Report: Most Mass. teachers performing at proficient levels

Kids aboard a school bus in Charlestown Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2013. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro
Kids aboard a school bus in Charlestown Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2013. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Over 90 percent of educators received passing grades in the first year of a new evaluation system that rated teachers and administrators on their classroom and school skills, but has not yet incorporated student achievement.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday released the first-ever performance ratings for nearly 38,000 Mass. teachers and administrators from 213 school districts across the state that received federal Race to the Top funding to implement the new evaluation system.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said results of the first year of the system have been “very encouraging” as far as seeing how schools are integrating teacher and administrator performance with curriculum goals.

Statewide, 85.2 percent of educators were rated proficient, while 7.4 percent were rated as exemplary, or “high fliers,” as Chester referred to them. Another 6.8 percent were judged to be in need of improvement, while less than 1 percent of educators were rated unsatisfactory.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said results of the first year of the system have been “very encouraging” as far as seeing how schools are integrating teacher and administrator performance with curriculum goals.

“There is nothing more important for students’ achievement than teachers and administrators being as effective as they can be,” Chester said on a conference call with the superintendents of the Springfield and Malden public schools. “No other component of schooling comes close to having the magnitude of influence on student achievement than a teacher’s effectiveness.”

Student performance, including MCAS year-to-year improvement scores, will be rolled into the evaluation system starting next year. Chester said school districts will have two, or maybe three years, to fully incorporate student learning into the system, which will not be based on one test, but a variety of factors.

Chester said for the vast majority of teachers and administrators the evaluation system will be a tool to better understand their strengths and weaknesses and improve. “If they can’t improve within a year or two, then it’s time to talk about a different career path for these individuals,” he said.

In Springfield, Superintendent Daniel Warwick said over 88 percent of the district’s educators were evaluated, and he feels confident that the professional development and collaboration with teachers throughout the process will improve student achievement.

“We felt in Springfield that this was a real opportunity to improve instruction every day in every class,” Warwick said.

Malden Superintendent David DeRuosi said he partnered closely with his teachers union on the implementation of the evaluation system, but called it a “big risk” that won’t work if people feel threatened by it.

“The value of the tool is really rooted in changing a climate and culture,” DeRuosi said.

Unions have long resisted moves to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, but Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner on Thursday took comfort in the scores showing that the overwhelming majority of education professionals are up to the task.

“These initial results confirm what we know – the vast majority of Massachusetts educators are very good at what they do,” Toner said in a statement. “As we continue to roll out this new system, people should not draw conclusions about relative school quality based on these results since professional judgment and local context will inevitably lead to some differences in how administrators apply the new ratings. The goal of evaluation is to help identify educators’ strengths and weaknesses so we can improve teaching and learning in all schools.”

Chester said that while the data from some school districts may differ from the overall statewide trends, familiarity over time with the system and the incorporation of student achievement should smooth the disparities and eliminate biases from school to school toward overly inflated or harsh grading.

The commissioner and both school superintendents also said that administrators tended to score higher than classroom teachers because they tend to work on short-term contracts and are removed if they do not perform. Statewide, 10.5 percent of administrators were rated as exemplary, 86.1 percent were proficient, 3 percent were judged in need of improvement, and 0.5 percent were unsatisfactory.

Chester also said it was “not surprising” that a higher percentage – 15 percent – of educators in underperforming Level 4 schools scored less than proficient, but said the results vary from school to school depending on whether new staff has been recruited to help turn around performance.

As student achievement begins to count toward a teacher’s performance evaluation, DeRuosi said the challenge of easing anxiety over the new system will depend on the “messaging” to classroom teachers. “Don’t be afraid of the data. We’ll work with you to make the data better,” DeRuosi said.

Warwick and DeRuosi both acknowledged apprehension within schools about the evaluation system and how student achievement will be counted, but Warwick said, “This is not intended to be a gotcha. It’s intended to improve performance so we have better outcomes for kids.”

Chester also said that if teachers are working to improve their classroom techniques, engaging students and paying attention to those students who may need extra help, the student achievement improvements will follow.

“The fact that strong teaching matters and weak teaching disadvantages students is very well established,” Chester said.

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