What makes a teacher effective in the classroom?

This past school year, 80 Chicago elementary and high schools
“field-tested” a potential new framework that would help answer that
question, now one of the hottest in the education world. Called Teaching for Learning, the framework could become one part of a
revamped evaluation system — mandated by the January 2010 Performance
Evaluation Reform Act — that CPS is to have in place in 300 schools by
2012 and the rest of the district by 2013.

Lauren Mays, a 6th-grade math teacher at Spencer, participated in the field-test of a potential new teacher evaluation protocol.

What makes a teacher effective in the classroom?

This past school year, 80 Chicago elementary and high schools “field-tested” a potential new framework that would help answer that question, now one of the hottest in the education world.

Called Teaching for Learning, the framework could become one part of a revamped evaluation system — mandated by the January 2010 Performance Evaluation Reform Act — that CPS is to have in place in 300 schools by 2012 and the rest of the district by 2013.

Previous attempts to improve evaluation have failed to bear fruit, but the current effort has the force of the new state law behind it.

CPS says the Teaching for Learning framework—similar to one used by the Washington, D.C. public schools—will help teachers reflect on their practice and drive professional development.  As yet, though, it’s unclear how—or whether—the district plans to incorporate Teaching for Learning with another well-regarded evaluation protocol, the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching.

The Danielson model, used in a number of urban school districts across the country, was the centerpiece of a pilot initiative in several dozen schools in Chicago.

The Chicago Teachers Union raised questions last fall about the use of the two frameworks when CPS asked the union’s opinion of Teaching for Learning.

“Our question was, ‘Why are you using a new framework?’ ” recalls Carol Caref, CTU’s point person on teacher evaluation and the coordinator of the Quest Center. The union prefers the Danielson model because it is well-known and respected among teaching professionals and has an international reputation, Caref says. It was originally designed for teachers to use for reflection and self-evaluation, “but it has come into use as a rubric for evaluating teachers during [classroom] observation,” she adds.

CPS had done a two-year pilot program on the Danielson model and the Consortium on Chicago School Research “found a lot of promising aspects for use in Chicago,” Caref says. “We don’t know exactly why CPS changed.”

In a policy brief published in June 2010, the Consortium reported its first-year findings on the Danielson framework’s use in Chicago Public Schools. It found that:

(1) Principals and trained experts used the framework’s rating scale consistently;

(2) More teachers were identified as low-performing under the system;

(3) Principals found some areas of instruction to be particularly challenging to evaluate;

(4) Principals had little problem identifying unsatisfactory teaching practices, and

(5) 57 percent of principals were highly enthusiastic about the evaluation process.

Both frameworks are intended to be a frame of reference for what good teaching looks like so that teachers can receive positive and constructive feedback on how to improve, CPS says.

Teachers gave feedback

The field tests of Teaching for Learning started in fall of 2010 and included two teachers from each of the 80 schools. CPS developed the Teaching for Learning model in collaboration with teachers, principals, assistant principals, coaches, chief area officers, district staff and the Chicago Public Education Fund.

In addition, CPS and the Fund conducted school-based forums to solicit comments from teachers about performance evaluations in general. Independent facilitators hired by CPS guided the forums, asking teachers what works and doesn’t work for them.  Who should do their evaluations — the principal, the principal plus an outside expert, mentor teachers? Should parents and students be involved?

From late April to mid-June, 2,200 teachers participated in 200 voluntary school-based forums, according to Ben Kutylo, a manager for the Public Education Fund. No administrators attended the sessions. Feedback and comments collected during the forums will be analyzed over the summer to inform decisions around the new evaluation system, Kutylo says.

The Fund’s role in the process, he adds, is to “create a recommended framework” that ranks among the most progressive in the nation and will inform critical decisions and negotiations for the new administration.

Richer evaluation of practice

The new evaluations that Chicago and other districts must develop are required to include a richer, more rigorous rubric of teaching practice. They also must incorporate student growth in achievement—for instance, value-added test scores.

That will be a far cry from the current system, which in CPS consists only of a simple checklist with items on instruction, school environment, professional presentation and engagement with students. Many teachers describe it as “broken,” “punitive,” or “without meaningful feedback or support,” according to one CPS handout. An example: One question asks whether the teacher “presents an appearance that does not adversely affect the students’ ability to learn.”

The Teaching for Learning framework, however, includes four domains, or sections: Plan for Results, Create a Learning Environment, Teach, Analyze and Adjust, according to the Framework’s website.

Each of the sections includes specific objectives teachers should meet.  For instance, under teaching, one objective is to use questions to help students develop higher-order thinking skills. In turn, each of the objectives includes a description with further explanation, and links to resources—in this case, links to information about Socratic seminars, project-based lessons and other materials that will help develop critical thinking skills.

CPS says whatever framework it eventually settles upon as it primary observational tool will be comprehensive and intended to capture how teachers do what they do.

But with a new administration still trying to get a handle on a host of critical matters, the district has not yet decided on the specific components of a new teacher evaluation process. Whether it’s the Danielson framework, Teaching for Learning or an edited version of both has yet to be determined.

The final decision on the observational rubric will be made by the CPS senior leadership team working in partnership with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Under the state law, if a district’s board and union can’t agree, the district would
be required to use a “default” plan now being developed by a broad-based
state committee. In the case of Chicago, the “default” would be the
“last, best” offer of the School Board.

Modified after feedback

The CTU’s criticism of the first version of Teaching for Learning came in part because the union found it “very prescriptive and based on a style that is very teaching-centered,” says Caref, the opposite of a style in which teachers construct activities that allow students to take ownership of their own learning.

“And it was very driven by standardized test scores,” she adds.

After the feedback from classroom teachers, the district made some changes before it began the field tests late last year.

Shawn Jackson, the principal of Spencer Technology Academy on the West Side, thinks CPS is going in the right direction with Teaching for Learning, which was field-tested at his school this past year. 

Principals were told not to use it to formally evaluate teachers, but Jackson nevertheless sees it as a tool to improve instruction and to better assess what his teachers are doing in the classroom. The current system, he says, leaves too much room for subjectivity and is “not very in-depth.”

In contrast, Jackson says, Teaching for Learning is “a lot more intense, because now you’re looking for more specifics [and] really honing in on what good instruction looks like.” And classroom observations must take in an entire lesson, not a “pop-in” in which the principal only sees a few minutes.

“I don’t play the ‘gotcha game,’ by dropping in unexpectedly,” Jackson says. “I try to use the observations to improve instruction. I don’t use it in a punitive manner.”

To do the observation, the principal literally “scripts” the lesson from start to finish, taking copious notes of everything he or she observes, Jackson says. The analysis of the observation comes later.

A rubric guides principals in what to look for, and teachers are rated on a 1-to-4 numbering system.

CPS sent personnel to co-observe teachers at schools where Teaching for Learning was field-tested.  Jackson assigned Assistant Principal Romrie Cleaves-Weekly to handle Spencer’s field test.


The observer and Cleaves-Weekly conducted their observation at the same time, but submitted their reports separately. The process was meant to ensure reliability—meaning that two different observers will evaluate someone at the same level of rigor.

“The framework should be written in such a way that it doesn’t depend on the person who’s doing the observation,” Caref notes. The Charlotte Danielson system had the advantage of high reliability, but it remains to be seen how Teaching for Learning will rank on that measure, she adds.

Cleaves-Weekly, who tested Teaching for Learning with two teachers, says she is “comfortable with it. Teachers are comfortable with it. Nothing’s hidden, [there are] no games to be played.”

Lauren Mays, a 6th-grade math teacher, is one of the two teachers selected to participate in the pilot at Spencer and underwent two observations.  She received the rubric in advance, so she knew what to expect.

“It helped me figure out things I need to work on and get better,” says Mays, who just finished her fifth year at Spencer.

Feedback came quickly, says Mays. “Within two, three days, we sat down to talk about what was observed.”

The feedback on the first observation helped her make changes to her instruction. One example: “I’ve been using small groups more now, and allowing my students to take more leadership,” Mays observes. “It’s been an excellent program for me.”

is web editor at The Chicago Reporter.

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