Confusion abounds in wake of teacher evaluations review

Confusion and widely varying interpretations of rules and procedures continue to plague teacher evaluations, in the weeks following publication of a controversial review of that data.

School officials and a lawmaker disagree about what is required. They also say state officials sent mixed messages about whether classroom observations need to be retained and submitted for the evaluations review.

On Dec. 5, Idaho Education News broke the story about an independent review of 2014-15 teacher evaluations, a document obtained through a public records request. The review team from Denver-based McREL International wrote that 99 percent of the teacher evaluations it reviewed did not meet all criteria outlined by the State Department of Education.

Educators and school administrators say the review is invalid and unfair because McREL’s team — under guidance from a committee of Idaho teachers, administrators and State Department of Education officials — relied on several criteria that were not in place when the 2014-15 teacher evaluations were completed and submitted to the state.

However, some criteria predated the 2014-15 school year, including a section of Idaho law that requires “the evaluation shall include a minimum of two documented observations.” McREL found that 61 percent of the evaluations reviewed did not include two documented classroom observations.

Teacher evaluations are increasingly important in Idaho. The 2015 Idaho Legislature tied the evaluations to a $250 million plan to increase teacher pay through a salary law known as the career ladder. The 2014-15 teacher evaluations are not tied to a teacher’s ability to earn a raise, but the 2015-16 teacher evaluations will be.

Are classroom observations required?

Yes. Idaho law requires “two documented” classroom observations be included in each teacher’s evaluations, and nobody really disputes this.

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Idaho law states “there shall be a minimum of one written evaluation in each of the annual contract years of employment.”

Idaho law also requires that “the evaluation shall include a minimum of two documented observations.”

Idaho policymakers adopted a teacher evaluation tool known as the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching. But districts can use a different tool, so long as that tool is based on the Danielson framework.

Under Danielson, teachers are evaluated on 22 different components that are found within four domains, or genres, of teaching responsibility. These domains cover everything from a teacher’s planning and preparation, the classroom environment and instruction to a teacher’s professional responsibilities.

Are school districts required to submit observation documents with their evaluations for the review?

This is where the confusion comes in. State Department of Education spokesman Jeff Church says yes — and that it wasn’t optional. An official with the Boise School District said yes.

But Rep. Ryan Kerby, a New Plymouth Republican and retired school superintendent, said no.

This week, Idaho EdNews asked the SDE for instructions given to districts that participated in the 2014-15 review of evaluations. SDE responded by sending Idaho EdNews three documents that were sent to districts beginning in December 2015 that specifically asked administrators to upload the observations into a secure, online portal for the purposes of the review.

Click here to read a December 18, 2015 notice the SDE sent to school districts regarding the teacher evaluations.

Click here to read a Jan. 11 email from the SDE to schools that were selected to participate in the review.

Click here to read an undated email from the SDE to school superintendents.

Nick Smith, human resources administrator for the Boise district, said the SDE did request classroom observations and his district provided them for the evaluations review.

Ryan Kerby
Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth

Kerby insists that the state did not request classroom observations.

In a Dec. 12 opinion piece published by Idaho EdNews, Kerby wrote, “During this audit, Idaho’s administrators were not asked to provide documentation of the classroom observations that were used to put together the final evaluation for each teacher. The only thing they were asked for was the evaluation itself.”

Kerby was so adamant that the observations were not requested, that he also wrote, “So, the classroom observations were not requested by the auditors and schools aren’t required to keep them. It is actually surprising that these observations were included in 39 percent of the audited evaluations.”

Idaho EdNews interviewed Kerby Tuesday and Kerby said he got his information from several school superintendents. Kerby said his No. 1 source for his opinion piece was Mountain Home district Superintendent James Gilbert.

As quoted by Kerby, Gilbert said: “Our principals make 10 classroom observations per teacher per year, each visit is documented, and the notes taken during the visit are also forwarded to the teacher. If the auditors had asked for the observation paperwork we would gladly have included it with the evaluation materials we sent them.”

Reached this week, Gilbert said Kerby quoted him accurately.

Gilbert said his district destroys teacher observation documents as soon as the signed evaluations are completed.

“We don’t keep every piece of paper on an employee over the course of a 30-year career in the personnel file, unless it’s a summative evaluation or a disciplinary issue or an improvement plan,” Gilbert said. “That’s pretty unrealistic.”

Because of that, Gilbert said, the observations don’t exist and the SDE can’t request something that doesn’t exist. In a subsequent interview, Gilbert said the SDE’s request for observations was so vague as to be meaningless.

“The request for teacher observations means nothing because it doesn’t ask for observation notes,” Gilbert said. “There is no observation form, it doesn’t ask for observation dates. That is something they needed to clarify for anybody to submit anything. Had the SDE said ‘please submit observation dates,’ we definitely could have given that.”

The Kuna School District also destroys teacher evaluations, Superintendent Wendy Johnson confirmed in an email:

Johnson: “We have been given direction long ago from our attorney that once a final evaluation has been completed and signed, we do not keep our working files anymore. This means that none of the observational information is kept so we will not have observational notes to include — just the final evaluation documents.”

SDE’s Lisa Colón Durham, in response: “Some districts keep the observations as part of their personnel file, while others do not. So, if the district has them, they can submit them, if not, they would not submit them.”

Kerby cited the above email exchange repeatedly in a lengthy interview with Idaho EdNews, saying three times that, “I’ve got an email that said if you don’t have those, that’s no big deal. They weren’t required.”

However, SDE spokesman Jeff Church said the state specifically asked for the observations to be included in the review. He issued a written statement Wednesday.

“For clarity, it wasn’t optional in the desk review process — based on the recommendations of the PERC committee specifically for the desk review, districts were asked for observations; however, noted below from Lisa Colón Durham, based on the teacher evaluation requirement to conduct observations, some districts keep the observations as part of their personnel file, while others do not. If they were kept in the personnel file, they were to be collected for the desk review.”

When asked for clarification, Church cited a section of Idaho law that states, “Each personnel file shall contain any and all material relevant to the evaluation of the employee.”

Church also cited a section of administrative rule that states, “Permanent records of each certificated personnel evaluation will be maintained in the employee’s personnel file.”

However, Church pointed out that many districts adopted their own policies regarding retention and destruction of records.

“That being said, again, it is important that we continue to provide guidance and clarity regarding the difference between an observation and a summative evaluation,” Church said. “This is work that we are currently doing to provide support to district superintendents moving forward as they continue working hard for students.”