New evaluations put Minnesota teachers to the test

Principal Cindy Hansen takes notes
Cindy Hansen, principal of Pine Island Elementary school in southern Minnesota, takes notes during a classroom evaluation of special education teacher Scott Morgan. Pine Island is piloting Minnesota's new teacher evaluation system before it goes into place statewide September 1, 2014.
Tim Post / MPR News

Principal Cindy Hansen's fingers fly across her laptop as she types notes in a corner of Scott Morgan's classroom, watching as the special education teacher works with a kindergartner on her social skills.

This is more than a principal pop-in. Hansen and Morgan are part of a new, experimental kind of teacher evaluation. Earlier, they met for a pre-evaluation chat. Later, they'll talk over the teacher's strengths and weaknesses and set performance goals. She'll evaluate 70 teachers this way.

"It's not meant to be a 'gotcha' kind of a situation," Hansen says later. "It really is meant to be a helpful kind of conversation."

Hansen and her small town elementary school are taking the lead in a statewide plan to remake Minnesota's teacher evaluation process. The Republican-led Legislature in 2011 ordered the system overhauled. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill into law. Seventeen districts, including Pine Island in southern Minnesota, are on the trial run this year before all 333 districts adopt it next fall.

Under the system, beginning teachers will be evaluated three times a year for the first three years. Veteran teachers will be observed at least once a year, with a more thorough review once every three years. When the process is finished, a teacher will get one of four ratings: "exemplary," "effective," "development needed" or "unsatisfactory."

Teachers' overall evaluations will be judged on student performance, information from surveys given to their students, and classroom observations by evaluators. Hansen talks to her teachers about how the kids reacted to the lesson, how the teacher interacted with students, and how the teacher might make her lessons more effective in the future.

Hansen sees the evaluation process as a way to help teachers improve their work. "It is pretty time intensive," Hansen said. "But the conversations are good."

Over the last two years, Minnesota teachers have voiced concern over what the new evaluation system might mean for them. Especially worrying was the fact that 35 percent of their evaluation would be based on student performance.

At first that meant student test scores, but last session lawmakers adjusted state law to let districts choose how to best measure student performance.

It could be standardized test scores for a high school math teacher. In a subject not part of the state's standardized tests, like history or music, it could be based on some measure of how much students learned during the year.

That flexibility has helped ease concerns, said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

"I feel like we're getting closer to a model that will help all educators grow, not just the tested subject areas," Specht said.

Across the country, states have adopted new evaluation policies over the past five years, but they vary widely.

In Florida, half of a teacher's evaluation is based on standardized test scores. A quarter of Indiana's evaluations will be based on student growth measures, which may include standardized tests as well as specific classroom-wide objectives that teachers create. Hawaii will include student surveys in their evaluations.

Forty states now require student achievement to be part of a teacher's evaluation, up from 15 in 2009. But just 31 states require the use of standardized test scores in tested and graded subjects.

Like Minnesota, most states provide guidelines and let the districts devise their own system. Some advocates, though, say students scores need to be part of that.

"We have to make sure that whatever we're measuring is actually tied to students being successful in the classroom, and that's why having test scores be one component is really critical," said Daniel Sellers, who leads MinnCan, an education reform group that pushed for the new teacher evaluation system.

Joe Mish conducts
Joe Mish has taught music and orchestra for 28 years in Minnesota's Pine Island school district. Mish said evaluations of his work have been infrequent in the past, and hopes the state's new evaluation system provides more consistent feedback for teachers.
Tim Post / MPR News

While final implementation is just over nine months away, the new system's cost for districts is still unknown. Statewide, estimates on how much the new Minnesota teacher evaluation will cost have ranged from $100 million to nearly $300 million.

Pine Island Superintendent Tamara Berg-Beniak says if the time principals are spending on evaluations during the trial is any indication, she'll probably need to add some assistant principals to her staff. Hansen, the elementary school principal, sometimes spends entire workdays on evaluation paperwork.

"I am concerned if all the pieces remain in place that it would be a burden, and that as a district we would have to identify some other sources to make sure that all these areas are covered," Berg-Beniak said.

Other costs for the district include paying an outside vendor $38,000 a year to analyze test data for the evaluation system. The state is paying districts to cover those costs during the pilot, but so far hasn't allocated any money to pay for the system once it's up and running statewide in the fall.

Costs aside, the Pine Island teachers believe the new evaluations hold promise.

Tony Brown, a social studies and history teacher at Pine Island High School, said so far the new system seems to be effective. "It's kind of an interaction both ways, Brown said.

"Teachers are giving feedback, administrators are giving feedback. It's not a one-way conversation."

Kathy Sessions, a teacher for more than 20 years, said she appreciates the feedback she's received in her evaluations and says it's been good to have another set of eyes check her work. She rarely got evaluated after her first three years teaching, she noted.

The state's shift to a more rigorous teacher evaluation system might be hard for some teachers, but overall she's pleased with the new system, at least what she's seen from the pilot.

"Change is always hard," Sessions said. "It's not an easy process to work through but I think when it's done it will be a good thing."

This article was produced with the support of The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.