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Pittsfield High School science teacher Kelly Ziemba teaches ninth-grade students how to extract DNA from kiwi in biology class. Though educators say new evaluation requirements eat up a lot of time, they believe the feedback is worthwhile.

PITTSFIELD -- Halfway through the first full year of the Massachusetts Educator Evaluation System in Pittsfield Schools, the overall grade it will receive from the staff here remains in doubt.

What isn't nebulous is that the new state model for assessing teachers, counselors, principals, superintendents and other educators is far more time-consuming than the evaluations done in the past -- eating up hours that could be spent in the classroom or developing education plans on the administrative level.

But educators also say they value the year-round assessment and feedback process they're now immersed in and hope it will become easier and more streamlined in coming years.

After a launch of the new format last year with a limited number of teachers, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said all 600 educators in Pittsfield's dozen schools are involved this school year. Principals, deans, the superintendent and other educators are facing greatly enhanced evaluations as well.

"I think it has gone well for teachers, and we've had good cooperation from the union," McCandless said. "But I am very concerned, for both teachers and principals, about the amount of time taken away from what is their primary job -- teaching students."

For teachers, the process generally involves working with their designated evaluator -- a principal, dean or other supervisor -- and beginning by jointly setting educational and professional development goals. Progress is measured with the help of materials collected by teachers to illustrate their progress and that of their students for inclusion in mid-term and year-end reports.

While each school district is expected to develop details of its own evaluation process, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has provided a comprehensive evaluation model format.

After the first year, the evaluations for all but first-year teachers and those who've received a "needs improvement" or lower ranking, will be extended over two school years -- with the mid-term assessment at the end of the first year and a final evaluation report after the second.

However, other elements will be added to the process over time. Those include the use of standardized student test scores to evaluate teachers and comments from students and parents. The guidelines for both those aspects are still being worked out and negotiated, with input from teacher unions and other interested parties.

The model format was developed for the department and is based on requirements set by state regulation and provisions of the federal Race to the Top program. The process has been rolled out over past two years, with school districts across Massachusetts implementing it at varying rates.

A stack of binders

McCandless said he recently saw a striking illustration of the amount of work principals are facing when visiting the office of Morningside Community School Principal Joseph Curtis.

"There were 20 to 25 binders on his desk," McCandless said, representing mid-term progress reports by many of the 37 teachers at Morningside. It took time for the teachers to refine their goals and to collect evidence of progress for the reports in those binders, McCandless said, "and it will take 60 to 90 minutes each" for Curtis to read them and provide formal comments.

"That's on top of 10- to 12-hour days anyway," he said, adding that the more time-consuming final evaluation reports are required in June.

Announced and unannounced classroom visits to observe teachers also are called for under the new format. A principal, for instance, is expected to do about two classroom visits per school day and fill out a report form with comments on each.

The process also is being implemented amid pressure from the state to have students score well on standardized tests, McCandless said. "At some point," he added, "the workability of accountability has to be taken into consideration."

But the superintendent quickly notes the positive effects of the interaction and feedback everyone receives; he said it points to significant benefits and a more intense focus on the quality of education in Pittsfield schools.

Curtis, interviewed at Morningside School as he sat before a tabletop piled with teacher evaluation binders, both praised the process as far more beneficial than evaluations in the past, and smiled though a cringe at thoughts of the added workload.

"We [principals] are kind of caught in the middle," Curtis said, referring to the evaluation school leaders will receive from the administration and superintendent -- also involving goal-setting and written reports.

But he adds that evaluations in the past "did not provide a structure for dialogue among teachers and educators," which the new system makes a necessity. That includes more interaction among principals across the system, he said, who meet to share information and consider districtwide educational goals.

On the other hand, the principal said, the amount of time involved "has about tripled" this year.

The pile of teacher report binders Curtis was set to plunge into contained evidence of progress from the classrooms -- such as examples of student work -- and an assessment of how the teacher believes his or her goals are being met. How progress toward the general standards listed in the state model is shown is primarily up to the teacher.

The principal or other evaluator will then fill out a form for each report and add written comments, and the process is repeated at the end of the evaluation term in June.

The lengthy evaluation model and guidelines provided by the state are, in a word, comprehensive. Details are posted at www.doe.mass.edu/ edeval/model.

There are guides for goal-setting and evaluating progress, but in the end, the final "mark" comes down to whether an educator is judged "exemplary," "proficient," "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory."

Curtis said that under the old, localized evaluation method, there were far fewer opportunities to meet with or watch teachers work, or provide them with feedback. Now, there are meetings to set goals, meetings to review progress, written reports, and more visits to the classroom to watch teachers at work.

Unlike sometimes in the past, he said, there should be no uncertainty as to how the evaluator views a teacher's performance or over what can be done to show improvement.

"There is a lot more opportunity for interactions with teachers and to give feedback," Curtis said. "And it has all been very positive thus far. They expect that and they accept it."

Union head optimistic

"I feel that right now we are all learning it," said Brendan Sheran, president of the United Educators of Pittsfield, which represents the teaching staff in city schools.

"The process is all about continuous growth and feedback," he said. "That's a benefit, but it has been a change for people."

Sheran said the additional phases of the process -- adding test scores and student and parent comments to evaluations -- have yet to be decided upon but likely will have to be included.

"It is a difficult way to do it; more time definitely is needed," he said. "But I think that ultimately it will be worthwhile."

Sheran, who teaches social studies at Pittsfield High, said a key component in city schools has been a joint labor group that was established to discuss implementation of the new system and to address issues as they arise. "This has worked very well," he said.

The group includes representatives from the administration, the School Committee, and the union.

Judging from conversation among teachers, he said, "This is now overwhelming for people, but I think as we go through it, it will get easier."

Sheran said he has proposed setting aside some teacher professional development time, which is scheduled throughout the year, for workshops on such topics as refining goals.

An evaluator in a much larger school, Pittsfield High School Principal Matt Bishop was interviewed before he headed home to work on some of the 50 teacher evaluation binders that had to be reviewed that week. He does, however, receive help from vice principals, deans of students and special educator, vocational education department heads and others who also act as evaluators.

"We are spending a lot of time on these," Bishop said, citing evaluations involving reports due now and in June for about two-thirds of the PHS teaching staff of about 100.

"It certainly feels overwhelming right now," he said, but adds, "Overall, I like the spirit of it. It makes you reflect on your practice. That's the power of this."

Evaluation procedures used in the past "didn't do that," Bishop said.

The time involved in classroom visits, he said, is about 15 to 20 minutes of observing a teacher and then writing up a report. The average for a principal is expected to be two class visits per day, with first-year teachers receiving five visits a year, others fewer.

"To do this right, it really is time-consuming," he said.

There is the hope, Bishop said, that in a few years the process will become familiar and take less time. "Of course, this is all new," he said. "And to do it well, you have to put the time in."

To reach Jim Therrien:
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