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Fighting back against evaluation bias

by kevin hough - ctu teacher field representative  |  11/08/2017

When REACH was introduced to Chicago Public Schools, proponents argued that it was less subjective than the evaluation checklist used prior to the 2012-2013 school year. Veteran teachers remember the old evaluation system as arbitrary and easily manipulated by the personal sentiments of the evaluator. Now in its sixth year, REACH was designed with the intention to remove or greatly reduce evaluator bias in evaluating the effectiveness of teachers. Yet during the 2014-2015 school year, two schools confirmed that evaluators can still manipulate REACH scores to the harm or benefit of teachers.

Jose De Diego Community Academy is a school that experienced significant trauma over the past four years. In the 2013-2014 school year, Diego became the largest “welcoming” school in CPS, absorbing 215 students from shuttered Duprey, Lafayette and Von Humboldt schools, ensuring that 24 percent of the students were new to the school. Despite effectively managing the merger of four distinct communities, the Chicago Board of Education removed Diego principal Alice Vera and assistant principal Michele Gulo in June 2014, placing both on suspension pending an investigation into attendance fraud.

In 2014-2015, late Network 5 Chief Wanda Washington appointed Patricia Gonzalez as interim principal of Diego. Gonzalez previously served at two charter schools—as principal of Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School and academic director of UNO Soccer Academy. This was her first position as principal of an elementary school. Simultaneously, the district implemented a new student code of conduct which drastically changed the ability for schools to assign discipline.

Gonzalez’s inexperience compounded instability created by the new policy. During the first weeks of school, a female teacher was inappropriately grabbed by a student. The administration allowed the student to remain in the teacher’s class and recommended the teacher create more engaging lessons. A student brought bullets to school on another day. When the principal asked Central Office if she could suspend the student, she was told that she could suspend a student for only one occurrence of such behavior.

An experienced principal would have known how to handle both situations differently, navigate CPS’ disempowering bureaucracy, maintain security at the school and ensure that teachers felt safe reporting to work.

As the year progressed, it became increasingly obvious that Diego needed a leader with practical experience rather than theoretical best practices. Members brought their concerns to the Chicago Teachers Union and publicly advocated for a new principal at Board of Education and Local School Council (LSC) meetings. While Gonzalez never displayed overt forms of retaliation, a collective view of the 2014-2015 REACH ratings for Diego’s teaching staff told a different story.

In 2014-2015, approximately 80 percent of CPS teachers received a rating of “Proficient” or “Excellent,” with 18 percent receiving “Developing” ratings. These statistics were true for Diego’s teachers as well. At the end of that year, however, Diego’s Proficient- and Excellent-rated teachers decreased to 40 percent and Developing-rated teachers increased to 33 percent. One teacher reported receiving ratings of all 3s and two 2s in 2013-2014, but received sixteen 3s and seven 2s during two observations the next year. Another received seven 4s and seventeen 3s in 2013-2014, but then received three 3s, seventeen 2s and three 1s the next year.

Especially revealing were the cases of two teachers who taught first semester at Diego, but transferred to different schools during second semester. The first received one observation at Diego, receiving mostly 2s, before transferring to a top-performing school, where the teacher received all 3s and 4s. The second teacher also received one observation at Diego, receiving nine 2s and six 3s, before transferring to a school on the far North Side. There, the teacher received one 4, thirty-two 3s and only two 2s over three additional observations. Unfortunately for these teachers, their one observation at Diego decreased their scores to the Developing range and they were placed on professional development plans with an annual rating cycle.

The Union consequently filed a grievance on behalf of Diego’s delegate and 19 other colleagues, collectively presenting evidence of each grievant’s involvement in advocating for a change in administration and receipt of miscalibrated observation scores.

Meanwhile, in Rogers Park, teachers at Jordan Elementary experienced their own 2014-2015 REACH abnormalities issued by an interim principal. During the 2012-2013 school year, long time Jordan principal Maurice Harvey retired, and new principal Syed Ahmed resigned abruptly at the start of the 2013-2014 year. After a year of interim principals, the 2014-2015 school year began with another interim principal, Ashley Peterson, and it was quickly understood that Peterson intended to apply for the principal contract as she was assigned by the network chief while the LSC conducted the principal selection process.

For various reasons, Peterson was divisive to the staff and the LSC, according to reports. Her supporters felt strongly that she was a positive match for the school, while opponents were vocal in their disapproval. Ultimately, the LSC decided to extend a contract to an outside candidate from Saucedo Elementary School.

In a situation similar to Diego, although not as widespread, six employees—all of whom were previously rated Proficient under the previous two administrations—received strikingly low REACH scores. As with the Diego grievance, the Union filed a grievance on behalf of the members and alleged retaliation and miscalibration in rating scores.

It’s important to note here that in both cases, when the current administrators at Diego and Jordan assumed REACH evaluation duties in 2015-2016, teachers’ REACH scores generally increased to their pre-2014-2015 ratings—Proficient. In September 2017, the Board presented grievants from both Jordan and Diego settlement offers which rescinded the ratings for 2014-2015 and replaced them with an “Inability to Rate” defaulting most to Proficient. One member who was laid off out of seniority due to the flawed rating was granted restoration of all benefit days and placement in the Reassigned Teacher Pool.

These two cases are an example of the necessity for individual schools to closely monitor REACH scores at a school-wide level, particularly when there is a change in administration or evaluators. Every Delegate and Professional Problems Committee should encourage members to share REACH observation scores to track variances. Some may be as simple as observing that scores from one evaluator are regularly lower than another evaluator. Or as in the case of Diego and Jordan, that scores fell directly after members engaged in advocacy which administration determined to be hostile.

Many of our members have heard administrators eagerly proclaim that if you are working in a low-performing school, it is impossible for the school to have high professional practice scores. Such a conclusion is ignorant and unsubstantiated by research. If you believe your evaluators are affected by this bias, contact your CTU organizer or field representative to discuss strategies to confront this false conclusion. Also contact your field representative if you need assistance in establishing a school-wide system for tracking rating scores.

Jose de Diego Community Academy. (Photo: Brule Laker/Flickr)

Chicago Teachers Union