Life of Learning
8:21 pm
Mon February 17, 2014

Black Community Leaders Come Out in Support of Pittsburgh's Teacher Evaluation System

Activists rally outside Pittsburgh King PreK-8 School on the North Side Monday morning.
Activists rally outside Pittsburgh King PreK-8 School on the North Side Monday morning.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

A coalition of parents, civil rights advocates and clergy stood huddled together in the cold outside Pittsburgh King PreK-8 School on the North Side Monday morning to announce their support for the school district’s teacher evaluation system.

Development of evaluation criteria was a joint effort by the school district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the district’s educators. Under a trial run of the new evaluation system, 85 percent of the district’s teachers were found to be either proficient or distinguished, while 9 percent of the district’s teachers received the lowest possible score of “unsatisfactory.” The union has pointed to the latter figure as evidence that the point ranges need some tweaking.

“I am not anti-teacher, nor am I anti-teacher union. I am anti-failure,” said Dwayne Barker, whose two children both attend King.

Barker pointed to the fact that 85 percent of the district’s teachers have been deemed proficient or distinguished as evidence that the evaluation system is appropriate.

“The good news is that effective teachers are in every one of our schools in the district," Barker said. "That gives me hope that some of our teachers have the talent to close the racial achievement gap. The bad news is that failing teachers are more likely to become concentrated in our more high-risk schools where the majority of students are African American.”

According to the Pittsburgh Public Schools website, the district’s achievement gap in reading proficiency between black and white students is 21.2 percentage points. For math proficiency, the gap is 13.3 percentage points.

The district has not released specific information that juxtaposes individual schools’ demographics with the results of teacher evaluations. However, a document available on the Pittsburgh Public Schools website titled “Top Takeaways about Teacher Effectiveness in Pittsburgh Public Schools” does acknowledge that the data suggest the best teachers are not distributed equally across all schools in the district.

“Within our schools serving more than 95 percent low-income students or students of color, 12 percent of teachers are performing at the highest level of effectiveness. This is not very different than the percent of teachers reaching this level at other schools (16 percent),” reads the document. “There is no doubt that success is possible. At the same time, our highest-need students are more likely to spend time with a teacher at the lowest level of performance. We must work together to increase the number of high-needs students taught by highly effective teachers.”

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said there are broad misunderstandings about the union’s beef with the evaluation system.

“The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and over 400 of our teachers have been involved in crafting the new evaluation system over the past five years,” said Esposito-Visgitis.

She said it’s not the evaluation system itself with which the teachers disagree, it’s how the district set its score ranges.

In order to be deemed proficient under the district’s evaluation system, a teacher must receive a score of at least 155 points out of a possible 300 points. Teachers in the 140-155 point range are classified as “needs improvement,” while teachers with fewer than 140 points are determined to be “failing.”

The state teacher evaluation system works on three-point scale. A score of 0.5 to 1.49 points means a teacher “needs improvement,” and a score of 0.49 points or below means a teacher is “failing.”

Teachers whose scores fall in the “needs improvement” range are still considered satisfactory, but they will be required to participate in a performance improvement plan. Teachers who are found to be “failing” two years in a row could face dismissal.

Esposito-Visgitis said that roughly the same number of teachers would be required to participate in performance improvement plans under the state’s point ranges, but that fewer teachers would be marked as “failing” and more would fall into the “needs improvement” category instead. She said she is concerned that such a narrow “needs improvement” category could drive teachers away from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Esposito-Visgitis said she agrees with those who say the city’s minority and poor children bear the brunt of the negative effects of lax teaching standards.

“That’s why we have worked so hard to develop this system and have put a great deal of effort into the evaluation system for the past five years,” she said. “We have worked tirelessly, and our teachers have too … to make an evaluation and growth system that grows teachers that in turn can help grow our students.”