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Wiscasset High Experiments with New Teacher Evaluation System
12/05/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Wiscasset High is a school in transition. These days, more kids are transfering into Wiscasset in 10th or 11th grade -already behind the eight ball academically after struggling at other high schools. Transient students typically come from poor families. As much as 50 percent of Wiscasset's student body of 215 are now poor enough to get free and reduced lunch from the federal government. These changing demographics are making teaching and learning at the school more of a challenge. But as Jay Field reports in the second of a two-part series, they've also given Wiscasset a unique opportunity to be one of the first schools in Maine to experiment with a new teacher evaluation system.

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Kelley Duffy (above) and her colleagues at Wiscasset High School are being asked to embrace a much more rigorous system for evaluating their effectiveness in the classroom.

Kelley Duffy's seniors have spent the past hour debating the limits of power under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Now, Duffy and her students tie the threads of the lesson together as today's session of Principles of Democracy, a 12th-grade government and economics class, winds down.

"So the first thing I want you to do before we discuss any further is take a minute and go back to your opinion that you wrote down at the start," Duffy says. "Are you in favor of, you know, greater gun control or not? Now write down your answer at the end of the debate. Is it the same answer, or is it now the same answer?"

Students write out their answers and hand them to Duffy, who quickly scans them. "Clearly, as you guys got into this, one of the things that was affecting the course of the debate was the scope of the way the amendment is being applied."

Duffy is a veteran educator with many of the qualities you look for in a great teacher. She communicates with her kids in an easygoing, yet firm, way, challenging them and encouraging them - all while leaving no doubt about her control over her classroom.

Duffey's got the deep content knowledge that comes with a Bachelor's degree in political science from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the Master's she's getting in public policy at the University of Southern Maine. But having lots of experience and a solid resume can still seem like a pretty thin security blanket in the face of the kind of changes that are about to happen at Wiscasset High.

"If you're assesed at distinguished or effective, you're on a three-year, individualized growth plan," says Wiscasset's principal, Deb Taylor, as she briefs teachers on a new system to evaluate their performance.

Inside the school's library, Taylor stands in front of an overhead projector. Up on the screen are the different ratings a teacher can get. Teachers will get graded on a 100-point scale, through classroom observation by administrators and peers, and eventually, by how much their kids improve, too.

"Distinguished" or "effective" is where you want to be. A rating of "developing" puts you on a closely-monitored improvement plan with lots of classroom coaching and professional development. Taylor points at a flow chart, to the place where teachers end up if they don't get better.

"You get there either by being assessed as "ineffective" or "developing" for two years in a row," she says. "You end up on a one-year directed improvement plan. 'Does not improve' - there's an arrow below 'does not improve' there and it doesn't look good."

"Teacher is dismissed," reads the caption below the arrow. A bill passed by the Legislature last spring requires all schools to come up with their own teacher evaluation plans in the coming years.

But a handful of schools across the state have already gotten a headstart on this work, thanks to millions of dollars in grant money from the Teacher Incentive Fund. The federal grants give schools free reign to experiment with evaluation models, as long as they take student performance into account and look for ways to pay teachers more money if their kids do better.

After the meeting, I ask Taylor how she thinks the rollout went over with her staff. "I think it's anxiety provoking," she says. "To be very candid, I think its anxiety provoking for teachers."

Taylor says that's because data will be used in the evaluation process in ways it's never been used in Maine before. "No more is it about generalities," she says. "It's really - you can't get past the data and the specifics of what is observed and how it connects to the data."

The teachers you think might be the most nervous about the new system - the rookies - don't seem all that worried. Prema Long recently got her degree at the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine.

"Their goal is to prepare 21st century teachers that are going into these new systems and going into teacher incentive programs and those types of things," Long says.

Other teachers, though, are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Kelly Duffy says the there are many complicated details of the system that will need to be ironed out before teachers will feel more at ease and buy in more willingly.

"The idea that we should target kids skills using test data and work on really specific goals...that's great," Duffy says. "It's how we tie this to teacher evaluation, teacher pay - those are the pieces that are up in the air a lot."

And that's not likely to change, at least in the short term, as Wiscasset High experiments with its teacher new evaluation system.

Photos by Jay Field.



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