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West Deptford Sees Long-Range Upside to Teacher Evaluation Pilot

While implementing a huge change has been difficult this year, school officials said West Deptford is in a better position than the rest of the state will be next year.

Change is never easy, and change on the scale are taking on this with the teacher evaluation pilot program—well, that’s even more difficult.

But, as district Director of Curriculum Kristin O’Neil said in a presentation to a small group of parents Tuesday night, West Deptford will be in a position to be ahead of the rest of the state as federally-mandated changes come through over the next few years.

“This is where the country is going,” she said.

West Deptford was one of just 11 districts statewide —and an accompanying $86,000 grant—back at the beginning of the school year, giving the district the chance to get in a year ahead of the rest of the state and experiment with the evaluation process to help shape how it will look elsewhere next year.

“It was a very big honor and a very big responsibility,” O’Neil said.

And, as it turns out, a very big workload.

It’s been daunting, O’Neil said, for both teachers and administrators, and some of it has been frustrating at best, as much of it has come on the fly, with little lead time.

O’Neil gave credit to the district’s teachers, many of whom have worked on weekends to help make the pilot program workable.

“They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do,” she said.

Much of the heavy lifting has come in what O’Neil called “unpacking the standards”—going through the curriculum to identify the key elements students should be learning throughout the year, whether they’re in third-grade music or high-school English.

That’s been necessary because of a renewed focus on student learning and student growth, year-over-year, as part of the new system of evaluations.

While it’s been touted as a teacher evaluation program, it’s not just teacher evaluations, O’Neil said. In general, it’s split between student achievement—in West Deptford’s case, a combination of test scores and the graduation rate—and the evaluations, which are split between formal and informal evaluations and teacher’s portfolios.

Contrary to some misconceptions, O’Neil said, the teacher evaluations aren’t aimed at axing staff.

“It’s not focused on firing teachers,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about.”

Rather, O’Neil said, those evaluations are aimed more at getting teachers real, usable feedback and improving teachers via professional development than anything else.

“There’s always room for growth, no matter how great you are,” she said.

The process entails both teacher self-assessment, as well as formal and informal evaluations—the number differs whether teachers have tenure—by administrators.

The formal sessions are an in-depth look at a classroom, while the informal sessions are a surprise drop-in, usually lasting about five minutes, where administrators can get a snapshot of a class.

Those started to ramp up in December, when administrators pulled together 210 walk-throughs, and haven’t stopped since. Superintendent Kevin Kitchenman had done seven of those informal evaluations Tuesday alone, in fact.

The one thing the evaluation process leaves out is comments and concerns from parents—at least in the formal and informal evaluations—though O’Neil said both praise and complaints can be factored in as part of the larger picture.

“(Parent) feedback is always considered in the overall process,” she said.

So far, the data they’ve pulled together from those evaluations is encouraging, O’Neil said. One statistic she pointed to went back to the focus on student learning—through 224 evaluations into early January, 94 percent of students were able to explain what they were learning at that moment. And that’s only the very beginning of the information they’ll be able to collect over hundreds more evaluations over the rest of the year.

“It’s like a giant warehouse of data,” O’Neil said.

And as that warehouse fills up, the positives from the pilot program will be even clearer, making he headaches and extra hours worth it, O’Neil said.

“I’m very happy we did it,” she said.

Kitchenman concurred, and said being in the pilot program positions West Deptford to be in a better place sooner than the rest of the state.

“I’d rather be where we are this year than where people are going to be next year,” he said. “We’re doing work now that, over the long run, will bring positive change to our district.”

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