by Cindy Johnson
In April 2015 the school board heard key findings from some teachers and principals working in a select group of Jeffco schools. The schools were part of a $39 million study funded by a federal grant beginning in 2010. The federal Teachers Incentive Fund (TIF) study measured the effects of compensation changes and additional classroom supports for teachers—including training, observation, evaluation, and feedback. Key learnings were shared with the board as a result of Jeffco’s work over the last five years to determine if paying teachers bonuses and providing extra classroom support improves student achievement.
Four key findings were established:
- The schools that had the highest achievement growth both demonstrated a sense of urgency about meeting students’ needs and implemented quality practices.
- The bonuses available created a sense of urgency to obtain outstanding personal ratings and meet the team goals.
- Students who were taught by educators rated highly effective showed the most academic growth.
- School-level instructional leadership was determined to be a critical success factor. More successful principals were able to articulate a school vision, created a climate of trust, communicated high expectations for all educators, and managed resistance by communicating transparently.
A Teacher’s Story:
Ms. S. grew up in a family of educators. She spent her high school years taking every opportunity to help in classrooms, and went to college to earn a teaching degree. She was certified to teach English Language Learners. She consistently had earned highly effective ratings since her earliest years teaching, so did not expect much from the pilot program to reward and evaluate teachers based on classroom practices and improving student achievement. She felt the additional professional development would change her teaching practices a little, but her expectations were not high.
Ms. S.’s first ratings under the new program were not what she expected. Her “emerging” rating indicated she was not using the highest quality practices with a sense of urgency. Thus, she realized she would have to fully embrace the change process. Understanding that her students needed her to be better, Ms. S.’s passion for teaching led her to reflect on how to improve her craft. She went from weekly meetings to daily conversations about how to improve. Instead of simply working with grade-level peers, she observed and sought advice from other teachers who had strengths she lacked. She took the opportunity to co-teach with colleagues she hoped to emulate.
“I’m such a better teacher…my students can truly understand and explain and teach each other…my students are inspired.”
A Principal’s Story:
Ms. I., principal at a school with a 57 percent free and reduced population, justifiably bragged about her student growth scores. She also shared the fact that the school had become an increasingly popular choice, with student enrollment increasing from 277 to 378 over the last three to four years as a strategic compensation school. She credited the growth mindset, which she feels was internalized by everyone at her school, and the shift in culture from teachers working alone in classrooms to encouraging teacher leadership and collaboration. Her school is focused on high expectations for all students and a sense of urgency to close the achievement gap.
The success of Ms. I.’s school at closing the achievement gap for “catch up” kids also came with the realization that it was not “morally right to focus only on our kids needing to catch up… [but] that all children have the right to learn and grow at least a full year, every year.”
Another Teacher’s Story:
Another teacher, Miss A., shared how in the early years of the strategic compensation pilot, the evaluations felt like “gotcha’s,” which were extremely unsettling. She felt that although the professional learning communities were helpful, without defined objectives it was difficult to determine what a highly effective teacher looked like. As a formerly effective and highly effective-rated teacher, the higher level of scrutiny which led to an “emerging” rating came as a shock. Miss A., too, chose to embrace the process and do what needed to be done in order to be rated a highly effective teacher for her students. She started by observing other teachers in her building.
It really turned around for Miss A. after receiving feedback from two peer evaluators who came in from outside her school. With trust high in her building, she was reassured of her quality as a great teacher, with only a few areas needing improvement.
Miss A. acknowledged how difficult, but how rewarding and effective, it has been for her students. She concluded by saying: “I used to be the one going to watch other teachers, and now I have teachers from other schools coming to watch me.”
Another Principal’s Story:
A former Master teacher who transitioned to a principal role endorsed how the supports in the strategic comp pilots have been invaluable. As a new administrator, the support and assistance Ms. F. gets to calibrate her evaluations has been priceless. She was confident that the feedback she was giving her teachers would be helpful and productive. The number of observations required by the new system made the evaluations truly meaningful and valid. Ms. F. said, “We have to have a clear body of evidence for our teachers; it’s only fair to them.”
The goal of evaluators in the process is to give teachers, student-growth-producing feedback. By defining and communicating well what a teacher needs to do in order to be highly effective, principals are able to coach teachers on how to get there. More importantly, peer evaluators then can go in and model the practices that help students most and give feedback on exactly what to change. This principal felt that the modeling piece of the process was missing in a lot of schools.
Each and every speaker shared how great leadership and highly focused supports, including frequent unannounced observations, produced the needed kind of feedback. The entire point to measuring teacher effectiveness is to help ensure students are learning and growing, not to create an environment of “gotcha’s.” The pilot has allowed teachers, even those who thought they were highly effective, to become better facilitators of learning for students. Teachers who are continuously learning in a respectful trusting environment can impact students’ achievement. Funding performance bonuses creates a sense of urgency and providing the extra support models great practices. Teachers are now leading the process of improvement. The results of the TIF study will hopefully create urgency in every school in Jefferson County and help encourage every teacher to be a continuous learner so every Jeffco student is taught by a highly effective teacher.