Schools look for ways to identify good teachers

  • Article by: Corey Mitchell
  • Star Tribune
  • February 25, 2011 - 8:22 AM

The Minneapolis School District's teachers are like the children of the mythical Lake Wobegon: They're almost all above average.

Or so the record would seem to indicate.

Over much of the past decade, Minneapolis has annually dismissed fewer than 3 percent of its teachers for poor performance.

The other 97 percent often have graded out at as top notch, or at least efficient, year after year.

In a city where one in four high school students doesn't graduate on time and success is measured by how close the district comes to meeting state standards, not exceeding them, that notion doesn't sit well with some people in district headquarters at 807 NE. Broadway.

"Our results are not what they need to be," said Pat Pratt-Cook, human resources chief for the Minneapolis schools. "We have a major problem as it relates to teacher evaluation."

The skewed results are the product of an outdated process where tenured teachers are under-evaluated and under-coached, if they receive any feedback at all, district and teacher union leaders say. The two sides, often considered at odds, now are working together to redesign the evaluation process.

They'll begin by using a $200,000 grant to bring back one of the district's most supportive critics, The New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn-based organization that in past studies has pointed out some of Minneapolis schools' shortcomings.

How to use evaluations

In most school systems, evaluations are used for one purpose: To determine who gets fired.

As evidenced in Minneapolis, that hardly ever happens.

"The entire process is perfunctory and routine," said Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project. "We want to make it a useful and meaningful tool."

The group, founded by teachers in 1997 to address educational issues including teacher quality, produced a national report on the ineffectiveness of teacher evaluations in summer 2009 called the "Widget Effect." Its findings concluded that, under current evaluation systems, teachers are treated like interchangeable parts who don't have strengths or weaknesses.

"They are individual professionals with particular needs and particular strengths," Daly said.

In its previous evaluations, The New Teacher Project has cited the district's tendencies to rely on seniority rather than quality in filling teaching slots and to lay off far more teachers than necessary, then recall them just weeks before school starts.

This time around the group hopes to provide solutions and help ensure that effective teachers are educating the city's children.

The year-long partnership will bring together the district and its teacher union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, to devise a development and assessment system that both sides can support.

Plans call for piloting a new evaluation system at eight schools next spring, with a broader rollout next fall. The Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children provided the grant.

What it may look like

Under the new system, each teacher will have a formal evaluation, or at least some feedback on his or her performance, each school year, Pratt-Cook said.

In addition to classroom observation, the new system could also rely, in part, on student test scores for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment to rate the effectiveness of their teachers.

That's something The New Teacher Project doesn't advocate, Daly said.

The district is looking to take the plunge anyway into using the test results. In the past, it hasn't used such data to help separate out the standout teachers from those who struggle, Pratt-Cook said.

"Very few districts can say, 'Here are my highly effective teachers,' " Pratt-Cook said.

The move would allow staff to find a use for data they've produced on teacher effectiveness for years.

It's about time, said Lynnell Mickelsen, co-chair and president of Put Kids First Minneapolis.

Mickelsen's group is pushing for contract reform for the district's teachers and principals, specifically regarding the use of their evaluations.

Rating teachers based on the looks of lesson plans, brightness of bulletin boards and résumé of degrees won't cut it, said Mickelsen, a Southwest High School parent.

"We want to make sure that we're doing all we can to help kids, with the hope and expectation that we'll get better," said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who don't measure up aren't likely to be booted right away. They would be given a chance to improve -- and help from the district to get better.

The district can't blame and shame its way to success, Mickelsen and Nordgren said. The pair agrees that teachers, like their students, should be willing to learn.

The intent is to support struggling teachers intent on improving, and not toss out those willing to learn.

"It's difficult work, but it's something that educators are hungry to do," Daly said.

Nordgren agreed.

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions," she said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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