This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

To help prepare for this fall’s statewide rollout of the new recommended teacher evaluation system, the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, about 250 districts have been piloting the program, with about 60 districts in their second year of using T-TESS to evaluate teacher performance.

Piloting allows the Texas Education Agency to gather feedback on T-TESS as it defines its recommended procedures for implementation statewide in the 2016-2017 school year, with all components fully operational (i.e. student growth) by 2017-2018.

After speaking with several TCTA members in pilot districts, one thing is clear — T-TESS is being implemented in different ways in every district. In part, this is because it is a new system and early in the implementation process.  In part, it’s also by design, as TEA wants to give local districts some leeway to decide how to implement state-recommended teacher evaluation systems or even to create their own, provided they meet state guidelines. But the disparity also reflects the additional steps and conferences outlined in T-TESS that require time evaluators and teachers alike don’t seem to have enough of to meet the new requirements.

Watch video interviews with TCTA members who are piloting T-TESS

More dialogue

A key premise of T-TESS that differentiates it from its predecessor, the Professional Development and Appraisal System (PDAS), is that it builds in more dialogue between teachers and their administrators through pre- and post-conferences to discuss teacher goals and classroom observations in hopes of encouraging more professional development to make teachers even better educators.

It begins with a goal setting and professional development plan (GSPD) at the beginning of the year. Many teachers in pilot districts have called the process challenging, especially in the first year of implementation. 

“It’s hard to gauge my students … and understand where they’re coming from” within the first six weeks of the year when the GSPD is supposed to be set, said Albert Mosqueda, TCTA’s Governance Committee chair and a fifth-grade science teacher in San Benito ISD, which is piloting T-TESS for the first time this school year. 

The GSPD is supposed to be targeted toward helping students learn, but Mosqueda said not yet knowing “the extenuating circumstances outside the classroom that affect the child,” such as whether they’re new to the campus or in foster care, made it hard to set goals. Instead of focusing specifically on his students, he focused on how he could be a better teacher by year’s end. “I think every teacher goal sets,” he said, “but it’s hard to put it all on paper, especially for a class that’s new to you.”

In Grand Prairie ISD, which is in its second school year of piloting T-TESS, teachers reported similar difficulty setting goals for the year. Sherry Burke, who teaches second grade, said she only received a few notes on her incoming students from their first-grade teachers before she had to set goals. Since it takes a few weeks to get a good handle on her
students’ needs, when setting her GSDP, she said she “reflected more on strengths and weaknesses that I had, and not so much on the kids because I didn’t know the kids all that well yet.”

Melynn Bowen, a sixth-grade math teacher in Grand Prairie, said she too struggled to set goals that would help her specific students. Instead, she focused her goals on
creating “differentiation” in the classroom and finding ways to challenge her students.

Sheri Taylor in Red Lick ISD set goals with little guidance, though her district, now in its second year of piloting T-TESS, did some formal training on the new evaluation system when it started in August 2014.

During mandatory training, her district went over the new observation rubric, which has four domains and 16 dimensions, and provided a template for creating a goal-setting plan. Taylor said she set two goals the first year, but nothing was specified about how many were needed. “That was our first concern,” she said of Red Lick teachers. “We weren’t sure how many (goals) to set.” 

With the GSPD, “you have this openness where you’re deciding (what your goals are), which is good, because you’re deciding what’s best for you as a teacher, but at the same time, you’re being evaluated on those goals, so you don’t want to set too few and you don’t want to set too many,” Taylor said. She used the observation rubric as a guide “because that’s how they’re going to judge me,” and kept her goals student-centered, thinking about what they would look like in her classroom.

Conferences 

Once the goal is set, teachers are supposed to meet with the administrator who will serve as their evaluator throughout the year to discuss the goal-setting plan. This is followed by classroom observation, which has a pre-conference to discuss what the evaluator will observe, and a post-conference to offer input before the end-of-year conference. During the end-of-year conference, the GSPD is reviewed, an overall score and performance level is given and goals are set for the following year.

While Taylor and Mosqueda both said they did not have beginning-of-the-year conferences to discuss their goals, Bowen and Burke did. Burke, however, saw “no real point” to the conversation since no input was provided on her goals. 

The pre-observation conferences were a little better. Taylor’s wasn’t a meeting, just a note from her principal about when the observation would take place. Burke and Bowen both met briefly with their evaluators a few days before their observations.

“(The principal) asked me to bring in my lesson frame, which is my lesson plan, and a seating chart for my class, and we discussed the lesson and what he could expect,” Bowen said. “I explained what I was going to do. And I asked him, ‘Do you see anything that I could change, could do better?’ … There wasn’t much added to it, but we did discuss what he would see.”

Burke said her pre-observation conference included a list of questions and felt like a job interview. “It didn’t focus too much on the lesson itself,” she said, and “I didn’t get any
advice.” But it did offer a little insight into what her administrator was looking for as far as following the observation rubric. And she does see the potential value in having a pre-conference. “If it’s used for the purpose it’s intended — to discuss the lesson,” it could be beneficial. “(The administrators are) the instructional leaders, they should be offering advice (on how) to improve. … That’s their job, to help teachers grow and learn to look at things differently and offer support.”

Feedback

Mosqueda hasn’t had much feedback yet. He said he didn’t discuss his goals with his principal at the start of the year, and as of late February, had yet to have a classroom observation and hasn’t reached the year-end conference, making it hard to gauge the differences between T-TESS and its predecessor.

“To me, when you talk about the T-TESS and the PDAS, it’s almost the same thing…,” Mosqueda said. “As a veteran teacher, at the end of the year you evaluate your year and say I’ve got to do this, this and this next year. … You decide what (you) need to do to be a better teacher” regardless of how an official evaluation rates your performance.

While he hopes T-TESS will turn out be an improvement over PDAS, offering more specific ways in which he can become a better teacher, Mosqueda said so far, he’s concerned that his principal and even he won’t have enough time to complete all the steps in T-TESS the way they were intended.

Taylor said the new system does take more of her time, but she thinks T-TESS has potential to be a better system than PDAS because it focuses more on student-centered activities. “It forces the teacher to be better and to plan activities that would get us distinguished (ratings) instead of proficient,” she said. And “if we follow through with those conferences … especially the dialogue that happens in those conferences,” teachers will get needed feedback to continually improve.

Karen Jackson in Temple ISD agrees. She said T-TESS seems “less punitive” than PDAS and more like a collegial experience focused on helping students learn better. “It’s not just about getting a rating. … I hope we stick with it long enough to implement it properly” so teachers and students both succeed.

T-TESS rubric, performance levels reflect technology use in classrooms

Karen Jackson is a teacher of teachers. 

As a Temple ISD instruction technology specialist, she helps other educators integrate technology in the classroom.

When the Central Texas district began piloting T-TESS two years ago, she was pleased to see more references to technology, including changes in the observation rubric that help distinguish between the top two teacher performance levels.

“T-TESS has a larger component of technology on which (teachers) are evaluated,” she said.

That change reflects the greater use of technology in classrooms. Jackson said many Temple ISD teachers are integrating online tools to communicate with students and assess their comprehension of lessons. 

“I’m helping teachers understand (technology) is a tool for instruction” rather than just something they need to add to their repertoire to get a check mark during evaluation, Jackson explained. Technology can provide real-time feedback and help teachers gauge what students are really learning. As an example, she said some teachers get their students to use tablets or laptops to create presentations to show their understanding of a subject. Others use poll questions or quizzes in class to engage and hold students’ interest.

While not evaluated using T-TESS herself, she likes how it created five performance levels to rate teachers instead of the four in PDAS, and how the top tiers cite use of technology in the classroom as a means for evaluators to differentiate “proficient,” “accomplished” and “distinguished” educators. 

While it’s too soon to tell exactly what influence T-TESS will have on use of technology in classrooms, Jackson said she likes how it recognizes teachers who have already found ways to use technology more “efficiently and productively.”

For more on T-TESS, click here.