Schools on new turf with teacher evaluations

HARLINGEN — Teacher Beatrice Cruz remembers the discomfort she felt when appraisers evaluated her under the old system.

The Harlingen school district has transitioned from an old teacher evaluation system to a new one.

Under the old system, PDAS — Professional Development and Appraisal System — appraisers could insert their own biases into the evaluation. The PDAS was subjective enough to allow that, leaving teachers at the mercy of the appraisers. Subjectivity refers to the use of opinions in making decisions.

Cruz, who teaches fifth grade at Zavala Elementary, is much happier with the new system, the T-TESS — Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System.

“The T-TESS is a lot more objective,” Cruz said. “The expectations are more specific and detail-oriented. It has a very clear and concise set of expectations.”

Related to the concern about objectivity is that regarding fairness. Many might be concerned about conflict of interest with principals evaluating teachers.

The T-TESS is designed to keep that from happening, said Veronica Kortan, administrator for organizational development. Those preventive measures actually caught everyone a little off guard.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “That was the biggest mind shift. T-TESS is extremely heavy on evidence-based ratings. And so the rubric gives you very specific behaviors and very specific goals have to be accomplished in order to get a particular rating.”

In other words, appraisers must provide digital or paper evidence for every rating.

Some teachers have taken exception to the element in both the T-TESS and PDAS in which an appraiser makes a formal 45-minute visit to a classroom. During the visit, the teacher is evaluated.

“It’s not going to give an accurate picture of a teacher’s true ability,” said Paul Tenison, a pre-engineering teacher at Harlingen High School.

“The only way an administrator will be able to evaluate a teacher is by regular walk-throughs,” he said. “You can’t go in like three to four times and tell what kind of teacher I am.”

Kortan said both evaluations did have a requirement that appraisers do numerous informal walk-throughs during the year.

“Those have to be included in the evaluation, not just the 45 minutes,” she said.

Cruz talked about her appraiser visiting her classroom.

“Throughout the year he did walk-throughs, which are like shorter, more informal observations,” she said. “Then he did the 45-minute observation which is the official one.”

Tenison said he did have about five walk-throughs. He speculated administrators perform more walk-throughs in core classes such as English and history than in elective classes.

“You have to go in 20 to 30 times to truly base your evaluation,” he said. “We got feedback. I did appreciate it. I got proficient across the board.”

Kortan has commented that a rating of “Proficient” is a “rock-solid teacher.”

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association has expressed concerns that the T-TESS is too detailed and therefore too time-consuming. The organization questioned whether teachers and appraisers would have time for the extra conferences and requirements.

Kortan said T-TESS produces a lot of the clarity in how to assess and evaluate teachers.

“It’s very detailed and it’s easy to understand,” she said. “There was a rubric with PDAS but we wanted a little bit more guidance and clarity.”

As far as the time required for so many details and conferences, this year has been one of transformation in the way teachers and administrators understand education.

“It took us to a place where we learned a lot,” Kortan said. “This year was very unique. It took a lot of time.”

In this case, time translates into investment, not in stocks or bonds or property, but in the future. These efforts are like generators producing the power to propel the next generation forward, and the next, and the next.

Editor’s Note

This is the second part of a series of stories on the Harlingen school district’s new system for evaluating teachers.