September/October 2013

Annie Filer and Sarah Dickson are current students at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, pursuing master’s degrees in public policy.

While schools in Illinois have been evaluating teacher performance for years, few teachers or administrators find the results of these evaluations to be particularly useful.

With the implementation of the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), districts have a unique opportunity to create a teacher evaluation system that works and leads to improvement in student outcomes. Teachers and administrators dedicate their time and energy to students, so operating an ineffective evaluation system is not just a waste of time – it is a wasted opportunity. Districts can leverage this moment to reform teacher evaluations and create an efficient evaluation system that provides meaningful feedback and helps schools improve instruction. School board members can play a significant role in this process and contribute to making their school a better place to learn.

A report generated by the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC) and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) collected data from teachers and administrators in five districts in Illinois, ranging from a rural school district in southern Illinois serving 500 students to an urban district in northern Illinois serving more than 40,000 students, who have already begun to incorporate features of PERA into teacher evaluations. These districts are located in northern ( Elgin, Evanston/Skokie, Niles Township), central ( Olympia), and southern (Sandoval) Illinois and represent urban, suburban, and rural districts. Elgin, Olympia and Sandoval are unit school districts, Evanston/Skokie is a K-8 district, and Niles Township is a high school district. While the five districts are very different in size and location, many of the lessons learned across the districts are very similar.

Incorporate PERA earlier
Since full implementation of PERA in the 2016-2017 school year will impact high-stakes district decisions such as tenure and compensation, it is important for teachers to feel comfortable with the new evaluation system so that they believe important decisions based on the evaluations are made fairly. The IERC and CCSR study found that teachers and administrators recommended that districts pilot the new evaluation policy before they are required to by the state, or phase it in over multiple years, at lower stakes than it will have in full implementation. Doing so may give teachers time to adapt to the new system without the added anxiety over potential high-stakes decisions.

Additionally, introducing new initiatives earlier than necessary would allow districts to incorporate teacher and administrator feedback about the evaluation system and make adjustments. If teachers have an opportunity to participate in the creation and the maintenance of the evaluation tool, the likelihood of its ultimate success as well as teacher support should increase.

At first, it may seem difficult for districts to begin having these conversations before it is required by the state; however, in the long run, districts who practice early implementation of PERA would have a more effective evaluation system that teachers trust.

Training teachers
When employees understand the system by which individual performance is evaluated, they may be more likely to internalize the feedback they receive and use it to improve their performance. Districts have an opportunity to improve the performance of their workforce by training teachers on the evaluation system the district is using. For example, the IERC and CCSR study reports that in Elgin, teams consisting of a teacher and an administrator introduced the evaluation system and conducted training in all Elgin schools to ensure that all teachers and administrators were receiving consistent information. Additionally, in Evanston, administrators began communicating with teachers about the new system in the spring and summer prior to implementation in order to ensure that all teachers were receiving the same message and information about the system.

Additionally, the study reports that participants in the case study districts recommended that training on the new teacher evaluation systems be mandatory for all teachers. Eventually, professional development sessions can be leveraged to address strengths and weaknesses of both the teachers in the district and the evaluation tool itself.

The IERC and CCSR study also reported that higher-level support for the evaluation tool fosters trust in the system; in Olympia, the superintendent was very involved in the evaluation process, i.e. by sitting in on some evaluations and identifying professional development topics from the results.

Creating consistency
Although by this point most administrators have completed requisite state-mandated training for the teacher evaluation system, it is important to have all the evaluators trained to rate teachers with the same level of expectations. Problems arise in a district when one administrator is too lenient and another is too strict.

Districts in the study have found ways to train evaluators to rate teachers consistently by calibrating evaluator ratings – defining expectations and standardizing the method of rating. For example, the IERC and CCSR study shows that pairs of evaluators in Niles and Sandoval observed teachers either in person or on video and discussed how to rate each teacher. Elgin evaluators used role playing and mock exercises to determine ratings, including looking at video or real time teaching and discussing how they would rate each teacher.

The IERC and CCSR study reported that trainings often continued throughout the year to maintain consistency in evaluations by reviewing ratings multiple times during the school year, using mentoring systems, and having discussions among evaluators as problems arose. Evaluators can use these techniques to keep transparency and trust in the evaluation system.

Measurable and actionable feedback
After the evaluation took place, many teachers in the studied districts noted that teachers of all skill levels wanted extensive feedback on how to improve. However, many evaluators found providing such feedback to be challenging. According to the IERC and CCSR report, many teachers reported that they did not get clear feedback on how they can improve.

Evaluators who are able to provide constructive feedback and identify areas of improvement will help both evaluators and teachers create manageable next steps. Evaluators need training and practice in order to have these conversations effectively. Principals should practice the technique of a post-observation meeting by role-playing these conversations with other evaluators. Teachers may be more receptive to feedback if their evaluator observes them informally and offers brief, timely feedback more often.

Making evaluations a priority
The work of evaluation falls primarily on already-overburdened principals, who have many demands on their time during the day. At the same time, the evaluation system, while time-consuming, has the potential to be a great tool to improve teaching and schools. As one teacher in the study stated, “If the administrators truly embrace [the evaluation tool] as an opportunity…that’s a lot of responsibility on their part because that’s going to take more [of their] time.”

The study found many principals had trouble managing the competing demands of an administrator, yet some districts found ways to get it done. By evaluating principals’ responsibilities, schools can make sure that principals are doing the most important duties and are supported more strategically by other school staff. Principals can also be trained to best prioritize their responsibilities and delegate day-to-day details so they can focus on giving high quality feedback to their team.

Some districts address this by enlisting others to help the principal take on the important task of evaluations. The IERC and CCSR study reported that in Niles, additional evaluators were hired from among their teachers for a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program, where master teachers gave meaningful feedback to their peers. Many teachers found this helpful because feedback came from a person with connections to the classroom. The PAR program alleviated some of the burdens of the principal and also increased the number of observations.

Alternatively, if financially feasible, schools could also hire staff to work on day-to-day management tasks like lunch duty, allowing the principal to focus on instructional leadership.

Technology can also be a tool in relieving some of the evaluation workload. In Olympia, for example, the entire evaluation system was digitized to allow for better tracking and data collection. Elgin also went paperless, which allowed teachers to get real-time feedback and get information more quickly.

Teacher evaluations are already a part of school districts across Illinois; however, the standards required by PERA will mean that many of the existing evaluation systems will need to change. Districts have an opportunity to make their teacher evaluation systems into useful, meaningful tools that will improve instruction and augment the learning environment in schools. School board members can help improve their schools by helping their district leverage this opportunity to make thoughtful and purposeful changes to the way schools conduct teacher evaluations.

White, Bradford R., Jennifer Cowhy, W. David Stevens, and Susan E. Sporte. Designing and Implementing the Next Generation of Teacher Evaluation Systems: Lessons Learned from Case Studies in Five Illinois Districts. Rep. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2012. Available online at