Editorial: New evaluations should encourage collaboration

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane’s efforts to make teacher evaluations more rigorous have brought praise and criticism.

Opponents, namely the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, note that the standards of these evaluations are significantly higher than anywhere in Pennsylvania. Proponents note the much-needed strengthening in evaluations as a way to improve the teaching standards of public schools across the city.

Based on a dry run of the performance levels using 2011-2012 data, the updated evaluation, which sorts teachers into “distinguished,” “proficient,” “needs improvement” and now, “failing,” tracked that 9.3 percent of city classroom teachers would be placed into the failing category. Under the old system, the performance of about 3 percent of teachers was deemed unsatisfactory.

The newer, more stringent measures certainly should be kept, and that should go without saying. But holding our teachers to higher standards should not prompt school districts to immediately fire failing teachers — in fact, teachers can only be fired after two consecutive failing ratings — but should instead serve as a catalyst to improve and enhance their teaching abilities. Initiatives to do just that have been conducted by schools in other U.S. cities, including New York City public schools, Boston’s pre-K program and the University of Chicago charter school — and their success should inspire Pittsburgh schools to implement similar programs to improve teaching skills in those educators who are underperforming.

The newer evaluations draw from previously established state standards such as classroom observations and student test scores, but unlike traditional evaluations, the new form also factors in student surveys. These indicators shed light on how teachers can improve: increased interaction with students inside and outside the classroom, insight from other teachers that have better success and frequent programs and training sessions to enhance teaching skills.

Success has been found in school districts that offer students more time with teachers in a multitude of media, whether it be one-on-one teaching, after-school programs, tutoring sessions or smaller class sizes. Situations in which teachers are more accessible to students show positive effects on test scores and student success inside and outside the classroom.

What is more, mentoring sessions and collaborative teaching efforts should be pursued more heavily to ensure teachers are exchanging effective teaching practices to decrease the number of teachers who are receiving failing grades.

According to the new evaluation standards, 85 percent perform proficient or above, including 15.3 percent who would have been categorized as distinguished. Those teachers need to be able to improve the skills of teachers who aren’t in those categories. Collaboration betweeen teachers within individual schools and school districts is essential in exchanging productive feedback between educators.

Teaching is a profession that is supposed to allow personalized styles to enter the workplace of academia. These educators have to be open to feedback and flexibility, and administrators have to realize this to effectively improve teachers’ skills in Pittsburgh’s public schools.