SPRINGFIELD -- Teacher evaluations in Illinois are fundamentally flawed and in desperate need of reform, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan said during a recent interview.
In fact, only 2 percent of teachers up for tenure in Chicago Public Schools last year were denied the job protection, according to data tabulated by the school district. The percentage of teachers denied tenure in other parts of the state has not been tabulated, but Chicago employs 20 percent of Illinois teachers.
Mr. Duncan said the current system is not adequately weeding out underperforming teachers before they are granted tenure and the help of teachers' unions is needed to solve the problem. After a teacher is granted tenure, dismissal becomes exceedingly unlikely.
Currently, the decision of who is granted tenure is left in the hands of school administrators across the state. The Chicago pilot program, which is modeled after one in Toledo, Ohio, would allow veteran teachers to make that recommendation.
Mr. Duncan said he hopes to see the program, which will begin this year, expand districtwide.
But his approach is being viewed with a jaundiced eye by some lawmakers as well as business leaders.
"It sounds to me like a case of the fox guarding the hen house," said state Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling. "It doesn't make any sense to have the unions decide which teachers should get tenure -- that's the job of administrators."
Rep. Mitchell is a former school superintendent.
Mr. Duncan said the experience in Toledo schools and other school districts that have implemented similar plans indicates otherwise.
Representatives of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the Chicago Teachers Union, in a written statement said, "Peer mentors and interveners impose far more rigorous standards on participating teachers than does traditional teacher evaluation, where principals spend very little time in the classrooms of teachers and often evaluation consists of a simple checklist of routine teacher behaviors."
But just two months ago, union officials were pointing to the probationary period as a reason few tenured teachers are dismissed, implying that many of the most ineffective instructors are eliminated before they are granted tenure.
The unions made their comments in response to an investigation conducted by Small Newspaper Group, the parent company of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.
The investigation found that:
-- An average of two Illinois tenured teachers per year have been fired for poor performance since 1987.
-- 1 out of every 930 evaluations of tenured teachers results in "unsatisfactory" rating and only 50 percent of those teachers actually leave the profession.
-- 93 percent of Illinois school districts have never attempted to fire any tenured teacher in the last decade.
Charles McBarron, director of communications for the Illinois Education Association, said more often than not underperforming teachers simply choose to quit during their first few years in the profession after deciding that they are not a good fit for teaching.
He said this "self selection" would explain why the number of teachers fired or formally denied tenure is relatively small.
University of Washington professor Dan Goldhaber, a national expert in teacher retention issues, called this argument "preposterous."
"The preliminary findings of a study we are conducting in North Carolina found that those who leave teaching during the first few years in the profession scored higher on teacher licensure exams than their peers who remained in teaching," he said.
"If you are a superstar, you have many options open to you in many fields, so those people tend to get pulled out of teaching into other professions where the pay is better or individual achievement is more likely to be recognized," Mr. Goldhaber said.
Among the studies cited by Mr. Goldhaber was research conducted by Richard Murnane, dean of Harvard University's College of Education.
"Teachers with high IQs were more likely to leave teaching at the end of each year of service than those with low scores," Mr. Murnane said in his book, "Who Will Teach?"
The Harvard data, as well as the results of other studies, raise the troubling evidence that the current probationary system may be screening out the best teachers, rather than the worst, said Richard Manatt, a national authority on teacher evaluations, who is based in Ames, Iowa.
Mr. Duncan said Illinois school districts are not doing enough to keep underperformers from gaining tenure and it needs to do more to retain the best new teachers.
"I worry that a lot of good teachers become frustrated and leave the profession during their first few years," Mr. Duncan said.
Shaka Mitchell, associate director for the National Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., added there is little evidence that the probationary period effectively weeds out underperforming teachers.
"If you don't rock the boat and avoid a major personality conflict with the administration, you can expect to receive tenure," he said. "If anything, that probationary period weeds out some of the most innovative teachers, who have trouble dealing with the school bureaucracy or see little financial reward for good performance -- unlike the private sector."
But Mr. McBarron, of the IEA, said the Harvard study only tells part of the story, noting that college grades and academic performance are not always the best indicators of whether someone will be an effective teacher.
Mr. McBarron said the union would like the state to fund a mentoring program geared toward retaining better teachers during their first years in the profession. But the proposal has been routinely rejected by lawmakers over the years, he said.
Sen. Todd Sieben, R-Geneseo, knows that frustration as well.
He introduced tenure reform bills this year that have effectively been killed by Senate leadership.
One bill would have required school districts to disclose annually the percentage of teachers rated excellent, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. A second measure would have required school districts to disclose the financial terms of settlement agreements in which underperforming teachers are paid to resign.
Sen. Sieben said he would reintroduce both bills next year. He said by disclosing teacher evaluation data, school officials who fail to evaluate teachers rigorously can be held accountable by the public as well as school board members. In regard to settlement agreements, Sen. Sieben said all taxpayers should have the right to know how their money is being spent.
"This is a short legislative session and leadership wants to avoid controversial measures," Sen. Sieben said.
Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, said teachers' unions and other education interests have used their political clout in Springfield to curb efforts to improve accountability in the profession.
Mr. Mays took issue with the contention of union officials that few underperforming teachers are fired because most are "counseled out" of the profession. If only one out of 930 tenured teachers is rated unsatisfactory, it begs the question of when these people are "counseled out" of teaching -- before or after the positive evaluation, Mr. Mays said
The Roundtable is composed of the chief executive officers of Illinois' largest companies. But it is not the only group to take aim at "meaningless" teacher evaluations.
A study conducted by Iowa State University found that student evaluations of teachers had a far higher correlation to a teacher's classroom performance than reviews done by school principals.
"Even kindergartners did a better job of evaluating teachers than the principals," professor Mari Kemis noted.
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