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David Steele Q&A: a midterm report on teacher evaluation project

David Steele is chief information and technology officer for the Hillsborough County School District. He's also in charge of Empowering Effective Teaching, the Gates Foundation-funded education reform project. Times reporter Marlene Sokol asked him about the project, which is now midway through its seven-year run.

How would you answer a teacher who says that EET is a waste of time that could be spent focusing on students?

I don't think the time is wasted. Those hours are extremely important in professional development, to have someone watch you and give you feedback on what they saw in the room.

When you see the way teachers in other school districts reacted to the new system, and the scores that are based on student testing, do you feel vindicated?

I don't want to use the word vindicated. But we spent a lot of time on communication and letting people know what to expect. A large percentage of teachers in those other places are rated on students they didn't teach. As far as I know, we're still the only ones in the whole country that actually do value-add based on the teacher's actual subject area.

One of the controversial lines in the 2009 proposal was that at least 5 percent of tenured teachers would be dismissed each year for underperformance. Where did that come from and why was it taken back so quickly?

When we wrote the proposal, we based it on research that was out there. In recent years, there has been a lot more research on teachers — not only through evaluation systems like ours, but also projects like Measuring Effective Teaching. Tom Kane, an economics professor at Harvard and head of the MET project, had written that 20 percent of teachers were underperforming. They now describe the middle as 85 percent. You have about 7.5 at the top, 7.5 at the bottom.

We have learned more, now that we have a good evaluation system. When you had an evaluation system that basically was giving 30 percent of the people a perfect score and hardly anybody getting a low score, it was hard to get a gauge of those estimates. Last year I think between 3 and 4 percent (of all teachers) got "needs improvement" or unsatisfactory ratings.

The proposal said the biggest risk was that you would fail to identify underperforming teachers. You needed to remove them, and replace them with new teachers, to get the savings to reward the better teachers.

In the original proposal we talked of 5 percent being unsatisfactory, which we now find more like 1.5 percent. We're not talking about a huge difference. Out of 12,000 people going in, the difference is not going to have a major impact on the budget.

But we were told 18 teachers this year faced termination, which worked out to less than a percent.

That's a double U. Those are people who were unsatisfactory last year who looked like they might be unsatisfactory again. Editor's note: Teachers face termination after two unsatisfactory ratings.

To what extent did you have to scale back on attitude surveys, due to the feeling teachers did not have time to take so many surveys?

We did not do an end-of-year survey last year for exactly the reason you are talking about. Each year we roll out new evaluations and one of the evaluations we are rolling out this year is for assistant principals. We're really concerned about the high schools, where it might mean four to seven surveys on assistant principals. Although I believe in it very much, we are concerned about whether we would continue to get enough feedback to make the survey meaningful.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins from the teachers union asks: There is all this mentoring for first- and second-year teachers. Will we see more support for experienced teachers who are struggling?

Absolutely. Each principal, when they get teachers rated "needs improvement" and "unsatisfactory," they get an assistance packet so they can develop a plan. The math supervisor or the English supervisor or the science supervisor is involved in doing one of the observations.

So teachers who genuinely want to improve will get the support they need?

My goal would be to have zero dismissals, like any school system's would be, but to do it genuinely through improvement of practice.

A high school English teacher was concerned that the media center is closed so much for testing, 40 to 46 days in a year. In the proposal there were supposed to be computer labs in all the schools. Is that on track?

We put those in ahead of schedule. The problem is, the state has expanded online testing without really giving any support up to this point to districts for the hardware and the infrastructure needed to expand.

Are you able to hire enough evaluators and put them back into the classroom after their two-year rotation?

We originally said everyone would stay on two to three years. But we have 90 out of the 240 or so who are now in their third year and so we're facing a real struggle in our own philosophy. It may be that we continue a few of them for one extra year or maybe even two extra years. But I am mindful that this can never become a lifetime job.

When I hear somebody's going to be a peer, and I know they're an amazing teacher, I feel the kids are being cheated. Do you ever fear you are taking your best and brightest away from the kids?

Even with 250 people, that's a little over 2 percent of teachers. I like to think that if we can't afford to adequately replace 2 percent of our teachers, we probably have bigger problems than the fact that they are peers.

What would you say to the teacher who says, "I got marked down because I let a student sleep in class because if he didn't sleep, he would disrupt the whole class?"

If your child was going to school and wanted to put his head down, would you or would you not want his teacher to interact with him? A teacher has a responsibility to get the children to learn as much as they can. But there are smatterings of those students everywhere.

James Pepe, the teacher accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill a co-worker, complained that other teachers get more AP classes, where kids are more likely to be successful and that makes the system discriminatory.

Teaching is a difficult thing, whoever you're teaching. I have heard high school teachers say elementary school teachers have the life. Then you talk to elementary school teachers about how they have to be an expert in every subject area. Non-AP teachers will say that the AP teachers have all the good kids. But AP teachers will tell you they have to get everyone prepared for college. Also, remember that the value-add does not measure proficiency. It measures gain.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. A longer version of it is available on the Times' education blog, Gradebook.

David Steele Q&A: a midterm report on teacher evaluation project 01/26/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 28, 2013 5:32pm]

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