After rejecting a recommendation to use independent evaluators to assess teacher performance, the Tucson Unified School District may no longer have a choice in the matter.
U.S. District Judge David Bury has been asked to intervene and order TUSD to conduct a pilot a study that would bring in trained evaluators to observe teachers and compare their findings to those of school principals.
The request is from Special Master Willis Hawley, a national desegregation expert appointed by Bury to oversee TUSD’s efforts to bring racial balance to its schools and improve educational outcomes for minority children.
In calling for the program, Hawley cited studies comparing principal evaluations with those of well-trained evaluators, which showed the latter identify many more teachers as needing significant training than is typical when principals alone do the evaluation.
An Arizona Daily Star investigation found that principals rated nearly all TUSD teachers good or great, despite the district’s C-rating from the Arizona Department of Education and consistently low performance on state assessments. Only about 5 percent of teachers were rated developing, and even fewer were labeled ineffective.
The same was true in schools across Arizona and the country.
If approved, the 20-school pilot study would be conducted this year. The independent evaluators’ scores would have no impact other than determining whether a different approach is more effective at identifying what teachers need to improve.
“The purpose of teacher evaluation is to measure effectiveness accurately and to link the performance assessments to professional development and recognition of excellence,” Hawley said. “If the assessment is not done properly, the district will end up nurturing mediocrity.”
The problem with principals as primary evaluators is that in seeking to motivate teachers, principals often shy away from negative observations that can be discouraging, especially for beginning teachers and those who are struggling, Hawley said.
While the principal evaluator model is most often utilized, that does not make it a best practice, Hawley said, adding that many leading districts have teacher mentors, subject-matter specialists and instructional coaches specially trained to be evaluators.
TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, however, argues that independent evaluators have not been used widely enough to determine whether that is a best practice, either.
“We’re very willing to look at training for our administrators and a myriad of things tied to that structure, but there is no comprehensive body of evidence that says this is best practice,” Sanchez said. “If there is no evidence and it could adversely affect student performance and teacher retention, we’re not going to adopt it.”
Instead, TUSD has said it will train principals to engage in evaluations by having them evaluate videos of teachers whose performance has been evaluated by experts.
Hawley calls that strategy sensible, but said it does not deal with the personal issues experienced when principals assess an individual employee.
Hawley adds that if TUSD’s attempt is not successful in bringing about change, which would be hard to determine with nothing to compare against, more time will be lost.
The Latino plaintiffs in TUSD’s decades-old desegregation case are in agreement with Hawley, calling for teacher observations to be conducted by someone other than, or in addition to, principals and assistant principals.
“Enhancing teacher effectiveness is the very best way to enhance student learning opportunities and outcomes,” Hawley said. “Without effective teacher evaluation, this will be very difficult to do.”
As of Friday, Bury had not ruled on the Aug. 28 request.