Wisconsin State Educator Effectiveness System a Good Start, but Implementation Could Spur Problems

By Christian D’Andrea
Education Policy Analyst

Wisconsin’s new state educator effectiveness system will replace a flawed No Child Left Behind program, but it may not go far enough when it comes to evaluating teachers in the Badger State.

The new system would grade educators based on two key components – student achievement and in-class evaluations. The two measures would be weighted equally and combined to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. These teachers would then be given one of three labels – Developing, Effective, and Exemplary.

Developing teachers would be the worst of the three groups, and would require administrative intervention to either improve their standing or be removed from their position. These educators will be evaluated every year until they either level up or are expelled.

Teachers that test out in the Effective group will not have this obligation. Teachers labeled Exemplary will be offered leadership positions to spread their expertise to others. Educators in both groups will undergo evaluations once every three years after they have banked three years of classroom experience to start their careers.

This system puts two strong programs in place that can effectively gauge how teachers are performing under the right circumstances. Using value-added data gives teachers and administrators a solid idea of a student’s growth over the course of the school year. In-person evaluations give us an idea of aspects like classroom presence, hands-on teaching, and other important pieces that testing data cannot show. However, both have been implemented imperfectly in the past.

The idea of using value-added data in Wisconsin is still so foreign that the educator effectiveness system will need to devise its own data collection system in order to understand just how the state’s students are performing. Current programs, such as the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE), are either outdated, ineffective, or both when it comes to showing pupil growth and the impact of a teacher or classroom. Unfortunately, the educator effectiveness program will have to rely on aspects of preexisting standardize tests as part of their data collection, which opens the system to flaws.

As a result, the state will have three years to implement a new, value-added program by which students can be measured. This will mean creating a system that normalizes growth between school districts and creates a standard playing field for all districts in Wisconsin. In theory, it should be the new WKCE, a program by which citizens can gauge the state’s academic progress. In practice, it will be more difficult to implement combination of local and statewide standards.

A look at the state’s failure to update the WKCE casts doubt over the creation of a new data system. That test has been out of date since its inception and regularly criticized by teachers, administrators, and students. Despite these claims, the test has remained a staple of October test-taking in Wisconsin’s classrooms. The process of updating or replacing the exam has been postponed on several occasions, thanks in part to disagreements over its design and bureaucratic holdups. This includes recent delays that will push it back to the middle of the decade or later.

This experience with the WKCE will make the design and installation of the educator effectiveness program’s data collection process paramount to its success. If the program can be implemented smoothly, using well-researched methods that accurately track student progress over the course of a year within one teacher’s classroom, then this data will be invaluable. If the process gets corrupted or delayed, it will serve as just another incomplete measure that divulges little information from inside the state’s public schools.

Currently, the program calls for the use of statewide standardized assessments, individual Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), and district-based data chosen as a result of local improvement strategies. These data, along with other aspects, will make up the 50 percent of total evaluation for all teachers. However, relying on preexisting standardized testing modules, as well as allowing districts and individual classrooms to change the scope of data that dictates their effectiveness, could create problems in statewide comparisons and painting an overall picture. In short, relying on old systems that have shown flaws could create greater problems.

This segues into part two – teacher evaluations. Teacher evaluations statewide have earned criticism thanks to the volatility in their application from district to district and the seemingly low standards that teachers are held to in these short periods of observation. A Wausau Daily Herald report highlighted how little of an effect evaluations had on the city’s teachers over a five-year period. A questionably low number of teachers earned unsatisfactory grades – something that was also seen in the Milwaukee area.

The educator effectiveness program calls for upgrades and relative normalization of teacher evaluation programs statewide. Each district will have the chance to create their own rubrics, which could play a role in city-to-city inconsistencies but will still create a more centralized system of grading.

These evaluations and rubrics will be based off the 2011 Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) standards, which are a solid set of professional practice standards. For teachers, this means that their local districts will have to define the domains in which they’ll have to show mastery – or at the very least, competence.

This rubric will include consistency over multiple evaluations, as observations and other supplemental data will be collected at several points throughout the year. Administrators tasked with orchestrating these observations will have to be trained beforehand to identify the InTASC standards, any specific changes their district has made, and apply the slate to the teaching performance that they oversee.

That’s a new level of responsibility beyond what principals had previously brought to the table in teacher evaluations.

However, one of the issues with evaluations is time constraints. One of the problems with Wisconsin’s prior forms of teacher grading was that local principals often scrambled to find enough time for one or two classroom sit-ins per year. The implementation of this program will necessitate the creation of a new class of Department of Public Instruction worker in order to facilitate these in-person evaluations.

The concern here will be filling these positions for the 2014-2015 rollout.

Expanding the scope of in-class teacher evaluations and creating a standardized system for districts across Wisconsin is a strong step forward even without the addition of value-added student data. These reports will have to prove to be more comprehensive than the current system, which, at face value, does little to discipline bad teachers. Fortunately for the Badger State, branching out from InTASC standards and upping the importance and frequency of these visits should be a beneficial change.

There is much work to be done to implement the proposed educator effectiveness program. While the basis of the system is strong, it is also vulnerable thanks to Wisconsin’s history with student data collection and an ineffective past when it comes to disciplining bad teachers or rewarding good ones through classroom evaluations. This new program will have to be revolutionary when it comes to aggregating value-added data from students. Any compromise on the matter will leave the state with another half measure where a full measure is needed.

This applies to teacher evaluations as well. Though the plan for statewide reform is a strong one, it must be followed through in precise strokes to unify the process across the state. This reform, along with the idea of tying teacher grades to student performance, can affect meaningful, positive change. However, in the political minefield of Wisconsin public education in 2011, they are vulnerable for attack, and any weakness could turn the system into an expensive albatross that hangs off the neck of Wisconsin’s classrooms everywhere.