Yearly performance reviews, merit-based pay and peer evaluations could all be on the table as the Omaha Public Schools board takes a fresh look at evaluating teachers.
The conversation comes as the district creates its first strategic plan in more than a decade.
“We know with every strategic plan across the country, high-quality teachers are one of those large umbrellas in the plan and we know teacher evaluation is a part of that,” school board President Justin Wayne said.
Any new proposals are likely to focus on how often teacher evaluations take place and whether student achievement — including test scores — and feedback from fellow teachers, parents and students should factor into evaluations.
“Some board members are looking to increase annual formal reviews, and I think this board will have a conversation about teacher pay and how that works,” Wayne said.
The OPS board was recently briefed on the district's current teacher evaluation system. The board has not set a time line for making any changes. The strategic plan is merely a springboard to discuss what, if anything, should be tweaked, Wayne said.
Test scores or other gauges of student achievement aren't factored into OPS evaluations. The district evaluates tenured teachers every three years and nontenured teachers annually. Teachers gain tenure after working in a district for three years.
Board member Matt Scanlan said he'd be interested in debating the merits of annual evaluations.
“If a teacher's doing a great job, the evaluation will show that,” he said. “Many companies do more than just one evaluation of employees in a year.”
OPS Superintendent Mark Evans helped establish a peer-review model when he worked in the Wichita Public Schools.
That kind of system could work in OPS, Wayne said, but it would require a change in state law, which now requires administrators to conduct evaluations.
Scanlan and board member Marian Fey said any attempt to tie student achievement to a teacher's job performance must be weighed carefully.
“I think that will have to be part of the discussion, but it's a very difficult thing to just go off test scores,” Scanlan said. “Classroom makeup is different from grade to grade and school to school, and you have to make sure you're comparing apples to apples.”
Fey said studies haven't shown a clear link between student achievement and a teacher's effectiveness, arguing that outside factors such as parental involvement and poverty can have just as big an impact on how well a child does in school as their teacher.
“I'd caution against weighing student achievement much, if at all,” she said.
Omaha Education Association President Chris Proulx said his union expects that the strategic plan will usher in some changes. Members are holding internal discussions on what changes could be coming and the pros and cons of the current framework.
“We're trying to put everything on the table and see where people stand on different topics,” he said.
The question of how to evaluate teachers can be a minefield. A 2012 bill calling for annual evaluations for all Nebraska teachers ran into dogged opposition from school administrators and the state's teachers union, and it died in committee.
Nebraska law requires that school districts adopt a written evaluation policy, and reviews must take into consideration instructional performance, classroom management and personal and professional conduct.
At a meeting Monday, several OPS board members questioned how the district dealt with problem teachers, or those who might be struggling in their first years on the job.
Problem teachers can be handed straight to the district's human resource department, but help is available for those who simply have trouble managing a class of 20 energetic kids or teaching one subject in particular, said Janice Garnett, OPS's assistant superintendent for human resources.
Informal interventions can be launched by a principal or assistant principal, allowing a teacher to receive coaching or a detailed improvement plan during a six- to eight-week period. If the problem persists, human resources steps in and launches a formal intervention that could end with an employment recommendation.
“We're really talking about a very small number when we're talking about teachers in need of assistance,” human resources administrator Nicole Regan said.
Of OPS's 3,800 teachers, 17 were placed on informal intervention last year. Ten of those teachers moved into the formal intervention phase and several ultimately resigned.
Teacher evaluations have gained new prominence in recent years, due in part to an unflattering 2009 study of evaluation methods and federal funding programs such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind that have tied grants and waivers to increased teacher accountability. A recently released report from the Center for Public Education found more than two-thirds of states have overhauled their teacher evaluation systems since 2009.
The Center for Public Education report found most states now weigh test scores as part of an evaluation, but link that with more traditional assessments, such as classroom observations and lesson plan reviews.
This year, the Nebraska Department of Education began piloting a two-year teacher and principal evaluation model in 17 school districts, including Bellevue.
The model is still under development, but it currently uses student learning objectives — not test scores — to review teachers. Teachers and principals set learning targets at the beginning of the school year and review students' academic progress throughout the year.