Cristian Fernandez is worried. Under the Seattle district's new student assignment plan, his son, a sixth-grader at South Shore K-8, is slated to attend Rainier Beach High School. Fernandez worries his son won't get the college-prep courses he needs. He looks at the school's low test scores and worries about whether his son will have skilled teachers.
"Teachers are the most important part of that building and what goes on," Fernandez says. "To me, if you see patterns of kids not performing, that means we need to look at what are teachers doing or not doing."
Under the new assignment plan, Fernandez's son seems less likely to get into a different public high school, heightening his concerns about Rainier Beach: "My concern is, will my son be ready for college? For life?"
Fernandez, co-chair of the South Shore PTA, is part of a coalition of Seattle parent and community groups pushing to overhaul the way teachers and principals are supported in their work and evaluated on their performance to make good on the district's pledge that every classroom have a high quality teacher.
The issue of teacher quality has been getting renewed attention, from local school districts to the state legislature and White House. Lawmakers in Olympia face a March 11 end-of-session deadline to finish work on legislation intended to strengthen teacher and principal evaluation. In part, the bill is aimed at making the state more competitive for federal education grants. Legislative action could set the stage for change in Seattle schools and beyond – change many education advocates and parent groups say is long overdue.
A web of state laws and local rules negotiated with the Seattle teacher's union govern how teachers are evaluated, helped and exited if not up to par. Teacher contract negotiations, as labor negotiations, are generally held behind closed doors to maintain good-faith bargaining. Seattle's one-year teacher contract with the Seattle Education Association expires in August; the principal contract is up in July.
The Seattle coalition, which includes the district-wide Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association, wants district leaders to hear the community's voice loud and clear before formal contract talks begin this spring and to communicate more openly with the community.
"Parents are frustrated by the lack of transparency in this," says Venus Velazquez, interim executive director of Communities and Parents for Public Schools, a group founded by parents and other community members in 2004. Successful Schools in Action, a grassroots group made up of the six public schools in the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods, is also part of the coalition.
The group's "community values statement" calls for the school system:
-to define teacher and principal effectiveness using clear criteria and benchmarks
-to evaluate teachers and principals using multiple measures that include student performance
-to identify ineffective principals and teachers and develop a timely exit plan if benchmarks aren't met after appropriate support
-to consider teacher effectiveness and cohesiveness of school teams, in addition to seniority, when hiring or reducing staff.
"Everyone seems to agree we want to hire and keep our best teachers, but how do you know who's best without a good evaluation system? We don't have that now," says Ramona Hattendorf, president of Seattle Council PTSA.
Velazquez says many parents were galvanized after seeing the real-life impact of these issues last summer when a $34 million budget shortfall led to district-wide layoffs. They saw talented, newer teachers let go because of seniority rules, she says.
"Parents saw teachers who they felt were getting results in the classroom, they were being laid off. And one of the reasons parents were so apoplectic is because the teachers in the school who everyone knows need to go – they were still there," Velazquez says. "Parents made the connection that they're not (necessarily) keeping their job because they're effective, but because the district agreed to these rules that say seniority trumps."
Huge Frustration' for Principals, Parents, Teachers
Released this fall, a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C., covered a wide range of teacher quality issues in Seattle – from how teachers are hired, assigned, transferred, tenured and paid to how they are supported, evaluated and exited if ineffective – and identified several problems with the school district's evaluation process. Commissioned by the Seattle-based Alliance for Education, the report said Seattle fails to identify its poor-performing teachers, doesn't recognize and reward good teachers, doesn't offer enough support to new teachers, doesn't hold principals accountable for the quality of their teacher ratings, and doesn't clearly tie student performance to teacher evaluation.
Seattle requires principals to evaluate teachers each year and rate them as "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory." Teachers must be rated "satisfactory" on seven of eight categories (such as instructional skill or classroom management), none of which directly reference student learning or require standardized measures of student learning.
Under state law, teachers whose performance is seriously in question are entitled to a 60-school-day remediation plan (called probation), which triggers a series of formal observations, reports and meetings. If a principal can show that the teacher has not improved sufficiently after that time, he can recommend dismissal. If the teacher appeals, the district has to prove "sufficient cause" in a formal hearing process; the teacher can appeal the dismissal up to the state supreme court.
The report found that just 16 experienced Seattle teachers out of a workforce of nearly 3,300 – 0.5 percent – were rated unsatisfactory in 2007-08 and put on probation. Of those 16 teachers, 11 improved, three resigned and two were dismissed.
Struggling teachers in Seattle are offered help, including a peer intervention program, and if performance is enough of a concern, teachers are placed in an improvement plan – plans in which principals are required to be heavily involved. The report suggested that the responsibility for coaching and improving teachers should be spread to mentor or consulting teachers and that a principal's evaluation be validated by trained outside observers, such as subject matter experts, experienced teachers or department heads.
"Principals may be more inclined to more accurately rate teacher performance if the burden of remediation does not fall so heavily on their shoulders," the report said.
The process of removing a new hire is not as difficult as removing a teacher who has worked longer in the school system. In the first one or two years of their employment (depending on how much experience they have coming in), teachers aren't entitled to the 60-day probation, can be let go at the end of the year by the superintendent and can only appeal up to the school board.
After four years of satisfactory evaluations, Seattle teachers can move to an alternative evaluation process where they set performance goals jointly with their principal based on student achievement. Teachers must make a "good faith effort" to meet the goals, but there are no consequences if they don't, so long as their observed classroom performance is still satisfactory, the report said.
Too often poor-performing teachers are passed from school to school, the report said, because principals find it easier than going through the more onerous evaluation and probation process to dismiss the teacher.
Several Seattle principals interviewed for this story expressed deep frustration with the current system, but declined to use their names because they feared doing so would strain relations with their staff, the teacher's union or the district administration.
Some said documenting a case of poor teacher performance to meet state rules and withstand legal challenge can take some 200 hours, at a time when principals are struggling to juggle their roles as managers and instructional leaders. They also point to a lack of communication and coordination with the district's human resources office, which can translate into missed deadlines that derail the teacher probation or improvement process.
One Seattle principal described trying to use the evaluation process to remove a weak teacher. But because a prior administrator missed a paperwork deadline, this principal now must take several steps back. And because of mandated timelines around teacher dismissal, the teacher will likely be in the classroom for the rest of the school year – quite possibly until next fall.
"So now the issue isn't ‘Is this teacher good for kids and doing quality teaching.' The issue now is a paperwork technicality. It makes you cynical very quickly," the principal says. "I say to parents, ‘I'm doing everything I can to make it a reality that we have quality teachers in every classroom.' We all want the best possible teacher. I truly believe SEA (Seattle Education Association) wants that, principals want that, human resources wants that, parents want that. But there's so many things put in the way of making that a reality. Meantime, one more day this teacher is allowed to be in the classroom is one day too much. It's a huge frustration for principals and parents and for fellow teachers, who are doing good work. The whole process is completely ineffective. It doesn't help anyone. And it certainly doesn't help kids."
This principal would like to see more time and energy spent with teachers early in their career "instead of allowing mediocrity to occur and then you've got teachers 14 years into their career, and now you're telling them they're not meeting standards after 13 years of satisfactory evaluations."
Historic ‘Failure of Will
Principals described the need for detailed standards that clearly spell out what to look for in classroom observations so they can speak a common language about what makes a good teacher and make the process fair to teachers. They want to see the kind of work already happening in some Seattle schools – where teachers are given time to work together on teaching strategies, observe each other and give feedback, and see exemplary teaching first hand – spread systemwide.
Glenn Bafia, executive director of the 4,700-member Seattle Education Association, agrees that change is needed. "The (current) system is not robust," he says. Teachers aren't getting enough specific feedback, aren't always getting targeted help, and the evaluation criteria allow for too much subjectivity. He says the union and district are working together to look at alternative, standards-based evaluation systems.
"No one wants ineffective teachers in the classroom. We don't as a union. Our teachers say they don't want ineffective colleagues either," Bafia says. "We want to make sure people who are evaluating are qualified to evaluate, they know how to do it, and that teachers get resources and assistance."
He says the process is in place to identify and remove weak teachers, but it isn't always used. "Everybody knows who that teacher is in the building. The other teachers know it, the principal knows it. Why doesn't the district say ‘we want all teachers observed by first week of October' and let principals get to the weakest teachers first. It seems it's not really been a priority."
School board vice president Steve Sundquist, who oversees the board's work to develop priorities for the upcoming teacher and principal contract negotiations, agrees.
"Historically, there has not been a lot of will inside the school system to conduct a serious evaluation of employees. There's been a failure of will to simply make use of the tools the district already had," Sundquist says. "But this administration (under Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson) recognizes something needs to be done. The evaluation piece is critical. It's front and center in the ways to improve how the district performs on behalf of our children."
District officials say the school system has already moved to better support principals, such as offering additional evaluation training and sending deadline reminders, as well as hiring more teacher mentors to help struggling teachers and clearly defining professional development required for all teachers.
The elected school board and district administration jointly work on priorities for teacher and principal contract negotiations but it is district staff, not board members, who actually bargain the agreements with the unions. Ultimately, the school board must approve the contracts.
Last year, the district posted its teacher contract proposals online. How much more can be shared during negotiation, without running afoul of labor law and good-faith bargaining practice, remains to be seen.
"I agree with the public's wish to be brought along in this," Sundquist says. "We're trying to figure out how."
Teachers Need a Say
Sundquist says he thinks the board "will be well lined up" with the evaluation changes community and parent groups are calling for. And he says there is "broad consensus" on the board about the need to link individual student growth to teacher evaluation. Again, the big question – one states and school districts are grappling with nationwide – is how to do so in a way that's meaningful and fair, when many factors outside the teacher's control (such as poverty or student absenteeism) can affect student learning and test scores. Some say still more emphasis on tests will further narrow what students learn and how teachers teach.
Whatever system emerges, Sundquist says, teachers need to see it as fair.
"Teachers need to be treated as professionals and they need a say in how this works so they can respect it," he says. "At the core a lot of this comes back to trust. Without trust, it won't work."
Many of the same issues are being played out at the state and national level. As of press time, lawmakers in Olympia were working on legislation requested by Gov. Gregoire to revamp select education laws, including those around teacher evaluation, to compete for federal education stimulus dollars that could garner the state up to $250 million over four years. The $4 billion federal reform program, known as Race to the Top, calls for recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals as well as building data systems that measure student growth and success and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction. The state must submit its application by June 1.
The governor's legislation, backed by the state teacher's union, would grant teachers tenure after three years instead of the current two and require districts to evaluate teachers and principals using four levels of effectiveness – making Seattle's current thumbs-up or thumbs-down approach invalid – along new instructional-focused criteria. It calls on the state education department to work with local school districts to develop evaluation models using multiple measures to determine teacher effectiveness.
State Superintendent Randy Dorn and many education advocates say the governor's proposals don't go far enough in many areas, such as tackling the process to remove weak teachers or explicitly tying teacher evaluation directly to student performance data.
Judy Hartmann, the governor's education advisor, says the objective is not to have reforms that look good on paper, but that are doable.
"It's ambitious, but we're not promising a lot of things we can't deliver on," Hartmann says. "We need teachers and principals to buy into this and feel it's fair."
To Robert Femiano, an award-winning second grade teacher at Sanislo Elementary and 26-year Seattle school veteran who has criticized the district's Everyday Math program, the focus on evaluation is a misguided distraction from more pressing issues like class size and curriculum. "Are you measuring the effects of the required curriculum, or a teacher's teaching ability?" he asks.
But for parent Cristian Fernandez, change to the evaluation system can't come soon enough. He says he realizes reforming teacher evaluation won't fix everything, but it's a start.
"We don't have time while our kids are sitting in class now to do this piece by piece," Fernandez says. "My son and I don't have time for a five-year plan."
Lynn Schnaiberg, mother of two, is a Seattle-based writer and former reporter for Education Week newspaper in Washington, D.C.
Criteria for Teacher Evaluation
Following is a list of minimum criteria for certificated classroom teachers:
Criterion 1: INSTRUCTIONAL SKILL
The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates, in his or her performance, a competent level of knowledge and skill in designing and conducting an instructional experience.
Criterion 2: CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT
The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates, in his or her performance, a competent level of knowledge and skill in organizing the physical and human elements in the educational setting.
Criterion 3: PROFESSIONAL PREPARATION AND SCHOLARSHIP
The certificated classroom teacher exhibits, in his or her performance, evidence of having a theoretical background and knowledge of the principles and methods of teaching, and a commitment to education as a profession.
Criterion 4: EFFORT TOWARD IMPROVEMENT WHEN NEEDED
The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates awareness of his or her limitations and strengths and demonstrates continued professional growth.
Criterion 5: THE HANDLING OF STUDENT DISCIPLINE AND ATTENDANT PROBLEMS
The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates the ability to manage the noninstructional, human dynamics in the educational setting.
Criterion 6: INTEREST IN TEACHING PUPILS
The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates an understanding of and commitment to each pupil, taking into account each individual's unique background and characteristics. The certificated classroom teacher demonstrates enthusiasm for or enjoyment in working with pupils.
Criterion 7: KNOWLEDGE OF SUBJECT MATTER
The teacher demonstrates a depth and breadth of knowledge of theory and content in general education and subject mater specialization(s) appropriate to the elementary and/or secondary levels.
Criterion 8: PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY
The certificated teacher demonstrates professionalism in his or her attitude, work ethic and treatment of others.
Source: Seattle Public Schools
Resources on the Web
Seattle Schools teacher contract:
Seattle Schools labor relations page: