Every August as teachers head back to the classroom, they sit through days of training that include learning about the newest grading system, how to enter lesson plans into the computer in a new format, and to watch the video about bloodborne pathogens — again.
About one half hour of teacher in-service is dedicated to hearing about the teacher evaluation tool used by principals and other administrators, though the system can decide whether a teacher gets to keep his or her job when the school year ends.
In much the same way, some teachers complained, it is only a small snapshot of teaching that goes into how their classroom skills are judged.
Gail Coulter has been teaching for 20 years and is retiring this month from Columbia-Brazoria ISD. Coulter minced no words about the Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS, the program in use for almost her entire career.
“I think it is a ridiculous institution,” she said. “It perpetuates the ‘dog-and-pony show’ mentality. Teachers feel like the whole system is a ‘gotcha.’”
Teachers are hopeful a new system being implemented statewide this fall ends that feeling and provides a more comprehensive, fair assessment of their effectiveness at teaching children what they are required to learn.
THE CURRENT SYSTEM
Most educators are familiar with PDAS, which has been in place since 1997. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association website notes “PDAS was adopted in response to legislation that required the commissioner to adopt a state-recommended system for the teacher appraisal process” based on observable, job-related behavior, teachers’ implementation of discipline management procedures and how students are performing.
The association estimates 86 percent of Texas school districts use PDAS, even though state law allows them to use other systems.
With PDAS, teachers can expect to see an administrator walk through the classroom during an unannounced visit, taking notes on whether lesson plans and daily learning objectives are written on the board. Does the teacher walk around the classroom monitoring students? Are students paying attention or playing on their cellphones?
Another formal observation by the administrator takes place at a mutually agreed upon date and time and lasts for 45 minutes — an average class period. Many teachers call this the “dog and pony show.” They trot out their most comprehensive, hands-on lesson, encourage students to be on their best behavior and hope the wi-fi is working that day.
The administrator’s findings are reported using the PDAS, which stays in a teacher’s employment records. Understandably, teachers are concerned about how their skills are represented in this document.
Stephanie Jenkins teaches fifth-graders math and social studies in Brazosport ISD at the Stephen F. Austin STEM Academy in Jones Creek.
“I think it is difficult to really tell a lot about a teacher in a planned, 45-minute lesson,” she said of the PDAS program. “It is very nerve-wracking. I feel because it is planned, I should do something really great that day, and it stresses me out a little. I think walk-throughs are the best way to see what goes on in the classroom — what really goes on in the classroom.”
Jenkins, who has been teaching for eight years, said even teachers who do a poor job on a daily basis can pull it together and look good for 45 minutes.
“I think it is obvious to administrators when a teacher is doing their job and when they are not. Administrators need to communicate verbally and bluntly,” she said.
Coulter said she thinks an evaluation would be more helpful to teachers if they could get meaningful feedback. She would like to have the ability to ask, before the evaluation, for the evaluator to focus on an area she feels needs to be addressed and get a focused critique.
As for PDAS, Coulter said, “The whole system is flawed. It only allows for one tiny little snapshot of a year of teaching.”
A NEW APPROACH
When teachers return from summer break in August, many will be learning about a new appraisal program called Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS. According to the Texas Classroom Teachers Association website, T-TESS is set to be the new state-recommended system next school year and is scheduled to be fully operational for the 2017-18 school year. About 5 percent of Texas public school districts piloted T-TESS for the past two years.
Danbury ISD was among them this school year. Assistant Superintedent Sherry Phillips said via email T-TESS provides more guidance on ways for teachers to become better.
“A key feature of T-TESS is that it is designed to support teachers and promote specific and targeted feedback, which results in improvement of their practice,” Phillips said. “The intent is growth. If you implement T-TESS as it is intended, it will impact teacher practices which, in turn, impacts students.”
Phillips said, after using T-TESS for a year, she believes it is a better tool than PDAS because the intent is to promote growth for everyone, not just for those teachers who struggle.
“With PDAS, both appraiser and teacher came to treat it as one of those things you have to do, instead of it being used to promote growth,” Phillips said. “End-of-year conferences could even be waived by the teacher. This, in turn, led to appraisals that were not very reflective of actual teacher practice. Unfortunately, the ratings tied to PDAS most often led people to believe they did not need to grow.”
T-TESS does not have a teacher-in-need of assistance category, Phillips said, because T-TESS promotes growth for everyone, not just those teachers who struggle. For now, she said, it’s too soon to tell if the district will need to create their own remedy for struggling teachers.
In August, Brazosport ISD will be changing over to T-TESS from PDAS, said Marilou Duchaney, BISD human resources coordinator for grades pre-K through eight.
“PDAS was more of a compliance and checklist type of evaluation system,” Duchaney said. “This (T-TESS) is more about ensuring growth. No matter how good of a teacher you are, you always have room for improvement. This encourages reflection and thinking about what have I done and how can I do it better.
“I see T-TESS as being positive for teachers. It’s going to be challenging, of course, to change. Everybody has a growth plan. Everybody has a goal. After your principal sees you teach, you talk about refinement.”
IT’S ABOUT THE KIDS
Anytime changes are made at the state level, teachers are automatically wary, especially when changes are made to evaluation systems. The main contentious point in T-TESS is using a student’s progress to determine how well a teacher does the job, essentially leaving a teacher’s professional rating up to a child’s performance.
According to the Texas Education Agency, “student growth is scheduled to become a required component of all teacher appraisal systems … during the 2017-2018 school year.”
The factors to determine student growth are up to each district. TEA ruled “no district will be required to use state test scores as their measure of student growth.”
Under T-TESS, there are four acceptable options to measure student growth including portfolios and district tests.
“When you talk about student performance, it’s not just scores tied to the teachers or how the students did on the state test. It’s going to depend on what the district wants to do,” Duchaney said. “It can be portfolios. It can be student objectives and how those relate to student learning. It’s not just talking about ‘the test.’
“For so long, when you say linking salary, etc. to student performance, everybody thinks about the state test. BISD has not tied student performance to teacher evaluations.”
Sweeny ISD also will be switching from PDAS to T-TESS in August. William Mader, assistant principal of Sweeny Elementary, said teachers will be provided with training for T-TESS before the start of school in August.
Mader said the student performance component, tying teacher ratings to student test results, will be left up to each district. The first year, 2016-2017, will not include that piece.
Mader attended a three-day training this spring at the Region 4 Service Center in Houston. He watched videos to calibrate his observations and evaluations and said he will share those with teachers in August.
“I think the biggest difference is (T-TESS) is evidence-based,” he said. “The biggest benefit of evidence-based is it takes out a lot of assumptions. It’s concrete. There is no guessing or assuming.”
Mader said he thinks T-TESS is a well-thought out tool, focused on student engagement and student-centered.
“I do believe it’s what’s best for the kids. If you have ownership, you’re going to be more invested,” he said.
He did have one criticism of T-TESS.
“It’s a lot of work, but if you take the time to set it up, it becomes less cumbersome,” Mader said.
T-TESS is time-consuming, officials said — and time something neither principals or teachers have.
Lynn Grell-Boethel, assistant superintendent for student services at Columbia-Brazoria ISD, said her district will be moving to T-TESS in August.
“It’ll take a little getting used to,” she said. “We’re looking forward to it. I think there will be a very large benefit. Self-reflection and coaching are really good things.
“I think it will take more for principals because it will need more collaboration with the teacher.”
Damon ISD Principal Dave Demiglio said the district has used the 5D+ CEL instructional framework and evaluation system developed by the Center for Educational Leadership for the past two years. No decision has been made about switching to T-TESS, though Demiglio said he has trained in the system.
“I appreciate the fact that it focuses on all the primary facets of teaching and learning (planning, instruction, communication, collaboration, and learning),” he said via email. “However, the state still has no idea what it wants to do with the student growth aspect of the evaluative system.
“Given all the problems that have occurred with this year’s STAAR tests, I don’t think we can say that there is a viable and equitable way to connect student test scores with teacher evaluations.”
As a private school, Brazosport Christian School in Lake Jackson has its own evaluation system since it is not required the follow the same guidelines as state-governed public schools.
“As a private, Christian school, we do not take part in T-TESS with TEA, as we do not receive state funding,” said Shannon Sanders, who is in charge of marketing and development at Brazosport Christian School. “Our school does have evaluations and monitors teacher performance. BCS teacher evaluations include routine classroom walk-throughs, two formal sit-down evaluations with the principal, routine review of lesson plans and professional development.”
The Foundation Preparatory Academy, a two-year-old, non-denominational Christian school housed in First Baptist Church in Richwood, uses PDAS, said head administrator Kathy Vickers.
“We are keeping abreast of the changes T-TESS is bringing and will be watching the pilot schools to determine how and if this model would be in our future,” she said via email.