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.
Kailua Intermediate principal Lisa DeLong is hoping for more teacher/student engagement.
Photo: olivier koning
Ask Kailua Intermediate principal Lisa DeLong where she’d like to see her teachers improve, and she’ll admit it’s in student engagement. She arrived on the Junior Surfrider campus three years ago and noticed a stark difference from her previous experience on the elementary school level. Elementary schools are often colorful, with seats arranged in clumps or circles, she says, with the voices of young children singing or reciting lessons filling the hallways. “Secondary campuses can be quite sterile—the desks arranged in rows,” she says. “It’s very easy to lose students when instruction isn’t engaging.”
Koren Uyemura, a math teacher at Castle High School, says the extra work required for teacher evaluations takes time away from the classroom.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
When the state Department of Education rolled out a new teacher evaluation system last fall, one that came with a hefty share of controversy, DeLong took it as an opportunity to forge ahead on the work she and her teachers had been doing to elevate the level of instruction happening on her campus.
“Right now, we’re in an environment where there are a lot of changes,” DeLong says, referring to pressure on teachers to implement new Common Core curriculum, practice data-driven teaching and, now, the stress of performance evaluations. “It can seem overwhelming,” she says. “The main thing we communicated was that we wanted teachers to be successful. They wanted to know we were there to support them.”
DeLong and her two vice principals each took on about 17 teachers, holding pre-evaluation conferences, observing teachers in their classrooms, discussing ways for teachers to improve their practices and then re-observing the teachers to see how they’ve integrated the feedback into their teaching.
And that’s only part of what’s required by the new reviews. In all, it was a complicated and time-consuming process for both the teachers and the principals, DeLong says. The new evaluation system was widely criticized statewide for being cumbersome, paperwork-heavy and taking way too much time away from the classroom.
“The main concern was around time,” DeLong says. “This is not something that is easy to understand, but teachers need time. They need time to develop lessons, collaborate with one another, give feedback to their students, grade assignments, communicate with parents.”
For a secondary teacher with a single 45-minute prep period, that means teachers spend an average of 20 seconds per student planning, grading and analyzing his or her progress, DeLong says. That’s hardly considered enough time to take on a time-consuming task like performance evaluations—which some teachers have estimated take upward of 20 to 30 hours over the course of a school year—to gather and analyze data on their students, prepare and implement learning objectives and sit in pre- and post-observation meetings with their evaluators.
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.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
“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.
The Educator Effectiveness System integrates work the state has done to reform its collection and analysis of student performance data, known as the Strive HI performance system. In short, the state’s goal is for data to revolutionize the way Hawai‘i teachers do their jobs. Longitudinal data allows principals, curriculum coordinators and teachers to track students throughout their academic careers, enabling educators to develop personalized strategies to maximize student results.
The teachers we spoke with say the use of data is changing the classroom. It’s also changing the way teachers are evaluated.
Joan Lewis, an English teacher at Kapolei High School, says she also plays the roles of counselor and mentor.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
Joan Lewis, an English teacher at Kapolei High School, has been teaching for 26 years. As a veteran educator, Lewis says she welcomed the chance to prove her ability to provide high-quality instruction. The evaluation’s emphasis on data, however, reduces her teaching and her students to numbers, she says, instead of looking at kids as whole people.
“I think the emphasis on data does a disservice to the students,” she says. Teachers have to focus not just on helping students with academics, but helping kids grow as people, too. “For students, focusing on hitting numbers and targets, they can hit all those numbers and still not be good people.”
And there are variables in teaching that are hard to account for on evaluations, Lewis says. Students may show up to class in the morning after dealing with a rough family situation the night before. It’s not unusual, she says, to come across students who do poorly on a test because they are distracted by a breakup or some other personal issue. Teachers aren’t only expected to teach their subject matter, they’re also expected to play the role of counselor, mentor and role model.
“Part of the scrutiny is that people are trying to find an easy answer. Education is a human business. Let’s talk about the whole child. Let’s talk about the other things that aren’t measurable,” she says.
Lewis is part of Kapolei High School’s Ho‘ola Leadership Academy, which operates as a completely self-contained school within a school for students who are at risk or in need of special attention. While Lewis’ focus is teaching English, she says she also spends time instilling values like connectedness to each other and being productive members of society. “Those kinds of things can’t be measured on a graph,” she says.
Some teachers, however, see the new evaluations proving useful.
Jhameel Meyer, curriculum coordinator at Wahiawā Middle School, believes that the new evaluation is an improvement over the old system. At best, she says, the old system asked teachers to reflect on their own teaching. The new way of evaluating is much more detailed and systematic.
“I didn’t need to use data to drive my instructional practices to make changes. This may have been something that I could have done on my own, but nothing told me that what I was doing was working or if I needed to make changes,” she says.
Meyer says the old system was not geared toward a teacher making changes to affect student achievement, either.
“Some teachers may not be happy with the new system,” Meyer says. “However, it uses data to drive instructional practices and change. It encompasses students success and achievement at the heart of it.”
The road to reforming Hawai‘i’s teacher evaluation system was a difficult one and included prolonged negotiations with the teachers’ union over tying evaluations to pay. While the teachers’ union continues to disagree with aspects of “pay for performance,” as part of the teachers’ new labor contract, which runs through 2017, the state and HSTA agreed that a teacher’s potential to receive a pay raise would be tied to his or her evaluation.
The rollout of the new evaluation system last fall was relatively “stakes free,” and was implemented with a do-no-harm attitude, says Ronn Nozoe, deputy superintendent of the DOE. Over the next few years, however, stakes will tie results to raises and teachers who receive the worst rating of unsatisfactory could be fired.
Nozoe, however, stresses that the state is not seeking to “fire its way to better schools.” Quite the opposite. The DOE’s hope is that the evaluation system becomes one more tool at the disposal of administrators to improve the quality of instruction.
“One of the tendencies is for people to look at the hiring and firing nature of evaluation, and I understand that,” Nozoe says. “We want the evaluation to highlight the components of effective teaching. The goal is to have every single teacher improving and cognizant of what they need to be doing to continue to improve.”
SHANNON KAAA, A PRESCHOOL TEACHER AT FERN ELEMENTARY, SAYS IT DOESN’T TAKE LONG FOR BAD TEACHERS TO WEED THEMSELVES OUT.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
To ease the concerns of rank-and-file teachers, the union and the state created a joint committee of educators tasked with ensuring the evaluations are fair. The committee recommends ways to improve future versions of the system. And the state already made changes suggested by the committee to evaluations this school year.
HSTA’s Okabe says teachers initially worried about the time and paperwork involved. “We’ve successfully cut this thing down to half,” he says, so most teachers will no longer be required to participate in two classroom evaluations, unless they receive poor ratings. And teachers who were highly effective last year will get a pass this year.
For upcoming school years, Okabe says his hope is that evaluations can be staggered so teachers are not doing them every year. He pointed to the old system of evaluations that required teachers to do an evaluation every five years.
“Once the teacher is deemed effective or highly effective, we need to turn our concentration to the teachers who need the extra help and training. That’s where the emphasis should be in the system,” Okabe says.
Okabe says teachers worry about the punitive nature of the evaluations, although both the union and the state admit the vast majority of teachers will never face a withheld pay raise or termination.
Shannon Kaaa, a preschool teacher at Fern Elementary, agrees. Kaaa is a member of the state’s joint committee to improve the teacher evaluation system. She says, rather than parents and the public looking at the evaluation system as a way to identify the “bad” teachers, she’s been talking about evaluations as a tool teachers can use to improve.
“I got a highly effective rating, but even I know I need to look for opportunities to continue to grow. It’s about continuous improvement,” Kaaa says.
As for the so-called “bad” teachers, she says, good luck trying to find them.
“I am not so sure there are so many bad teachers out there. Teaching is a really hard job and the pay is not so good. This isn’t a field where you can go hide out in a cubicle somewhere,” she says.
It’s not a profession where you can fake it, either, she says. “It doesn’t take long before the bad teachers weed themselves out.”
Still, Kaaa says she has a larger concern. What effect does the rollout of so many reforms at once have on the potential to recruit and retain new teachers?
When we spoke with Kaaa, it was at the end of October, shortly after Teacher Institute Day, a non-classroom day where teachers meet to collaborate or take extra professional development. Kaaa traveled to Maui, where she met a group of teachers. Eventually the conversation turned to evaluations.
“One of the teachers in the audience was a new teacher, and he really felt overwhelmed and burdened,” she says.
New teachers face a whole host of challenges just based on being new, Kaaa says. It can take a new teacher as long as five years to understand the dynamics of classroom management, considered to be the most important and basic tool at a teacher’s disposal. On top of acclimating to the classroom environment, new teachers also face rolling out the new Common Core curriculum, reforms centered around data-focused instruction, prepping for the state’s switch to an entirely new standardized test and now evaluations. Even for seasoned teachers, it’s too much too fast, she says.
“You listen to him speak, you see he’s intelligent and you know this is someone we need in the classroom teaching our kids, and here he is thinking this is just not right. He feels this evaluation is evaluating him on something that he needs time to perfect,” Kaaa says. “My concern is we’re going to have these new teachers coming in and they’re not going to stay. They know they could be doing something else.”
Don Young, the dean of the University of Hawai‘i College of Education, says new teachers will need a different kind of support when it comes to evaluations.
“If you look at the investment a student has made to become a teacher, and the work we’ve done to ensure our candidates are job-ready, if a new teacher finds themselves in a circumstance in their first year of not performing satisfactorily, the answer should be: How do we find the support for that teacher,” Young says.
And in many ways, the state has a built-in support system on the school and complex level ready to help new teachers, says the DOE’s Nozoe. According to the state’s new strategy, it is expected that teachers at every school are collaborating and giving each other feedback. Teachers are expected to use data to inform their instruction, and work in teams to support one another. Professional development is also provided on the school level.
“This is a huge change from how we used to do things. The supports are embedded in every school, every complex, every district. Those are the fundamental components of our strategy. When you look at every school’s academic plans, those strategies are embedded in those plans,” Nozoe says.
The state has also indexed a host of online workshops and classes that may help a teacher improve his or her effectiveness, he says.
Young says UH’s College of Education is also integrating a candidate evaluation system that is similar to the new evaluations used by the public schools. The system, edTPA, is used nationally and reviews a teacher candidate’s work and requires them to undergo multiple measures similar to EES. Eventually, Young says, the hope is that both EES and edTPA will align.
“In terms of our candidates, once this is fully implemented, they will be very well prepared for EES. It will not be anything new to them,” Young says.
UH’s College of Education has hired several new faculty members who will be working with graduates three years into their employment to continue to support them as they grow as beginning teachers.
“Our hope is to stop the bleeding of teachers leaving the profession after three to five years,” Young says.
State officials say the evaluation is not necessarily about finding the bad apples, but that’s not the prevailing perception of the evaluation system on the school level.
Koren Uyemura, on the Castle High School campus.
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
Koren Uyemura, a math teacher at Castle High School, says her concern is that the state has created a cumbersome process to identify bad teachers, but it affects good teachers by adding extra work, which takes time away from the classroom.
“The really good teachers aren’t concerned. Our nature is to do things above and beyond. The thing is, the administrators know who the bad teachers are. The teachers know who they are. But they’re going to make everyone go through this painful process to have a way of measuring it?” she says. “The really good teachers are being punished.”
When she first started teaching 10 years ago, Uyemura says the emphasis was on building well-rounded students and critical thinkers. Slowly, as more and more reforms have been implemented, the emphasis has shifted to tracking data and analyzing data. And now that student data is linked to evaluations, there is added pressure on teachers, she says.
“As far as the workload goes, it takes a lot of time away from my lesson planning when I need to take time away to track data and analyze data. I have to make more time in my day to make sure I am meeting those goals. It creates a weird priority for teachers,” she says.
Karen Meyer, theater teacher at Castle High School, says that the emphasis on empirical data in evaluations also means that teachers can’t be as creative as they’d like to be in their lessons. Everything has to be measurable, she says.
As a drama teacher, Meyer often would require her students to attend a live production of a play in the community and then write a paper about it. Not all students would see the same show. The problem becomes, if Meyer has to measure all her students against the same Student Learning Objective, they can’t all go see different shows based on their interests.
“Because of the SLOs, you have to have the same prompt for all the kids, which means they all have to see the same thing. I’ve had to change my teaching because of this requirement. I don’t know very many teachers who haven’t changed the way they teach,” Meyer says.
Meyer also says it’s problematic to take student evaluations of a teacher into account when reviewing performance. Right now, under the new EES, students participate in what’s known as a Tripod survey to evaluate their teachers. The results are a small part of a teacher’s overall score.
“I bet you there was one teacher you hated and you can look back now and say, ‘Gosh, I learned so much from that teacher.’ Students are not always at the level to appreciate what they are going through,” Meyer says.
In the end, the state admits the evaluation system is a work in progress and is not the solution to the woes of the public schools. Over the next few years, the state will continue to refine the system with feedback from teachers and administrators.
“It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a confluence of things that will improve our schools: improved instruction, improved leadership, improved functioning at state offices. This is hard and complicated work, and the evaluation is just one way to check on progress,” Nozoe says.