By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
The spring observation season is in full swing for grade school teachers, highlighting the fact that the new frontier of virtual learning has done much more than put students to the test.
Last year, school districts scrambled to adjust an evaluation system previously based on in-person learning. This year, districts chose a different route to ease the burden on teachers and administrators.
“When the emergency closures at the end of last year began there wasn’t a lot of notice. There were no more formal evaluations,” said director of employee effectiveness for Baltimore City Public Schools, Jessica Papia. “For last year’s evaluation, what teachers had up until that point is what we were able to include as far as new performance from that year.”
That all changed for the 2020-2021 school year, as City Schools piloted a new program that allowed teachers to elect whether they wanted to use scores from last year or complete a new round of evaluations. The move was directly supported by six months of meetings and town halls with stakeholders that happened before the pandemic even began.
“Student growth has to be evaluated annually, but state regulations allow for tenured, certificated staff to carry forward professional practice data,” Papia told the AFRO. “We identified tenured teachers who had demonstrated a history of high performance. These were folks who -even in the midst of a pandemic, when so much was new- would be more likely to be okay if they didn’t have as many observations of their practice.”
In addition to allowing tenured teachers to opt-out of the 2020-2021 observations, formal observations were also pushed back to late November.
Papia noted that the traditional dates for observations were antiquated and the decision to move the observation window allowed “teachers to get their virtual classes up and running for observers” and spared time for “school leaders to give informal feedback, or feedback that wouldn’t go into an evaluation.”
A guidance companion was also offered to translate in-person expectations into the virtual world.
For example, teachers are observed on how they “facilitate student interactions and academic talk.” In the classroom, this could include the “turn and talk,” where students discuss rigorous content with someone sitting directly next to them or a designated partner.
To meet this expectation in a pandemic that requires social distancing, the companion guide suggests that teachers use “discussion boards, online whiteboards, chat, collaborative documents, or breakout rooms.”
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 3.2 million Americans were employed as educators in a public school district last year. In many states, teachers depend on evaluations to gain access to pay increases based on performance.
According to the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR), which regulates administrative policy for state agencies, all teachers must have at least two formal observations as part of their evaluation each year. A teacher cannot be evaluated and rated “ineffective” unless they have had an observation completed by someone other than their direct supervisor.
Observations, both formal and informal, provide educators with critical information that allows them to step back and gauge the effectiveness of their teaching practice, while also identifying where adjustments should be made. In addition to observations, student performance and the ability to meet professional expectations are also included in the evaluation.
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) completed a study on how 44 school districts across the country addressed education related issues such as evaluation during the pandemic. When looking at memorandums of understanding, 27 of the participating districts were silent on how teachers were being evaluated.
“Eleven of the 17 make a provision for remote observations, and also 11 have agreed on changes to their observation requirements, whether it is their frequency, their timeline or their formality,” states the NCTQ.
In Florida, Brevard Public Schools has modified their evaluation process, but they also cited a lack of performance data for the 2019-2020 school year as a reason to suspend pay increases based on evaluation.
In Hawaii, the rubric for evaluation has been modified. The threshold for attaining an “effective” or “highly effective” rating has been lowered. According to the NCTQ, this “recognizes that all teachers are facing new challenges during this school year.”
Though many accommodations were made for teachers with Baltimore City Schools, issues like shortened class lengths for many resource teachers undoubtedly had an effect. As a music instructor, Ryan Gholson is required to meet the same seven teaching expectations set for all teachers in the Instructional Framework- but he has little more than 25 minutes to meet the goal.
“While evaluations are helpful, it was really difficult to meet the rubric measures in a condensed class period,” said Gholson, who completed two observations during the 2020-2021 school year.
Like Gholson, Justin Price told the AFRO circumstances did not allow him to opt-out of having two observations during the pandemic. His drama class will once again come under review this week.
“My last observation is this coming Thursday. They are observing me with the only kids I see in-person,” Price said. “I’m not stressing about it at all.”
Papia said that only one-third of the City Schools faculty met requirements to participate in the off-cycle option. Of the 1,770 teachers eligible, 1,691chose to use their performance data from the previous school year.