Politics Threatens Progress in Pittsburgh

Results from Pittsburgh’s new teacher evaluation system were unveiled today, identifying both excellent teachers and those that need improvement.

The goal of this new evaluation system is to allow the district to reward successful teachers while offering help to struggling teachers. Unfortunately, a delay in approval out of Harrisburg may undermine this program geared toward improving teacher quality.   

In 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promised a $40 million grant to the Pittsburgh Public Schools to implement this new evaluation system. The grant helped the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) create an innovative and new teacher evaluation tool that uses classroom observation (50%) and student outcomes (50%) to determine teacher performance.

Pittsburgh isn’t the only city to see a change. State lawmakers also voted to overhaul the teacher evaluation system statewide, passing Act 82 in 2012. Part of the act included a one year waiver for the Pittsburgh school system to maintain its own evaluation system, which is more rigorous.

However, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has yet to approve Pittsburgh’s evaluation tool for the 2014-2015 school year. If the state fails to grant a waiver, it could threaten the remainder of the $40 million grant.

The evaluation system used by the Pittsburgh Public school system includes the Tripod student survey, which is a “research-based, classroom-level analysis and reporting system” that asks students to give feedback on certain aspects of the classroom such as experience and learning environment. 

The Tripod system is an important, unprecedented method that focuses on the student, and helps PPS to determine the effectiveness of the teacher through the lens of a student.    

The uniqueness of the Pittsburgh Public school evaluation, combining classroom observation with the Tripod student survey, already seems to be having an impact.

In 2011, 83 percent of teachers agreed that classroom observation helped them improve their teaching practices, while 79 percent claimed the observations helped them improve student achievement.

An overwhelming majority of teachers believe the system works, and that the system produces better teachers and improved teaching practices.