Joseph J. Matula is a Performance Evaluation Advisory Council member and associate professor at Governors State University

Although the 2016 deadline for most school districts to implement the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) seems pretty far away, districts would be wise to start now. How hard can it be, you may ask? Well, following is a list of procedures that will lead to the development of a district’s plan. It is not all inclusive, as one can think of something else that needs to be done as soon as you grasp the complexity of the tasks involved. These are not steps that can be passed on to the joint committee or that can wait until 2015. Districts need to start now!

1. Understand the true purpose of PERA.

The initial phase of any process that will lead to the creation of a new teacher evaluation plan is to become familiar with the primary purpose of the law prompting its development. The law has mandated a summative evaluative rating be assigned to every teacher. This label must be assigned to each teacher’s performance on a one-or two-year cycle depending on tenure status. Therefore, the primary focus of any joint committee is the creation of a plan that ends up making the labeling of teachers as accurate as possible. Don’t underestimate this last sentence: It’s all about the accuracy of the labeling!

Some districts may want a system that creates an incentive for a teacher to get to the highest rating available. They may want to be stingy with high ratings so teachers will work and work to reach it. In other words, they want a system that will make the rating a reward for which teachers can strive to reach.

On the other hand, other districts may want a system that can be used to remove teachers they believe are inadequate. They want a system that gives them the authority to assign a rating that can lead to the termination of teachers who have been identified as unsatisfactory.

Neither position represents the purpose of PERA. The purpose of PERA is to arrive at accurate labeling of teachers as either Excellent, Proficient, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory. The primary point of PERA is to accurately evaluate teachers so the consequences of Senate Bill 7 can be fairly applied. It’s a two-step process.

Recently, the state superintendent of Idaho, in reference to the national trend of laws diluting the protection of tenure, similar to Senate Bill 7, said, “Good teachers shouldn’t be worried.” That is how many administrators think. What teachers would like to add to that quote is, “Good teachers shouldn’t be worried, IF they receive accurate ratings.” What the Idaho state superintendent should really have said is, “Good teachers have nothing to worry about, IF good teachers are identified as being good teachers.” Only after the accuracy of assigning labels to teachers is trusted by the teachers can the consequences of Senate Bill 7 take effect.

2. Pilot, pilot, pilot assessments.

Before beginning the joint committee’s 180-day bargaining period, the most productive activity in which to engage is to pilot assessments. In other words, teachers should get together with their grade level or subject area colleagues and begin to write common assessments that reflect the most critical skills and content that their students should know and be able to do. These are Type II assessments. Even though teachers have been writing assessments their whole careers, these are different. These can determine keeping one’s job. This opportunity to pilot or practice forces teachers to analyze what is really important about their students’ education and experiment how to assess it.

It brings to light the second purpose of assessment and this is the formative one. Using assessments to see what students have learned or didn’t learn makes a teacher analyze why students didn’t learn what they were supposed to, and guides the teacher   as they make adjustments. Piloting these assessments will make teachers better and more involved in the coming process of assessing student growth.

3. Select or create a professional practice framework.

The professional practice portion of the whole teacher evaluation process is what teachers are most familiar with and what has been used to evaluate them in the past. PERA does not mandate the framework or criteria against which teachers will be observed other than that it be research-based, include a teacher’s attendance, planning, instructional methods, classroom management, where relevant, competency in the subject matter taught, the standards to which that teacher is expected to conform, specification as to the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses, with supporting reasons for the comments made, and is aligned with the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards.

The Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) has selected the Charlotte Danielson Framework as the one to be used in the Illinois state model. It is well researched and a very comprehensive option. However, any school district that may end up using the state model because it couldn’t agree on its evaluation process with its teacher’s union is not obligated to use the Danielson model. For these school districts, the state model is mandated only with respect to the student growth part of the evaluation model, not the professional practice part.

Robert Marzano also has created an evaluation framework. They are similar in that both have four domains: Planning and Preparation, The Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities for Danielson; and Classroom Strategies and Behaviors, Preparing and Planning, Reflection on Teaching, and Collegiality and Professionalism for Marzano. They are very different in that Danielson apportions equal shares to each domain while the Marzano model apportions greater weight to the Classroom Strategies and Behaviors domain. Thus, the Danielson model is not the only game in town.

Some school districts may consider tweaking or changing parts of the Danielson framework, but keep in mind it must be research-based. If any change to the Danielson Framework destroys the research-based aspect, a school district could be open to a challenge down the road if a dismissed teacher says the school district did not follow the law. One important thing to note however, is that the research-based aspect is with respect to effective instruction. Therefore, if a district is tweaking Danielson and doesn’t lose the connection to the instructional research, it should be okay.

4. Practice, practice, practice the Framework

Although current practicing administrators have been evaluating teachers for years, using the Danielson rubric is different. It can be an elusive, subjective, arbitrary, and random process. Administrators need to know how to accurately code teaching behaviors and teachers need to know what teaching behaviors will earn certain point values or rating labels. The use of this rubric should be practiced and shared with teachers by saying, “Here is what earns you a 3 or a 4 score.” For this evaluation process to work, teachers need to trust it. For teachers to trust it, they must know what teaching behavior earns the point values contained in the rubric. In other words, teachers need explicit feedback as to what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.

5. Determine how evidence of professional practice will be collected.

Districts need to establish the notice timelines for the pre-conference prior to formal observations, whether more than the minimum number of formal observations will be included, the timelines for the post-conference, the minimum number of informal observations, the feedback method for the informal observations, and the collection, analysis, and feedback procedures for teacher artifacts. These teacher artifacts can be lesson plans, classroom tests, student work samples, student assignments, etc. All these procedural requirements are the details that need to be filled in.

This is an opportunity to take an overview of the first four steps: discuss the whole process to ensure there is an understanding of how it works and fits together and create questions and hypothetical examples to determine if there are any omissions or duplications. For example, an issue districts may want to address is whether the evaluator is skilled in the grade level or subject area being reviewed. Is it possible to tap into the resource of multiple evaluators to address this? One state utilizes a pool of retired educators who are hired on a per observation basis. Often, these are educators with specialized knowledge who can supplement an evaluator’s observation of the teaching with one focused solely on the content.

6. Analyze the definition of student growth.

Review the state’s definition of student growth. This is a step that should take considerable time. Analyze the advantages and disadvantages of various assessments and alternative ways student growth can be measured. The concept of Value Added Measures should be reviewed.

In light of the student growth discussion, another tough issue to address is student motivation. Student motivation will be critical to ensure all students put forth the maximum effort in each assessment. Students are not robots that one can command, “Put forth maximum effort.”

Students’ effort is best ensured if the tests are meaningful to the students. Student motivation to do well has the best chance of occurring if there is no significant increase in the regular assessment routine. Thus, if any assessments that are used for student growth measures are also tied to teacher evaluations, they must look as much like the regular assessment routine as possible. Then student motivation will not be threatened by more tests. In other words, students should be motivated if any assessments are part of a teacher’s grading process. Otherwise, assessments strictly to evaluate teachers will be another layer of tests. Just how much testing can students take?

7. Establish the student attendance requirements for the use of student growth.

Since it would be unfair to hold a teacher accountable for something over which he/she has no control, some school districts may establish a cut-off as to what student data will be counted. In the principal evaluation plan, student data will be counted as long as there are two data points using assessments covering the same content. Teachers have a much smaller sample. They may likely have sample sizes fewer than 20 students. A few chronically absent students can be a big chunk of a teacher’s class. How fair is it to judge a teacher’s teaching performance when some students have only been present 80 percent of the time. One may think that 80   percent is a very high percentage but not when the state’s average attendance rate is 95 percent. In other words, if a child misses one day of school every week, that’s a tremendous amount of instruction to miss. An idea that may provide some help with a situation of many student absences is to give some extra credit to the teacher who goes beyond the district standard in engaging chronically absent students. This can be addressed under Domain 1 and 4 in the Danielson Framework.

8. Decide the scoring procedures.

This may be the toughest implementation step to conquer. “Who will score the Type II and Type III assessments?” If these assessments are to be a part of the regular assessment system, then the teacher needs to score them to ensure his/her students receive appropriate credit for answers since it will reflect in the students’ grades. Yet, if these assessments are scored by the individual teacher being evaluated, they will lose their objectivity as a valid measure of student growth. If one teacher is evaluated by a Type I assessment, scored by a non-district entity, and another teacher is evaluated by a Type II assessment, scored by the same teacher being evaluated, there will be feelings and perceptions of unfairness. One school district in another state created a panel of teachers which has the responsibility for scoring all assessments. Keep in mind the coming Common Core Standards.

The joint committee must also address the issue of students with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low income families. The law requires at least a review of whether these factors will necessitate an adjustment to be made to the assessment process. Perhaps these students will most often be assessed using Type III assessments such as portfolios, projects or student work samples. Frequently, special education teachers work with the same students that general education teachers work. A method of apportioning responsibility for student growth between two or more teachers needs to be done.

9. Determine how the professional practice part and the student growth part combine to produce a final, “state-mandated” rating.

In other words, how will your district join the professional practice part with the student growth part and arrive at a final summative rating? What if a teacher gets a low professional practice part and a high student growth part, or the reverse, a high professional practice part and a low student growth part. A matrix approach may answer those questions in a very objective manner whether it is 75/25 or 50/50, or anything in between.

10. Create a review stage of all final ratings at the Needs Improvement/Unsatisfactory levels

The need for a second person, someone of the stature and knowledge of the superintendent, needs to be done to ensure ratings requiring professional development plans or remediation plans were not the product of an Unsatisfactory principal. What if a teacher is given a Needs Improvement or Unsatisfactory rating and the principal making the evaluation is himself/­herself Unsatisfactory? Would that not make one question the teacher’s rating? Yet, since all ratings are confidential. nobody but the superintendent/principal’s evaluator would know the principal’s rating. Therefore, a final review of certain teachers’ ratings should be a part of the evaluation process.

11. Professional development

What other professional development is needed by teachers and administrators (evaluators)? Teachers may need to develop proficiency in writing Student Learning Objectives. Training in writing common assessments or in compiling portfolios of student work samples may also be needed. As for administrators, I mentioned the need to learn the Framework and develop skill in assigning point values to teaching behavior. Administrators may also need training in time management so they will find the time to get into the classrooms and perform thorough observations, not to mention the time needed to both pre- and post-conference with the teachers. This process will need time to be done right.

In summary, since this is a new evaluation model for everyone, a process should be decided that will allow for an annual review or time to make corrections, adjustments, etc. Nobody can do this perfectly, especially not the first time. One might say it doesn’t need to be done perfectly to make a difference in student learning. However, if you are a teacher being dismissed based on a rating arrived at a process that’s “good enough” doesn’t seem fair. For this new evaluation process to work, it absolutely must be trusted by the teachers affected. Therefore, constant review will be a must!