James McHolland, flanked by other principals, supported the new teacher appraisal system.

On Dec. 3, the District 65 School Board discussed whether it would vote on the new Teacher Appraisal System implemented by Superintendent Hardy Murphy at the beginning of the school year. The new system substantially changes how student growth is used to evaluate teachers.

The meeting, attended by about 100 teachers who oppose the system and by 13 school principals who support it, became emotionally charged. Board members gave their views, followed by comments from Dr. Murphy, Jean Luft and Paula Zelinski, president and vice president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), and James McHolland, representing the principals.

Four Board members said they wanted to vote on the appraisal system, citing concerns about the statistical reliability of the system. Board President Katie Bailey said the Board would vote at its Dec. 17 meeting on whether to make the system a “shadow system” for one year, during which the District could address those concerns.

Some Background

The District has had a teacher appraisal plan that takes student growth into account since 2010.  That model essentially evaluated teachers based on whether more students scored above the 50th percentile at the end of a school year than at the start. During April and May 2012, the administration proposed several new models that DEC did not agree to, said Ms. Luft.

Ms. Luft said members of DEC saw a draft of a different model in early August and expressed “serious concerns,” some of which were addressed and some not. That model, with some adjustments, was first presented to teachers by administrators when they returned from summer recess on Aug. 30, she said.

Administrators presented the new appraisal system to the School Board in an open meeting for the first time on Nov. 6. More than 200 teachers packed the Board’s meeting room at that time to demonstrate their opposition.

DEC’s leadership has voiced strong opposition to the new appraisal system. Ms. Luft and Ms. Zelinski have said the methodology used to measure student growth under the new system is unreliable, flawed and inequitable for a host of reasons. Ms. Luft said imposing the new system on teachers has dragged teacher morale to an all-time low, and that the system makes it difficult for District 65 to recruit and retain excellent teachers.

Ms. Luft asked that the revised appraisal system be put on hold and be treated “as a pilot or a shadow system” for one year. She also asked that the District implement on an expedited basis an apprasisal system using student growth under the Illinois Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA).

Dr. Murphy said there was no reason to delay implementing the new appraisal system. He said it raises the bar by making teachers accountable for addressing the needs of all students across the achievement spectrum, and he defended the system, saying it had “enough fail-safes built into the system so that at the end of the year, when all is said and done, we can make sure no one is treated unfairly.”

Board Decides to Vote on the Plan

On Dec. 3, Ms. Bailey opened the discussion about whether the Board should vote on the new appraisal system.

 “What I have heard the Board discuss in their questioning is not about high expectations,” she said. “We have high expectations, the principals have high expectations, the teachers have high expectations. The discussions have been around the statistical questions and the ‘fail-safes’ that have been presented.”

She said the statistical questions relate to: 1) the demographics of the classroom; 2) the non-random assignment of students to classrooms; 3) the small sample sizes of students in the four achievement categories in which teachers would be evaluated, and 4) the use of the Measures of Academic Progress Test (MAP) for one group of teachers, when it cannot be applied to other teachers whose students do not take the MAP test.

“Legally, we can vote,” Ms. Bailey said. The issue is “whether it’s a Board role to vote in this regard.” She said she thought it was in a “grey area.”

In explaining why she thought the Board should vote on the new appraisal system, she said, “The contract with DEC is with the Board of Education. We’ve had them ask us to weigh in. And I’ve had three Board members ask that we vote. All this tells me that if three Board members want to vote and DEC has asked us to weigh in, and legally we can vote and it is in a grey area, then we need to vote.”

Board Vice President Andy Pigozzi took the opposite view. “I think school boards are charged with setting goals and expectations about outcomes,” he said. “Administrators are charged with the means on how to achieve those goals. If the Board decides to weigh in on the means on this subject or any given subject, I think in my view we’re lost. I don’t think we can find ways to hold anybody accountable or evaluate administrators or their job performance. … I think it muddies the waters.”

“We should respectfully observe what our roles are and hold administrators accountable for the outcomes and not focus on the means,” Mr. Pigozzi said.

Jerome Summers took a similar tack. “Our role is to set broad policies, to set goals, to say the what, but not the how,” he said. “When we start saying the how, then we are into micromanagement at that point and outside good governance.”

He added that because principals supported the new appraisal system, “I think I would have to support this as well.”

Eileen Budde supported taking a vote. “I think there are some real issues brought up by DEC that are giving us a chance to pause, and consider the when and how fast,” she said. “I think the teachers know that over time it’s going to go towards a more rigorous system. I think they’re asking that we as a Board make sure everything is done in a way that will be perceived by their members as fair as possible. I don’t think that asking to wait a year and run a test is asking too much when it’s something that has an impact on careers. … Meanwhile we will have time to work out some of the kinks and maybe create a better and maybe more sound appraisal system that will get more buy-in and be better for the District in the long run.”

Tracy Quattrocki said, “We have asked four very essential questions that DEC has expressed concerns about and we ourselves had concerns about, and we have not heard answers that reassure us that all of the kinks have been worked out of the system. Because it is so important, we need to get it right.” She said the Board needs to be convinced that the issues have been addressed, “and when everyone can come to the table and agree to that, we will have a really strong appraisal system in a year, and we’ll all be stronger for that.”

Richard Rykhus likewise supported voting on the appraisal system. “Having a fair, rigorous, statistically sound system is what I – and I think everyone else up here – is interested in. … I think we can get there,” he said. “Because this is an issue that has had a lot of discussion in the community, we need to have some clear resolution, whatever that is. I think we should have a vote.”

Kim Weaver did not support voting on the new system. “I am not an expert in these matters,” she said. “If I was going to try to decide what is the right thing to do, I would like to see some expert testimony from people who are in this industry, not just from our school and from our teachers. I don’t feel time permits that.” She encouraged the principals to be flexible in their evaluations. 

Dr. Murphy, DEC and Principals Comment

Dr. Murphy opposed a vote on the appraisal system. In a rare move, he left his seat at the Board’s dais and went to the lectern to address the Board. He said all of the questions raised about the appraisal system were taken into consideration during the development process, and adjustments were made to address each of the concerns. He said the new system would increase expectations by evaluating teachers based on whether students at four different achievement levels were meeting “their growth targets regardless of their background.”

He said a three-year analysis of test data showed that less than 50% of African American students in the top achievement category met their growth targets in each individual year. “That’s unacceptable,” Dr. Murphy said. “Equitable results require the same expectations for all.

 “Using data that results in different expectations because of race or class causes discrimination in the guise of science and institutionalizes the achievement gap,” he said. “This is about whether we are going to have high expectations for our students.”

Board members did not urge that different growth targets be set based on race. Leading academics do say, however, that low-income status, disability status, and English proficiency status should be taken into account in a value-added teacher appraisal system.  (See e.g. “Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers” (2010); “Gathering Feedback for Teaching, Combining High-Quality Observations with Student Surveys and Achievement Gains” (2012).).

District 65’s model does not do that.

Ms. Bailey responded to Dr. Murphy’s comments, “I think it is important to say that this Board has high expectations and I believe that teachers and principals have high expectations. … I believe we are responsible by asking these questions because the morale in the classroom and the school impacts achievement as well. Every Board member cares about the achievement of every child, Latino, African American, white, socio-economic, IEP …We are trying to get something right.

“We’re talking about statistically answering certain questions,” Ms. Bailey continued. “To ask those questions doesn’t mean I don’t have high expectations, or that I don’t care about the children and adults in this community.”

Ms. Zelinski said, “It’s really insulting to us to suggest that our complaint is about something other than it is. We think this system is a deeply flawed system. … There are still some real serious concerns that are being glossed over.

Ms. Zelinski also said the MAP data was being misused. The MAP “growth targets” being used in the appraisal system represent the “average growth” of students who start out with the same score on the fall MAP test. Statistically, about 50% of the students taking the test are expected to do better than the growth target (which is the average growth) and about 50% worse. She said 65% of District 65’s students meet MAP’s growth targets. A research arm of MAP says, “between 64% and 72% making growth targets puts you in the top 10%,” she said.

Ms. Zelinski also referred to a memo prepared by The Kingsbury Center, a research affiliate of the owner of the MAP test that was provided to Board members. The memo says the accuracy of a value-added measure can be compromised by factors such as “if students and teachers are not randomly assigned to classrooms.” In addition, the memo states that statistical errors associated with value-added models increase dramatically when smaller numbers of students are considered. The memo states “This means that classroom results are likely to be far more volatile than school results over time.”

The District 65 teacher evaluation model considers groups as small as six students, far smaller than the average classroom size.

Ms. Luft said, “Teachers care deeply about all the children in District 65. We are the closest adults to the classroom. We ask that any appraisal system be researched and piloted and thought through.”

Mr. McHolland, backed by 12 principals who stood with him at the lectern, read portions of a Nov. 30 letter to Dr. Murphy, signed by Karen Bradley and himself. He urged that the District continue implementing the appraisal system. He said, “One of the tools we as principals use to advance student achievement is the honest evaluation of teachers’ job performance. We look at inputs of teaching on the Danielson side of the equation and the outputs of that teaching on the learning side, as demonstrated through quantifiable student achievement data. …We are committed to implementing the evaluation system in a fair manner.”

Ms. Bailey said the Board would vote on whether to make the new appraisal system a “shadow system” for this year at its Dec. 17 Board meeting.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...