This article appeared in the Winter 2015-16 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Texas is poised to adopt a new state-recommended teacher evaluation system, called the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, to replace the Professional Development and Appraisal System. T-TESS is in the second year of being piloted and is scheduled to become the new state-recommended system in 2016-17, with all components fully operational in 2017-18. But with scheduled statewide implementation less than eight months away, there are many unknowns about the new system, and TCTA has serious concerns about some aspects of the plan.

What happened with PDAS?

Most educators are familiar with PDAS, which has been in place since 1997. PDAS was adopted in response to legislation that required the commissioner to adopt a state-recommended system for the teacher appraisal process with criteria based on “observable, job-related behavior, including: (1) teachers’ implementation of discipline management procedures; and (2) the performance of teachers’ students.”

Although state law also allows local school districts to use teacher appraisal systems developed by district and campus site-based decision-making committees that include the same two criteria as the state system, it is estimated about 86 percent of Texas school districts use PDAS. 

Ask most teachers how they feel about PDAS, and the response is a collective “meh.” For many teachers, it meant little more than putting on a “dog and pony show” when the appraiser arrived for the obligatory 45 minutes of observation. Whether a teacher received meaningful feedback largely depended on the appraiser. Although one of the chief purposes of the system was to influence the professional development of teachers, one of the criticisms of PDAS was that there was very little emphasis on this aspect, and very little linkage between the appraisal results and subsequent professional development activities. 

Despite ambivalence about PDAS, educators understood the significance of appraisal systems. State law requires that appraisal results be considered by districts when making employment decisions, including termination of contracts.

Federal dictates/national scene

This ambivalence helped fuel the movement to get rid of PDAS and replace it with a more rigorous, updated and meaningful system. PDAS’s lack of a supportive constituency created a vacuum that various forces at work were eager to fill, not least among which was the federal government. 

When the Obama administration took office in January 2008, the president brought on as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a well-known education reformer who had previously served as the chief of Chicago public schools. Thus the path was set for the administration to embark on a series of education initiatives that each encompassed the same four core reform principles – one being teacher evaluation. 

Teacher evaluation had already become a national focal point due to the release of several studies asserting that the classroom teacher is the most important school-based factor in improving student achievement. At the same time, there was growing interest in teacher quality among policymakers, philanthropists and education reformers looking for ways to improve on a public education system that was reportedly failing to produce students who could compete globally.

In 2009, a report entitled “The Widget Effect” was released by a national education reform group, The New Teacher Project. It found that “All teachers are rated good or great…making it impossible to identify truly exceptional teachers.” Armed with the report’s findings that evaluation systems largely failed to distinguish among effective and non-effective teachers, education reformers urged introduction of more objectivity into teacher evaluation in the form of student performance on state standardized tests. 

The Obama administration incorporated test-based teacher evaluation as one of the core principles of its major education initiatives, including the Race to the Top grant program (in which Texas declined to participate) and more recently, waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that all students must be proficient on state reading and math assessments by 2014.

Texas’ NCLB waiver was conditioned on the incorporation of guidelines for a teacher evaluation system that included the use of student growth, including growth on state tests for teachers of tested subjects and grades, as a significant factor in determining a teacher’s evaluation rating. USDE was not satisfied with Texas’ teacher evaluation system requirements and placed the conditional waiver on high-risk status, jeopardizing the possibility that the waiver would be continued beyond the 2015-16 school year. Texas appealed the designation, with Education Commissioner Michael Williams pointing out that he did not have statutory authority to mandate that local school districts use a statewide appraisal system, but the appeal was denied. 

But Congressional action reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in December 2015, makes the dispute moot. The newly named Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind, strips the federal government of much of its control over education. The new law specifically provides that the U.S. Secretary of Education has no authority to require states to implement any kind of teacher evaluation system, and that all waivers have no legal effect on or after Aug. 1, 2016.

Back in Texas

Regardless of the repeal of federal mandates, the Texas Education Agency has maintained that it plans to implement T-TESS as the state-recommended teacher appraisal system in the 2016-17 school year, though it will delay implementing the student growth component until the 2017-18 school year. TEA released proposed rules for public comment Dec. 9, 2015, the same day ESSA passed the Senate. Although ESSA nullified waivers requiring that states implement test-based teacher evaluation systems, the proposed rules still contain provisions related to the student growth component of T-TESS emanating from the former federal waiver requirements, which TCTA finds troublesome.

T-TESS Components

The new state-recommended teacher appraisal system includes five primary facets:

1. STUDENT GROWTH

What it is: The growth of a teacher’s students on one or more of four options for measures of student growth chosen by a district: 

A value-added score based on student growth on state assessments for teachers of tested subjects and grades

  • Student Learning Objectives
  • Portfolios
  • District pre- and post-tests

Scoring/Weight: At least 20% of a teacher’s summative evaluation rating.

Concerns about this component: TEA’s proposed rules for T-TESS include a requirement that, beginning in the 2017-18 school year, each teacher appraisal shall include the academic growth of the teacher’s students at the individual teacher level as measured by one or more of four options chosen by the local school district, including student performance on state assessments. The proposed rules also provide that if calculating a single overall summative appraisal score for teachers, the measure of student growth shall count for at least 20 percent of a teacher’s summative score. Finally, the proposed rules require that local districts using locally-developed appraisal systems instead of T-TESS must include the performance of a teacher’s students, defined as student growth at the individual teacher level.

Each of these proposed rule revisions reflects conditions imposed by Texas’s NCLB waiver – that student growth be measured at the individual teacher level, that student performance on state assessments must be included as a measure of student growth, that the student growth component must be weighted 20 percent in a teacher’s evaluation, and that TEA ensure that local school districts using locally-developed appraisal systems use student growth at the individual teacher level.

In TCTA’s view, not only do these provisions exceed the parameters of current Texas law, particularly with regard to locally-developed teacher appraisal systems, but they are a holdover from Texas’s ESEA waiver requirements, which are now null and void.  

TCTA has consistently opposed attempts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores based on the weight of research showing that using student test performance to evaluate teacher performance is invalid, unreliable and unfair. Additionally, research has shown that achievement differences among students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (60 percent) with teacher impact being only 7 to 10 percent. Accordingly, TCTA will comment on TEA’s proposed rules and will update members so they may participate in
the process.

2. GOAL SETTING AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN/SELF ASSESSMENT

What it is: Every teacher independently reviews data about professional practices and formulates targeted goals in a GSPD.  During the year, each teacher regularly monitors progress toward the goals in the GSPD by collecting evidence, discussing progress with the appraiser, and modifying the plan as necessary.  Prior to the end of year conference, each teacher completes the goal reflection section of the GSPD in preparation for discussion about targeted areas for continued professional growth, new goals and a professional development plan for the following year.

  • Note: Unlike PDAS, T-TESS does not have a “Teacher In Need of Assistance” component that requires an intervention plan if a teacher is evaluated as unsatisfactory in one or more domains, or evaluated as below expectations in two or more domains. 

Scoring/Weight: The GSPD/Self-Assessment informs the scoring of two of the dimensions in Domain 4 of the observation rubric and comprises 10% of a teacher’s summative evaluation rating.

3. OBSERVATION INSTRUMENT/RUBRIC

What it is: A rubric with five performance levels that differentiates teaching practices. It is comprised of four domains with 16 dimensions (see chart). 

Unknowns with this component: This observation instrument is much more specific than PDAS, requiring more training and checkpoints to ensure the appropriate application of rubric criteria. It also requires more specific and comprehensive documentation by appraisers. Given this, questions arise about the capacity, in terms of administrator time and ability, to perform these functions as intended.

Scoring/Weight: 70% of a teacher’s summative evaluation rating.

4. MORE CONFERENCES

What it is: T-TESS requires a pre-conference, post-conference, end-of-year conference and training on how to engage in constructive conferencing to encourage better communication between teachers and appraisers and to provide more feedback throughout the year.

Unknowns with this component: Will teachers and appraisers have time for the extra conferences and requirements to facilitate better feedback that leads to improved performance?

5. FIVE PERFORMANCE LEVELS

T-TESS scores teachers on five performance levels:

  • Distinguished
  • Accomplished
  • Proficient
  • Developing
  • Improvement Needed
     

Student Learning Objectives explained

One of the four options for measures of student growth under T-TESS is Student Learning Objectives. According to TEA, SLOs are student growth goals set by teachers to help them plan instruction and drive student learning throughout the year. The process includes three phases:

Phase 1: Creating a Student Learning Objective: The first phase focuses on purposeful planning of instruction. Phase 1 will occur over the first 1-2 months of school for yearlong courses, or in the first 3-4 weeks for semester courses. At the beginning of the course, teachers work with each other, their appraisers and other support staff to identify student needs, draft an SLO, create an instructional plan, and identify student starting points for one or more selected courses. During this phase, teachers will identify the learning content of focus and develop a profile of student success to begin planning instruction to achieve student growth.

Phase 2: Monitoring Progress to Drive Instruction: Phase 2 is designed to last throughout the majority of a course and involves teachers continuously engaging in a planning, instruction, evidence collection, analysis and reflection cycle. Teachers should spend time discussing their progress toward SLOs, sharing successful instructional strategies, and helping each other plan for future instruction. Appraisers meet with teachers at the midterm to review the progress students have made and receive support and direction before the end-of-course discussion.

Phase 3: Evaluating Success and Reflection: This last phase takes place at the end of the course and includes a conversation between the teacher and appraiser regarding students’ overall progress throughout the year and a determination of the score for the SLO. The conversation also is designed to help teachers prepare goals for the following year.    

What’s ahead

As with any major new initiative, no matter how well-crafted or well-intended state-level rules and guidance are, success or failure depends largely on “fidelity of implementation” – i.e., how true to the intent of the initiative are local districts when they carry it out. Clearly, one of the major intended differences between PDAS and T-TESS is that T-TESS be more formative than PDAS, providing continuous, timely feedback to educators so they can improve their practice. However, on the practical level this translates to increased time devoted to observations, thoughtful completion of the observation rubric/instrument and giving specific, meaningful feedback to teachers based upon all of this. Essentially, the new system is more labor-intensive. Yet, there’s no state-level initiative to enable expanded local district capacity to accomplish this – administrators have no more time than they’ve ever had, and likewise, there’s been no reduction in their duties. 

Capacity was already an issue with PDAS, which has fewer components and a less specific observation instrument. State law generally requires teachers to be appraised every year and places restrictions on who can appraise teachers. Accordingly, administrators’ ability to complete the 45-minute observations required for all teachers under PDAS and provide meaningful feedback and a focus on professional development were
major issues. 

Largely in recognition of this, TCTA worked with legislators and administrator groups in 2003 to fashion a workable solution, resulting in long-standing legislation that allowed districts to appraise teachers less frequently, provided that the teacher agreed in writing, had a rating of at least proficient on his/her most recent evaluation and did not go for more than five years without being appraised. Many districts used this option in an effort to focus limited time and resources on new and struggling teachers; however, despite the law’s provision for districts to allow teachers to go for up to five years without an appraisal, unofficial reports from the Texas Education Agency showed that the longest most districts allowed for was three years.

Even with this flexibility, T-TESS’s encouragement of more informal observations, the addition of more conferences for those who are appraised, and the requirement that everyone (regardless of whether being appraised in a given year) must complete and implement a Goal-Setting and Professional Development plan will likely present capacity challenges to local districts. This could threaten “fidelity of implementation” and undermine the formative and developmental intent of T-TESS. Even more so, maintaining repealed and troublesome federally-dictated student growth provisions in T-TESS is a sure way to raise red flags for teachers about the true intent of the new system to be truly formative in nature.

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