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The North Carolina Teacher Project is a year-long look at the teaching profession, told through in-depth feature stories, comprehensive policy discussions on The State of Things, intimate conversations between students and teachers, and multimedia presentations. More background on this series is available here. Check out our The Teachers' Room Blog on Tumblr.These reports are part of American Graduate - Let’s Make it Happen! - a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Evaluating Teachers: Part Art, Part Science, And More Important Than Ever

NC Teacher Evaluation
Dave DeWitt

Remember fifth grade? Well, whatever comes to your mind is not anything close to what it’s like now, at least in Nick Taylor’s fifth grade class at Lake Myra Elementary School in eastern Wake County.

Tucker barks out instructions to his students, directing them to grab laptops and Ipads and get with their small groups to begin comparing and contrasting two different versions of The Three Little Pigs.

Quickly and efficiently, the students mobilize.

Unnoticed in one corner of the room, Principal Jim Argent looks on closely. Three times a year he sits in this classroom, formally evaluating Mr. Taylor. A couple times a week, he strolls through informally. He calls those stops drive-bys.

Later, in his office, Argent explains why he likes what he sees.

“You know, that was not a 1970s schoolhouse,” says Argent. “He put the kids in collaborative teams very efficiently. He didn’t get stuck on one pair of kids, a lot of times you can get focused on ‘I got to help these kids.’ He was all over the room helping and he was moving the flow and the activities of all the kids.”

Argent’s praise goes on for a while - but even more extensive is the lengthy written evaluation he must complete for each of his 50 or-so teachers. He evaluates his younger teachers three times a year – they are also evaluated once by a peer. Experienced teachers are evaluated once a year.

'Mr. Taylor is an excellent teacher, but based on today's lesson, he should be even more excellent a year from now.' - a principal reflects on a teacher

“All teachers deserve the opportunity to grow,” he says. “All human beings in my philosophy are good relative to what they can become. Mr. Taylor is an excellent teacher, but based on today’s lesson, he should be even more excellent a year from now.”

Evaluation: The Mechanics

The state’s official Rubric For Evaluating North Carolina Teachers (pdf) is quite the tree-killer of a document, containing 214 check-boxes, dozens of lines for comments, and often includes examples of lesson plans and student work.

The evaluation is broken up into five Standards: leadership, learning environment, content knowledge, learning facilitation, and reflection on the practice.

It is an extensive process that can take about four hours per teacher per evaluation. And even then, it can sometimes be lacking.

“As detailed and as comprehensive as this tool is, it still doesn’t capture everything that’s about good quality teaching,” says Jim Key, an assistant superintendent in the Durham Public Schools who has evaluated teachers as a principal at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels. “It certainly doesn’t capture how complicated it is for a teacher to create and maintain a learning environment in which all students can be successful.”

At the end of the evaluation process, teachers are graded and placed into one of five categories, from “Not Demonstrated” to “Distinguished.”

How many teachers earn each distinction in each school and in each district is now published online.

This may sound daunting, but most teachers not only value the process but find it vital to their professional growth.

Karyn Dickerson is an English teacher at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. Early on in her career, she remembers some of the simple advice so got:  “Just making sure I called on all the students in the class. Sometimes the more vocal personalities tend to capture all the attention. And I think having another observer in your class, you realize you have not been as equitable as you thought you were. It’s nice to have that other pair of eyes in the room.”

Dickerson was last year’s North Carolina Teacher of the Year. As you might expect, her evaluations were stellar. But not every one goes as well. If poor evaluations accumulate, principals will use them as a way to encourage bad teachers to leave the profession, a process called “counseling out.”

'Because let's face it, if you're the teacher and every day is a grind, and you're not enjoying the students and the students aren't enjoying you, trust me ... typically the teacher knows it.' - Jim Key

“Because let’s face it, if you’re the teacher and every day is a grind, and you’re not enjoying the students and the students aren’t enjoying you, trust me, I don’t care if its kindergarten or twelfth grade, typically the teacher knows,” says Key. “And more often than not, the principal and the teacher are able to come to an understanding.”

Many principals are in favor of teachers having due process, often called tenure. They say it protects against personality and philosophical clashes between principals and teachers that can lead to unfair dismissals. The Legislature eliminated tenure last year.

Not all administrators agree.

'It's taken me, in my current school, four years to weed certain folks out that should not be in the business, because my hands have been tied.' Kim Robertson, principal, Cashwell Elementary

“It’s taken me, in my current school, four years to weed certain folks out that should not be in the business, because my hands have been tied,” says Kim Robertson, the principal at Cashwell Elementary in Cumberland County.

An analysis of the teacher effectiveness data at Robertson’s Cumberland County school shows how she has used evaluations to do the “weeding out.”

Since 2010, Robertson rated about one-third of her teachers as either developing or proficient, two of the three lowest categories. She placed very few teachers – never more than ten percent – into the highest category: “Distinguished.”

Compare that to Principal Argent, in Wake County. He rated one-quarter to one-third of his teachers as distinguished, and a much lower percentage in the lesser categories.

Both are award-winning principals, but clearly have very different philosophies on how to evaluate their teachers.

And Robertson, in Cumberland County, differs in another way from many of her colleagues: she likes the idea of choosing the best 25-percent of her teachers and rewarding them with longer contracts and bonuses.

“I’m not struggling with it because I am pleased that my best teachers will be compensated for being the best teachers,” she says. “Again, it’s based on the teacher evaluation tool. You can’t deny that.”

Now that firing teachers is easier, it’s likely that other major compensation decisions now being considered by Legislators will be tied to evaluations that, in many cases, are highly subjective.

>> The Teachers' Room blog: A teacher from Siler City, NC tells the story of one of her most frustrating evaluations ever.

These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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