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Teacher evaluations hinge on students

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When the principal of Creekside Elementary School does evaluations of his teachers, he pays special attention to the kinds of questions they ask students.

If the teacher is reading a story about a boy going into a dark, scary house to look for a dog, a teacher’s choice of questions at the end could determine the score in the evaluation.

If the teacher asks students to analyze or defend whether they thought the character’s decision was a good idea, that could earn an effective rating.

But if the teacher pairs students and has them ask each other questions about the character’s motives, that could earn a highly effective rating — the top ranking a teacher can achieve.

“It’s one thing to pose higher-order thinking questions to a child,” Principal Mark Heiden said. “It’s a whole other level for the child to be able to pose the questions themselves.”

Under state law, teachers must be evaluated annually by principals or other administrators. Those evaluations use classroom observations, usually between 10 and 40 minutes long, ISTEP scores and the grades schools receive to determine how the teacher is rated: highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective.

Last school year more than 90 percent of the nearly 1,500 teachers and administrators from local public school districts received ratings of highly effective and effective. Across the state,

87 percent of teachers and administrators received highly effective and effective ratings.

A total of eight teachers from Clark-Pleasant, Edinburgh, Greenwood and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson received lower ratings of needing improvement or ineffective last school year.

Principals review what they saw during their observations with the teachers and offer feedback and tips on how they can improve in areas where they received low ratings. Local school districts also regularly provide training for teachers, regardless of what kind of evaluation they received, so they can continue to improve.

Typically, the teachers who earned ineffective or needs improvement ratings didn’t always have lessons or assignments prepared for their students, or they regularly asked questions that could be answered with yes or no. The teachers who earned highly effective ratings are those who have started to show students how to think for themselves, administrators said.

At Greenwood Community High School, assistant principal Todd Garrison begins evaluating teachers as soon as the bell rings to mark the start of class. If a teacher is ready to begin instructing students once the bell rings and lets the students know immediately what they’ll be doing in class and what will be expected of them, then they’re working effectively, Garrison said.

The highly effective teachers are those who don’t have to say or do anything at the start of class, and their students immediately begin working once they arrive. Those students know what to do because their teacher has taken the time earlier in the school year to explain what’s expected and what the class has to do to meet those standards, Garrison said.

Sometimes during an observation, Garrison gets the students involved. He may ask students to explain what they’re working on and why. If a sophomore can explain what the history class is working on, how that assignment or activity builds on previous lessons and how they might use that knowledge later, that’s another sign of a highly effectively teacher who’s taken the time to talk with their students about what to expect in class and how they can prepare themselves, he said.

On the other hand, teachers can earn marks of ineffective or needing improvement during their observations if they are slow to start class or if after reading a story or essay with their students they ask primarily yes or no questions, as opposed to questions that require more thought, Garrison and Heiden said.

After the Indiana Department of Education released the 2012-2013 evaluation results this month, some state lawmakers wondered whether too many teachers and administrators were receiving effective or highly effective ratings. But teachers’ evaluation results can’t be compared with schools’ A-F grades and students’ ISTEP scores, Heiden said.

Students come to Franklin schools from a variety of homes and backgrounds, and different school districts prepare students for ISTEP and other state exams differently. So, Heiden said, it’s very difficult to gauge how many skilled teachers a school has based on its letter grade and students’ passing rate on ISTEP.

“Teachers can be very effective and still not have a child pass the ISTEP,” he said. “And that view is not always held by everybody.”

After last school year, administrators in the county reviewed how their observations were conducted to see if any changes needed to be made.

At Greenwood, for example, principals have stopped scheduling observations with teachers. That way, principals have a better chance at seeing what’s happening in classrooms on any given day, rather than seeing a specifically prepared lesson, he said.

“I will never know the routines of a teacher unless I can go in, unannounced, and see it for myself,” Garrison said.

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