SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | Illinois' slow implementation of a teacher evaluation program aimed at grading teachers partly on whether their students' test scores are improving is creating problems for school districts beyond Chicago that will be using the groundbreaking reforms for the first time.
Problems include the state's inability so far to obtain a waiver from some of the more punitive tenets of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including requiring 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The 34 individual districts making evaluation changes this year also say they're not getting help in preparing to implement them.
"The state board has not given much guidance with incorporating the student growth," said Tim Buss, superintendent of Wabash District 348 in downstate Mount Carmel. His 1,600-student district this fall will begin tying student performance to evaluations for its 125 teachers.
"They talked about coming out with a template; we have yet to see that."
As districts change how they judge teachers, there is little state support available, Eastern Illinois University education chair Marleis Trover said, particularly for districts that don't have a large administrative staff or can't afford to hire outside help.
"The whole idea is a good idea," Trover said of the reforms. "But it's implementation" that involves difficulties.
Illinois' 2009 Performance Evaluation Reform Act requires districts to design and implement evaluation systems that assess teachers' and principals' professional skills. By 2016, 70 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on observations of classroom performance. The other 30 percent will be based on "student growth" — students' improvement on a combination of national, district or teacher-developed tests.
While all Illinois teachers must be rated using the same categories — excellent, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory — districts will decide which assessments they'll use to gauge student growth. State law now requires performance, not seniority, to be prioritized in layoff decisions. High ratings are required for at least two consecutive years before tenure is granted.
The law was hailed as historic, and part of a national trend, spurred by states' desire to qualify for the Obama administration's Race to the Top federal education grants.
The student growth component of the evaluations will be phased in, with all districts tying student performance to teacher evaluations by the 2016-17 school year.
Last year, Chicago Public Schools began incorporating student tests into evaluations. This fall, 34 districts that received federal education stimulus money — including Wabash — will begin using the new criteria.
The lowest performing 20 percent of schools statewide come next, in 2015.
In 2011, the Obama administration began offering an "out" to the federal education law passed a decade before, which works by punishing districts for not meeting federal benchmarks. Waivers, the administration said, would be given to states that agreed to adopt certain education ideas, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.
Illinois quickly sought a waiver in 2012 because of its implementation timetable on evaluations. It continues to wait on a verdict.
"The issue has been how quickly we implement teacher evaluations," state board of education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. "The feds would like that to be a year earlier. We have said we'd like to follow what's in the state law."
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Education announced it's now permitting some case-by-case flexibility on states' time lines in using growth in teacher evaluations. Illinois is seeking an exception.
States nationwide — including Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida and Nevada — have been given waivers, after their teacher evaluation systems were approved by the Education Department.
Meanwhile, the number of schools in Illinois labeled "failing" by the federal government continues to increase. More than 82 percent of the state's 860 school districts failed to meet federal benchmarks in 2012, up from 64 percent in 2010, according to the state board.
Fergus said a state board study that's expected to be finished next fall will review CPS and the Race to the Top fund recipients' use of the new evaluation systems. A state-appointed committee has yet to come up with an evaluation model to use as a blueprint for districts statewide, something local superintendents say would help eliminate problems.
Districts are calling for more guidance now.
"We want to be proactive rather than reactive," Niles District 219 Assistant Superintendent Anne Roloff said.
Roloff said that since the state began cutting its education budget, there has been a severe lack of help and oversight from the state board. Persisting budget problems have prompted $800 million in cuts since 2009.
In Chicago, officials expect to finish the evaluation work later this month, CPS spokeswoman Molly Poppe said.
Sue Sporte, the director of research operations for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said CPS teachers revealed in surveys and interviews they were apprehensive about the evaluation changes last year.
"There was a lot of misinformation about it, how much (the test scores would count)," she said.
The consortium, a part of the University of Chicago and independent from the district, conducts research and helps CPS recognize how the district is functioning.
But since many Illinois districts don't have that kind of outside help, other organizations, including the Illinois Teacher Evaluation Development Program, are stepping in to help districts statewide craft new evaluation plans.
"I think we're on the right track but we don't have all the pieces," EIU's Trover said. "I think we're building the capacity."