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May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

How North Carolina Improved Teacher Evaluation

For the last three years, North Carolina has been developing a statewide system to ensure that teachers can perform at their best.

North Carolinians are well aware of the changes wrought by a global economy. While facing declines in most of its traditional industries—tobacco, furniture, textiles, and agriculture—the state has experienced rapid growth in the high-skill and high-tech areas of finance, biotechnology, and information technology. The iconic image of North Carolina of yesteryear—the shady streets of the Andy Griffith Show's fictional Mayberry—has been replaced by the glass towers of the Research Triangle and banking centers of a cosmopolitan Charlotte.
In 2007, the North Carolina State Board of Education, recognizing these seismic shifts, adopted a new mission statement setting the expectation that every public school student would graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or for work in a global society. Along with the new mission, the board charged the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to develop a new statewide teacher evaluation system. McREL, a nonprofit education research and development organization based in Denver, Colorado, was brought in as a partner in developing, validating, and implementing the new system.

Teacher Evaluation: An Outdated System

In most states, school districts are allowed to develop their own systems for evaluating teacher performance. The result is an uneven patchwork of measures, which seems to create a form of grade inflation for teachers. For example, a recent analysis found that "nearly 100 percent of teachers in Colorado's largest school districts received satisfactory ratings in each of the past three years" (Mitchell, 2009). The same report noted that "in a survey of nearly 900 Denver teachers, fewer than 40 percent agreed their evaluations were either accurate or helpful."
Commenting on the survey results, Kim Ursetta, then head of the Denver teachers union, noted that principals often wait until the end of the school year before hurriedly filling out teacher evaluations. As a result, "the evaluation is meant to be used as tool for improving instruction, and instead we use it as a final exam" (Mitchell, 2009).
Teachers across the United States recognize the need for better evaluation systems. A national survey of more than 1,300 teachers, conducted by Public Agenda, found that 77 percent of them believe that anywhere from "a few" to "quite a large number" of teachers in their schools "fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions" (Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2003, p. 44). Fully 78 percent of the teachers responded that they would "welcome" or "be open to" their teacher unions putting more focus on setting standards for evaluating teacher quality during collective bargaining (p. 49).

Fixing the System in North Carolina

Improving the Content

As a first step in replacing North Carolina's outdated teacher evaluation system, the state board of education charged the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards Commission with developing teaching standards aligned with the new mission. The new standards appear in full at www.ncptsc.org/Final%20Standards%20Document.pdf. They are summarized here:
  • Standard I: Teachers demonstrate leadership in their classrooms, schools, and profession. They advocate for positive change in policies and practices affecting student learning. They demonstrate ethical principles including honesty, integrity, fair treatment, and respect for others.
  • Standard II: Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students. They provide an environment in which each child has a positive, nurturing relationship with caring adults. They embrace diversity in the school community and in the world. They adapt their teaching for the benefit of students with special needs, and they work collaboratively with the families and significant adults in the lives of their students.
  • Standard III: Teachers know the content they teach. They align their instruction with the state standards and their district's curriculum. They recognize the interconnectedness of content areas and make instruction relevant to students.
  • Standard IV: Teachers facilitate learning for their students. They know the ways in which learning takes place and the appropriate levels of intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development of their students. They plan instruction appropriate for their students and use a variety of instructional methods. They integrate and use technology in their instruction, help students develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and help students work in teams and strengthen their leadership qualities. They communicate effectively and use a variety of methods to assess what each student has learned.
  • Standard V: Teachers reflect on their practice. They analyze student learning, link professional growth to their professional goals, and function effectively in a complex, dynamic environment.
North Carolina officials then identified measures of teacher performance aligned with the new standards. These performance indicators provide a road map for teachers to improve their performance in a variety of areas. For each performance indicator, the system uses a rubric that describes practices that teachers should demonstrate in order to be rated on a scale from developing to distinguished. Figure 1 provides an example of one section of the rubric.

Figure 1. Excerpt from North Carolina Rubric for Teacher Evaluation

Source: North Carolina State Board of Education. For the complete rubric, go to www.dpi.state.nc.us/docs/stateboard/meetings/2008/11/tcp/11tcp01.pdf

Improving the Process

In addition to providing new performance measures, the system changes the way evaluations are conducted by requiring principals to follow an eight-step process:
  1. Principals receive training on the new standards and how to use the system.
  2. Principals conduct an orientation to explain the school's schedule and expectations for the process to teachers.
  3. Teachers conduct a self-assessment.
  4. Principals and teachers hold a preobservation conference.
  5. Principals conduct an observation of at least one class period.
  6. Principals and teachers hold a postobservation conference shortly after the observation.
  7. After conducting at least three classroom observations (for beginning teachers), principals and teachers hold a summative conference to discuss the teacher's performance throughout the year and determine the final performance ratings.
  8. Principals and teachers collaboratively create professional development plans to guide teachers' efforts to improve performance throughout the following year.

Helping Teachers and Students Succeed

North Carolina's new teacher evaluation system is designed to focus the attention of everyone in the district—from teachers to school leaders to district administrators—on what teachers need to do to help students succeed. Teachers who have been evaluated using the new system report that because principals more clearly and fully articulate what is expected of them, they are better able to determine what they need to do to improve their performance.
A beginning teacher in one of North Carolina's largest school systems reported to McREL's research team that the standards have made "all the difference." She carefully studied her evaluation ratings, discussed those ratings with her principal, and created a professional growth plan that addressed the two items on which she scoredDeveloping. This teacher set a personal goal for herself that by the end of her fourth year of teaching, when she is eligible for career status, she will be at least Proficient on every standard and will score at the Accomplished level on at least one standard, setting her on her way to becoming a distinguished professional teacher.
The state has trained a core group of teachers and administrators in every district on how to use the new system. Many districts report dramatic changes in attitudes regarding personnel evaluation. Teachers have become more receptive to constructive criticism. Districts also report that they are using evaluation results to focus professional development efforts that they believe are likely to result in improved student achievement.
For example, the superintendent of one midsized district regularly reviews final teacher evaluation ratings to identify training, professional development, and coaching needs for the entire district. This year, the superintendent noted a weakness in some areas of classroom assessment. Although most teachers in the district were able to implement appropriate assessment for most of their students, they needed extra assistance in assessing English language learners, students with learning disabilities, and other special needs students.
The district created a cadre of trainers charged with helping all teachers and administrators in the district gain a deep understanding of classroom assessment for diverse learners. As a result of the training, principals and teachers report that they are more confident of their assessment activities, that they are able to assess problems much more quickly and conclusively, and that students are benefitting from such assessments by receiving more appropriate, individualized instruction designed to address issues identified through classroom assessment.

A Consistent, Statewide Approach

To ensure consistency across the state, North Carolina requires every district in the state to use the new system or to develop and validate, with state approval, their own system based on the new standards. Beginning teachers cannot be recommended for tenure unless they achieve ratings of proficient or higher on all of the standards. Career teachers cannot be recommended for certificate renewal unless they show a similar level of proficiency.
North Carolina has also developed and implemented a parallel evaluation system for teacher training institutions to use. This system is based on the same standards as those for inservice teachers. Teacher training institutions cannot recommend new teachers for initial licensure unless the teachers are rated at the proficient level or higher on the preservice rubric. As a result, schools and districts will have the assurance that teachers entering the profession are well-prepared and have the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in their chosen careers.

Lessons Learned

The two-year effort to create the North Carolina teacher evaluation system generated many lessons about how to effectively create such a system and how to roll it out in ways that ensure its success.

Get Teacher Support and Ownership

Officials in North Carolina recognized early on that it is important to obtain frequent input from those who will use the system. From the outset, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), North Carolina's National Education Associate (NEA) affiliate, was a strong supporter of the effort, playing a significant role in the development and implementation of the new system. Throughout the process at state board meetings, statewide conferences, and communication with members, NCAE delivered a strong and consistent message that the new system would be good for teachers, that teachers had a voice in its development, and that there would be continuing efforts to support teachers as they implement the system in their districts.

Communicate with All Stakeholder Groups

Throughout the development process, members of the development team met regularly with the state board of education, legislators, personnel associations, principal and superintendent groups, regional associations, professional organizations, interested citizens, school district legal teams, and other groups interested in the work. At the same time, NCAE developed and delivered training modules to help teachers understand the professional teaching standards, how to implement the system, and how to use the information gathered throughout the process to improve professional practice.

Listen to Feedback and Criticism

The development team learned that respecting and considering the opinions of both supporters and detractors makes the difference between a good product and an excellent one. People who seem to be detractors frequently provide the best input about how to improve the system. They contribute a variety of valid and important viewpoints that must be considered if the system is to be credible and relevant.

Stay Focused

Maintaining a sharp focus on creating a rigorous, relevant, credible, and valid standards-based instrument is crucial in completing work of this type. Members of the development team need to monitor one another throughout the process to make sure the focus isn't shifting, and when it does, to help other team members refocus.

Worth the Effort

Developing and implementing a comprehensive statewide teacher evaluation system is no small undertaking. It requires a tremendous amount of effort and input from several stakeholder groups. Once the system is in place, it requires significant amounts of time from principals and teachers to be effective. One might ask, is it worth all this time and effort?
In response, we point to the tremendous influence that teachers have on the lives of students. Indeed, by many measures, no single input in the school system affects student success more than teachers do. One of the best ways for school systems to raise student achievement is to measure teacher performance on what matters most and then provide teachers with the professional guidance and support they need to guarantee that every student is in a classroom with a 21st century professional.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). Stand by me: What teachers really think about unions, merit pay, and other professional matters. New York: Public Agenda.

Mitchell, N. (2009, July 21). Numbers show teacher evaluation system broken. Education News Colorado. Available: www.ednewscolorado.org/2009/07/21/numbers-show-teacher-evaluation-system-broken

Jean M. Williams is Vice President for Research and Evaluation, McREL.

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