Joe Phillips sits in a 5th grade classroom at John Colemon Elementary in Smyrna, Tennessee. He’s writing furiously, rarely looking up. After about 40 minutes, Phillips gets up and leaves while class continues — clipboard in hand, still writing– and goes to the principal’s office: his office.
Phillips has been school principal here for 13 years, and never have his duties been as challenging as they are now, under Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system.
“This probably added about 30% to our workload, maybe 25%. It’s a lot of work,” says Phillips. “Some things are put on the back burner, plus you have over 500 kids, 60 employees and no assistant, no help.”
Observing teachers in action is one step in the state’s new evaluation process. Phillips also must compile pages of notes, send the data via computer to the Tennessee Department of Education, then meet with teachers one-on-one to review and rate their work.
Shortly after leaving the classroom where he observed veteran 5th grade teacher Carolynn Kobiske, Phillips is in his office sitting across from first-year teacher Crystal Coleman for her post-observation review. Phillips tells Coleman to relax and be calm and confident, then begins discussing the lesson he saw her teach on plural and possessive nouns.
“In a couple of areas, I gave you higher scores than you gave yourself, which is a good thing,” Phillips tells Coleman. He also gives her suggestions for improvement near the end of the conversation, before showing Coleman her rating on a scale of 1 to 5, then having her sign the evaluation.
For each teacher, Phillips must repeat the observation and review 4 to 6 times a year, taking about 3 hours of his day several times a week. He opens a drawer to show us a file filled with folders for each teacher, saying he’s more than half finished with the first round of evaluations.
“I’ll take this stack and we’ll go to the TEAM (Tennessee Educator Accelerator Model) web site on the state department of education and we enter all the information. And again, it’s just a little time-consuming. But those things I try to do after work, when nobody is bothering me and the phone is not ringing.”
Phillips says the new workload was too much for some of his colleagues: four principals in Rutherford County resigned at the start of this school year.
“I’d say the evaluation process played a part in all four of their decisions,” Phillips says. “It’s the biggest driving force in education right now– the evaluation system.”
Principals and teachers across Tennessee are complaining in droves about the amount of extra work required by what they say is a flawed evaluation process, rolled out too fast by state. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) says it is receiving more calls of complaint about the new evaluations than any other issue. Some school boards, including Rutherford County’s, have sent letters to state education officials questioning whether the new evaluation plan is “… is the most efficient use of professional time and resources…” and asking that it be reviewed and modified.
Dr. Sara Heyburn, Tennessee’s Education Policy Advisor, says state officials were prepared for some of the reactions.
“This evaluation system represents a huge cultural change in terms of what we’re asking our principals to do, what we’re asking of teachers, and so you know, it’s understandable that there’s angst and that there are folks that are like this is not what I signed up for,” says Heyburn.
The stricter evaluations are part of education reforms promised by Tennessee in receiving the $500-million federal Race to the Top grant. Tennessee teachers used to be evaluated every 3 to 5 years—and only by observation. Tenure could be attained after 3 years.
The new evaluation process requires more frequent observations and has 3 parts: half based on classroom observation; 35% on student achievement tests under that teacher; and 15% on other factors. Tenure requires 5 years of teaching in addition to high evaluation scores. Teachers also must develop extensive lesson plans, which some say requires hours of work off the job.
“It takes so much time,” says Coleman. “A normal lesson plan would only take about 45 minutes and when you do the expanded one it takes even longer– up to 2 hours.”
And the evaluations do not take into consideration teachers in subject areas that do not have standardized tests or official curricula – like related arts or pre-kindergarten.
“Pre-k is voluntary; we don’t have a curriculum,” says Joni Wells, a pre-k teacher in Nashville Public Schools. “You’re holding (pre-k teachers) to the same standards, but you’re giving my colleague a curriculum and you’re giving them materials to work with.”
But the biggest source of complaints and confusion is scoring, based on a scale of one to five. Principal Phillips admits to uncertainties after being told in training last summer that a rock-solid teacher should score a 3— then facing complaints from quality, experienced teachers who balked at not earning 4’s or 5’s.
“So I changed some 2’s to some 3’s,” says Phillips. “They (the teachers) didn’t have to make their case because I realized that I had made the mistake because my scoring was really hard to start with.”
Heyburn acknowledges that Tennessee is one of the first states to implement statewide multiple-measure teacher evaluations, and state education officials says it’s a work in progress.
“There’s no point in time where this system will be finished. It really is a model of continuous improvement,” says Heyburn.
“We recognize that this is new territory. We’re going to learn a lot over this first year of implementation. And the policy that the state board passed is nimble enough to be changed.”
Change might come only in small steps. Earlier this week,
Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman asked the state school board to modify the teacher evaluations that would reduce the number of observations and follow-up conferences principals are required to make.
While the school board makes its decision, several business groups are now weighing in with ssupport of the teacher evaluations, including the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.
So, Phillips isn’t counting on much change in the process this school year. He stares at piles of papers covering his desk as he continues to evaluate teachers and prepares for his own evaluation, expected some time this month.
“I know it’s needed,” Phillips says. “I’d say they could have taken more time. But it’s here. So we’ll muddle through this year.”