachers might be more receptive to the model because they realize they are now intricately involved in the evaluation.

"This, for the teacher, is your chance to show your principal what you have been doing in your classroom that the principal may not know about or may not have been able to see before," said Ms. Tarka-DiNunzio, who is the daughter of the teacher union president.

The RISE district rollout will start with systemwide training of teachers and principals on May 13-14 and again Aug. 9-11.

"It will only work if people feel there is transparency and fairness," Ms. Tarka-DiNunzio said. "In other words, everybody has to know the process will be the same for all of us," she said.

Karamagi Rujumba: krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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