By Kathy Megan

A University of Connecticut report on the pilot for the state’s ne teacher evaluation system finds that it provides more guidance for teachers, but raises questions about whether educators have enough time to carry out the demanding assessments.

The new evaluation system, which started in 14 districts last year and expanded statewide in September, ties a teacher’s performance rating to student achievement, including students’ test scores, as well as a variety of other factors, such as classroom observations by administrators.

Deborah Wheeler, superintendent of Litchfield public schools, one of the pilot districts, said that teachers spent “more time on goal setting,” allowing them “to look deeply at their own practice and at the needs of the students sitting in front of them.”

Wheeler said her staff found that the new evaluation produced “a depth, a richness,” to the conversations between administrators and teachers that they hadn’t seen previously. “I don’t believe that we found anyone we rated unusually low who we were not aware of already,” she said.

The $265,000 study of the 2012-13 school year pilot was done by UConn’s Neag School of Education and was submitted to the legislature this week. The state spent $2.7 million to pilot the new evaluation system, which is intended ultimately to raise student achievement.

Morgaen L. Donaldson, who was part of the Neag team of researchers, said the study showed that one of the successes of the new system was to increase the number of observations of teachers in classrooms.

Half of teachers reported that their classrooms were observed more often under the new system and 57 percent of teachers said that their post-observation conferences with administrators were “valuable.”

“The fact that a large number of teachers received more observations was, I think, something that the initiative did well,” said Donaldson.

The study found that all administrators said they struggled to complete the required observations, but the overwhelming majority — 94 percent — reported that the observations under the new evaluation system were “somewhat” or “very valuable” to them.

Forty-four percent of teachers said that feedback from observations prompted them to change their practice, while 25 percent said it did not.

But the report also points out shortcomings in the implementation of the pilot, most of them related to the short time line that districts had to put the evaluation system in place, as well as the time squeeze for administrators who were expected to carry out many more observations of classroom teachers than in the past.

While 51 percent of teachers felt that administrators had the knowledge to evaluate them accurately, only 17 percent of teachers felt that their supervisor had the time and resources needed to carry out the evaluation system.

Forty-two percent of teachers and 74 percent of administrators said they felt that with sufficient resources, such as time and staffing, the new teacher evaluation system could improve teacher practice at their schools.

The teachers in the pilot received one of four ratings, with nearly three-quarters rated as proficient and 23 percent given the top rating as exemplary. Less than 1 percent of teachers received the bottom rating and 4 percent were rated as “developing.”

Jeffrey Villar, who was superintendent in Windsor until October and who is now executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said that the evaluation system “has a long way to go. It’s a very complex system. When we were piloting it, it was still being designed.”

Villar said that it might take awhile to get truly accurate ratings for teachers. “In the first year, we found a tendency not to be as critical until folks really understand how the system works,” he said.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the research gives “us added confidence that the system has the potential to improve instruction for our students and that the state can make implementation even better through continued and improved supports provided to teachers, schools and districts.”

“The fact that Neag researchers find there is potential for this system to lead to improvement in both teacher practice and student learning is profoundly important and we are grateful for that conclusion,” said Pryor.

Pryor said he expects that the system will evolve with feedback from teachers, administrators and others. He noted that it has already been tweaked in a major way since last year: The required number of teacher observations has been cut in half from six last year to a minimum of three this year to lessen the burden on administrators.

Melodie Peters, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, said in a statement that the union is “not in disagreement with the findings and recommendations in the UConn Neag study. … Going forward, we intend to remain fully engaged in the process of effectively implementing a better and more effective evaluation system.”

Another aspect of the evaluation system that has not been fully realized, the report said, is the recommendation of professional training to address any weaknesses that are identified by the evaluation process. The report said that “almost no teachers” received “specific recommendations of professional growth opportunities.”

Donaldson said this was not surprising because most districts were simply focused on executing the evaluation system. “The districts just didn’t have the resources to get to that point,” said Donaldson.

The Neag report also recommended additional opportunities for educators to learn about the new teacher evaluation; programs to build the skills of those who evaluate teachers; providing more help with setting learning goals and targets for students; disseminating promising practices; and finding others besides administrators to make teacher observations.

The report also recommends that the state continue to track the implementation of the new evaluation system and its effects. “Specifically,” the report says, “we recommend that the relationship between [the new evaluation system] and student achievement be examined.”

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