What the report card says about Illinois teachers

What the report card says about Illinois teachers

You’ve read about the recent state school report card statistics that parse student achievement in every district. But you may not have seen much about another compelling statistic. It concerns teacher evaluations statewide. That measurement is just as vital as student scores. The quality of the teacher in front of the class is the single most important factor in helping kids learn — or not.

Intrigued? Good. But before we get to new numbers, a brief backgrounder: In 2010, Illinois lawmakers passed a reform that mandated tougher teacher evaluations, not just in Chicago but statewide. CPS was among the first to roll out a new, more stringent evaluation system that tied teacher ratings to student academic growth and an array of other measures. That was a milestone because for many years, almost every Chicago teacher (and, we’re betting, most statewide) was rated as above average. Vanishingly few — 0.3 percent, with a decimal point at the front of that 3 — earned an unsatisfactory rank.

That was fine with the teachers unions because their dues-paying members kept their jobs. But a weak evaluation system had kept poorly performing teachers in front of classrooms, shortchanging students year after year.

That was then. And now? The latest Illinois state school report card for the first time reports district-by-district teacher evaluation results and a statewide average of all teachers who make a passing grade by finishing in the top two ranking categories. Statewide, that number is an eyebrow-raising, credibility-challenging 97 percent.

Of the 771 districts reporting evaluation data, about 6 in 10 schools rated every teacher in the top two categories, according to an analysis by Brad White, interim director of the Illinois Education Research Council at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Is this “Lake Wobegon Effect” (everyone’s above average) plausible? Please.

And CPS? Overall, the district reported lower — more realistic, we’d say — figures. About 89 percent of CPS teachers now earn a rating in the top two categories — ”excellent” or “proficient.” About 10 percent land in the third category, “developing,” for teachers who need to improve. And fewer than 1 percent of teachers — about 0.7 percent — are “unsatisfactory,” which means a teacher either improves rapidly or faces possible firing.

Only 11 districts had a lower number of teachers rated in the top categories, White tells us. The lowest: 81.5 percent reported by Century Unit District 100 in Ullin in southern Illinois. His takeaway on the CPS metrics? “CPS deserves credit for taking teacher evaluation seriously and not taking the easy way out, especially in light of data suggesting that most districts in the state rated all of their teachers in one of the top two categories,” White says. We agree.

We don’t know what the ideal distribution of scores should be at CPS or statewide. In 2012, however, CPS leaders told us that about 70 percent of Chicago’s teachers would fit into the top two categories, not the current 89 percent. They projected that about 27 percent — almost triple the current figure — would fall into the “needs improvement” category. Officials estimated about 3 percent would be deemed unsatisfactory — about four times the current share. Is CPS grading as rigorously as it projected?

Bigger question: Why the gap between CPS and the rest of the state? Unclear.

Whatever the reasons, parents across the state should keep a close eye on teacher grades in their child’s school and district. (You can find your district’s teacher evaluation results on the state’s interactive report card site, www.illinoisreportcard.com.) Parents will see in the next few years if the rest of the state’s schools show a CPS-like shift to what’s likely to be a more realistic curve. Or if Lake Wobegon Effect continues. Parents, be skeptical.

Evaluations alone don’t drive superior performance. But honest appraisals give teachers feedback so they can improve. They may encourage the best teachers to stay and the worst to leave. In private companies, performance reports often drive who gets raises or promotions and who gets shown the door. Teaching should be no different.

Keep the pressure on, CPS leaders. You look to be ahead of the curve. Now, will the rest of the state catch up?

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