Trying to find common ground on teacher evaluations

May 16, 2012

Illinois is in the process of bolstering requirements for teacher evaluations. The changes come amid a national discussion about separating guidelines for evaluating special-education teachers.

In the coming years, Illinois teachers will have to adhere to new job evaluation standards, which will be significantly based on student performance. The requirement is part of a reform law approved by state lawmakers in 2010. Under the law, districts are encouraged to develop a process that follows rules handed down by the state. If they don’t adopt their own plan, they would have to use a default model. The question remains, how will special-ed teachers be evaluated when it comes to their effectiveness in the classroom?

Kara Vicente is an assistant superintendent for the Carpentersville School District. She says their teachers and administrators frequently collaborate on the evaluation process. But she adds, there’s often a struggle to determine what should apply when measuring the growth of students with disabilities.

"We’re all looking forward to receiving more direction from the state, as to how changes in the state could impact students with special needs. ”

A recent Associated Press report detailed the push to enhance teacher evaluations in many states. The report noted there’s concern that some of these efforts won’t place enough focus on creating different standards for educators who serve students with special needs. 

Some say it’s counterproductive to grade these teachers on the same scale as general education teachers. Laura Hedin, an assistant professor at NIU’s special education department, explains.

"It’s such a huge heterogeneous group.  It’s very difficult to measure their gains because they may be small gains, but [really they’re ] significant gains.  And as a group, they don’t tend to do very well on measures used for teacher evaluations, such as high-stakes tests. ”

Mary Fergus is a spokeswoman for the Illinois Board of Education.  She says the framework of the law offers different forms of assessment.  Fergus says one of those models creates flexibility for districts wanting to ensure that certain teachers are graded fairly.

“At the beginning of the school year, an evaluator and a teacher come together, and this is particularly important for those special-ed teachers, and they decide what is the best way that I can measure growth for this particular student. ” )

However, the co-chairman of an advisory panel involved in the process says there are no current plans to adopt specific evaluation guidelines for special-ed teachers.  But he says such an approach can’t be ruled out.