Michigan District Creates Evaluation Software, Moneymaker

Published September 9, 2011

While other districts are taking their time implementing new, state-mandated systems that tie educator evaluations to student testing data, one rural Michigan district seized the opportunity immediately and now can begin profiting from its innovation.

Competing for federal Race to the Top grants, in early 2010 Michigan lawmakers enacted legislation requiring school districts to evaluate educators every year using measurable student academic growth as a “significant factor.” Specific evaluation measures, proficiency levels, and tests are all subject to local collective bargaining agreements.

In summer 2010, Christine Beardsley, then superintendent of Oscoda Area Schools, convened her team and local union leaders to craft and adopt a new rubric.

“I’m a firm believer that if we’re going to have evaluation criteria, that it’s important to set the expectation in advance,” Beardsley said. “It had to be done before a teacher’s first day.”

Seizing the Opportunity
And it was.

“Most encouraging about what Oscoda did is they didn’t wait around for the state and other agencies to tell them how to do it,” said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Michigan-based Mackinac Institute.

Oscoda’s evaluation system is four parts instructional delivery and one part student achievement data. The Michigan Educational Assessment Program, national instruments such as the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), and internally developed common assessments all factor evenly into the student data component. The rubric links specific tests with instructors according to subject and grade taught.

“They have a good mix of factors going into the evaluation of teachers, not one single test on one student day,” Van Beek said.

Though acting quickly, Oscoda school leaders were determined to set a high standard. Teachers have to boost at least 70 percent of their students to subject proficiency and specific growth scores to keep an effective rating, which under a 2011 Michigan law now will affect their ability to gain and keep tenure.

“If I want to be a good teacher, I can no longer teach to the middle,” Beardsley said.

Including All Educators
The evaluation upgrade is not the district’s first experience with innovative reforms. The Oscoda school board negotiated a modest merit pay system in 2008. The maximum teacher reward is less than $300.

“It doesn’t take a lot of money to change educators’ behavior, including the superintendents’ [behavior],” said Beardsley.

Oscoda’s performance-based evaluation system applies to administrators as well as teachers. State law does not specifically define which employees to include, but it indicates it must be more than classroom teachers. Carla Olivares, evaluation consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, says Oscoda’s all-inclusive approach makes the district’s initiative a standout.

“They say we value everyone, everyone can improve, and we are going to make sure we will continue to put students first,” she said. “[Oscoda is] far out ahead of many districts.”

Beardsley said the early decision to include administrators and other employees was crucial to winning support.

“All the average of teacher data scores would be my score [as superintendent],” she said. “That diffused a lot of the anxiety almost immediately.”

Owning the Innovation
Beardsley credits the Michigan Education Association with helping to promote both their evaluation and merit pay models, but Van Beek believes administrators were able to gain more cooperation partly because rural districts like Oscoda are a low priority for the union.

“Their local union had the same incentive the administration did,” he said. “They didn’t want someone else to come in and dictate to them what kind of evaluation system they would use.”

Oscoda leaders have shared their process with at least a dozen districts across Michigan.

The district partnered with an in-state software company to tailor a computer program that manages and processes the essential evaluation data quickly. This helps administrators spend more time mentoring teachers and less time filling out and duplicating paperwork, Beardsley said.

Other districts have shown interest in the customizable software, for which Oscoda owns the copyright. This could generate a stream of new revenue for the district.

Changing Teacher Culture
Beardsley said it’s too soon to draw conclusions on the evaluation reform’s impact on student learning. But she has observed improvements in the professional educator culture.

Conversations between a teacher and principal “didn’t used to be about what they learn,” Beardsley said. Evaluation conversations no longer occupy 10 minutes, she said, but an hour or more, and “the conversation changes from a variety of other things to ‘What did students learn?’ and ‘How do we know they learned it?'”

As state and federal pressure to upgrade evaluation and pay systems increases, most Michigan school districts have considerable work to do. They could benefit from adopting Oscoda’s blueprint, Van Beek said.

“The reform train is coming, and you can either get in the way, or you can take control and drive the train yourself,” said Van Beek.

Oscoda teachers echoed that sentiment.

“Education is changing, so the way education is going to be assessed and evaluated as well,” said Tim Lee, a teacher at Oscoda High School. “You need to change all of the components of schooling to be effective.”

Image by Michael Cardus.

Internet Info
Watch a video about the Oscoda School District’s innovative program online, courtesy of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy: http://www.mackinac.org/14965#3602.