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Do the New Teacher Evaluations Help Improve Hawai‘i’s Public Schools?

The state rolled out its teacher evaluation system last year, much to the consternation of some educators. This year, there’s a new and improved version, but questions remain about what role evaluations play in better schools for Hawai‘i.


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State education officials widely admit that the first round of teacher evaluations last year left a lot to be desired. From bungled training on how to use the new system to the time it took away from the classroom, officials say the Educator Effectiveness System is a work in progress. Indeed the state’s revamped EES for this school year requires only those teachers who did not rate as “highly effective” to participate in observations, which cuts the process by half.


For more than a decade now, public schools across the country have faced a consistent onslaught of federally driven reforms, beginning with the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, which educators say introduced a testing-focused, rather than student-focused, culture to the classroom. While NCLB’s simplistic and somewhat idealistic vision of all students in all schools reaching proficiency in math and reading has been rendered mostly irrelevant under President Obama, educators say a culture of teaching to the test still remains. Under Obama, reforms have shifted to data-driven instruction and teacher evaluations. Hawai‘i has drawn some $75 million in federal aid to its public school system. Hawai‘i was among some 40 states that applied for and received waivers from the punitive aspects of NCLB, and, in return, each of these states worked to revamp its teacher evaluations. New evaluations, which have replaced the older, perfunctory ones, are multifaceted, reviewing teachers on their ability to plan and implement lessons and on the growth of their students’ test scores. 


Will teacher evaluations save ailing public schools and increase the level of student achievement? The verdict is still out. On the surface, last year’s rollout of the new Educator Effectiveness System didn’t appear to show anything different from the previous method of evaluation. Last year, about 98 percent of teachers were found to be either effective or highly effective. Barely 2 percent landed in the bottom two categories of teachers. The results under the old system were virtually identical.


Wil Okabe, president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association.

“Teachers were (previously) evaluated every five years, not every year. You look at the results of that compared to this, and it’s the same,” says Wil Okabe, the president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, which has been working with the DOE to improve the new system. Okabe says the teachers’ union is not opposed to evaluations. Far from it. Instead, he says teachers welcome the opportunity to prove they are the effective educators they believe themselves to be, and to receive recognition for the work they are doing in the classroom.


But it’s not clear these new evaluations will accomplish that. Hawai‘i’s results have mirrored those of many other states that have revamped their evaluations, with the vast majority of teachers found to be effective educators. Critics say evaluations still do very little to distinguish excellent teachers from the rest of the pack. For instance, this past summer, New York released the results of its new evaluation system, which saw about 94 percent of its teachers rated as either effective or highly effective, according to The New York Times. In Delaware, the majority of teachers was found to be either effective or highly effective, with less than 1 percent found to need improvement, according to Education Week. Not a single teacher was found to be ineffective, Delaware reported. 


While the evaluations are new—and require more work and empirical evidence—the results appear to mimic the old way of doing things. A now well-known 2009 national study by The New Teacher Project titled “The Widget Effect,” largely credited with fueling the national push for revamped evaluations, found that most of the previous systems of reviewing teachers resulted in some 94 percent of them receiving the top two ratings. The bottom line: Teacher evaluations, at least in the way they’ve previously been handled, are at worst useless and at best assume “every teacher is a great teacher.”


At Kailua Intermediate School, DeLong says the percentage of teachers ranked highly effective and effective on her campus mirrored the results on the state level. And DeLong believes the results.


“I’m confident the vast majority of our teachers are good teachers,” DeLong says. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas where teachers can improve, she says. When DeLong and her two vice principals set out to evaluate teachers last year, it was with the intention of finding ways for all teachers to elevate their instruction. “It’s very difficult to be considered highly effective in all areas,” she says. Those areas include classroom observation, student surveys, professionalism and student growth. 


Take, for instance, a math teacher DeLong evaluated. “He really is a fabulous teacher,” she says. But, in the course of observing one of his lessons, DeLong noticed that he had a tendency to call on one student at a time when posing a question. To be more engaging, DeLong asked that he move away from calling on one student and work on getting the whole class involved. “Instead of one student answering a problem, everyone is writing and solving, everyone is working on the problem.” 


It’s a simple instance, DeLong says, in which a teacher can be good and still evolve his or her practice.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2019