Washington can take the lead on reforming teacher and principal evaluation

By Mary Alice Heuschel

The evidence is clear and the data compelling: The single most important school-based factor to increase student achievement is an effective teacher. The second most important school-based factor is school leadership.

In classrooms throughout the nation, great teachers help students make enormous gains in their education, while we know ineffective teachers can often do lasting damage.

Across Washington state, districts not only lack the ability to adequately identify, evaluate and compensate their most effective teachers and leaders, we are unable to support a system where they are teaching the students who need them the most.

This legislative session, we have a chance to change things: The $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top grant provides states with an opportunity to drive and fund bold innovations.

Washington is starting behind many states in the Race to the Top. However, reforms to increase the effectiveness of teachers and principals are worth the most in the grant competition and, if passed by the Legislature this session, could bring us to the forefront. More importantly, they will help us accelerate student achievement.

In order to meet this challenge, our state’s Race to the Top legislation must include the following critical elements:

Ÿ The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction must work collaboratively with the Washington Education Association and the Association of Washington School Principals to develop a common, required system for effective teacher and principal evaluation, including measures of student growth. Washington must agree on a common definition of an effective teacher, an effective principal and how to measure student growth statewide.

Ÿ A significant portion of the teacher and principal evaluation system must include multiple measures of student academic growth. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to make sure teachers and principals are first, supported to address the diverse learning needs in our schools and classrooms, and then, evaluated and held accountable for the academic growth of every student.

Ÿ Once the new evaluation system is implemented, teachers and principals who receive unsatisfactory evaluations must be given professional development and support to improve. If these interventions do not impact a teacher’s or principal’s effectiveness for two consecutive years, the teacher should be placed back on provisional status and, after a third year of support that still results in unsatisfactory performance, the teacher or principal should lose their contract. Every student deserves an excellent teacher, and every school, an excellent principal. We need to make sure we are giving all teachers and principals the opportunity to grow and providing those who do not an expedient way out of our schools.

Throughout the process of implementing these reforms, as a state, we must name effective practice, come to agreement on the vision of effective instruction and provide quality professional development to reach our common goal of raising student achievement in schools and districts.

For the past year, Renton, along with the Nooksack Valley and Spokane school districts, has participated in a study with The New Teacher Project on boosting the supply and effectiveness of Washington’s science, technology, engineering and math teachers. This study found that Washington is one of fewer than 10 states where the racial achievement gap in math is actually growing, and the gap in math achievement between Washington’s low-income and higher-income students is the 12th largest in the nation. These gaps can be closed by supporting improvements in teacher and leader performance.

Survey results from The New Teacher Project’s report suggest that Washington teachers support overhauling the teacher evaluation system to include many of these recommendations. More than two-thirds of teachers, and an even greater percentage of administrators, believe student growth should be an important part of teacher evaluations. Moreover, 69 percent of Washington voters, in a recent poll conducted by the Partnership for Learning, agree that student growth measures should be a factor in teacher hiring, salary and tenure decisions.

If the state passes strong Race to the Top legislation, is successful in getting federal funds, and works together on a statewide system, we will be able to transform our current evaluation systems and create one that provides teachers and principals with support for effective professional development and meaningful feedback focused on increasing student achievement.

As a state, Washington must support educators who help our children learn, grow and succeed. It is the key to our future.

Mary Alice Heuschel is superintendent of the Renton School District.