Educator starts business to simplify teacher ratings

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When the phone kept ringing, North Daviess school administrator Todd Whitlock knew what he was about to be asked. He was a specialist in merging education with technology—and at the end of 2011, a new law meant Indiana schools needed an electronic method for evaluating more than 60,000 teachers.

Dozens of administrators around the state were asking Whitlock’s advice: “What should we use?”

“I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “So we decided to make it ourselves.”

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Today, Whitlock and his team of educators-turned-entrepreneurs run one of the most successful teacher evaluation software programs in the country: Standard for Success.

The program is used in more than 60 school districts across Indiana and is expanding into Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina and Virginia. This month, the company is celebrating two years in business and plans to expand further.

Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, every district was required to rate teachers and principals annually. Although teachers were evaluated in the past, most schools relied on a pen-and-paper system.

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said for already-overworked administrators, there was no way that system could stay.

“A principal would have to finalize 40, 50 or more evaluations at the end of the year and type them into spreadsheets,” Bess said. “With the new requirements, the pure volume of work to do necessitated a software package.”

Along with student performance results, the new observation-based evaluation ratings would determine into which of four categories the teacher was ranked: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary or ineffective.

Only teachers ranked highly effective or effective would be eligible for pay raises.

Whitlock said the teachers he worked with were “scared to death.”

“Previously, evaluations were used only as a way to get rid of someone rather than an area to spur growth,” Whitlock said. “But this new data was really a way for us to identify how to become better educators.”

In January 2011, his Cloverdale-based company launched a prototype and acquired its first client, Bess said for districts, the individualization is crucial.

“The program just keeps getting better and better every time I see it,” he said.

The principal receives an email each morning telling him or her which tasks need to be done for the day. That could mean starting a new observation, finishing an old one, or meeting with teachers to discuss their performance.

The frequency of teacher evaluations depends on the school district, Bess said. Some choose daily walk-throughs, where an administrator spends about 30 seconds in the class at a random time of day. Others choose monthly or by semester.

When principals conduct their evaluations, they bring a laptop or tablet into the classroom, both of which can access the Standard for Success software. For each teacher, a rubric appears on the screen. It breaks down specific areas in which the teacher is being evaluated, such as how well he or she “demonstrates and clearly communicates content knowledge to students.”

Each area is broken down into the four possible ratings, with descriptions of what each entails. For example, the principal could click a box describing the teacher as “highly effective—teacher explanations spark excitement and interest in the content” or “ineffective—teacher does not emphasize main ideas and students are often confused about the content.”

The principals can also see where the teacher’s ratings stood in the past.

As soon as the evaluation is deemed complete by the principal, the teacher has access to his or her scores. Teachers can go into the file and make notes such as, “We were going to discuss this, but ran out of time,” so that their principals have a better understanding of what occurred.

When it comes time for the teacher and principal to meet to discuss performance, both parties know where the teacher is succeeding and where improvement might be needed.

The Standard for Success system typically costs around $25 per teacher annually to be evaluated.

Joe Lampert, director of human resources at Pike Township Schools, said he thinks the program is well worth the investment.

“I used to sort through whole stacks of paper teacher evaluations,” Lampert said. “Now I can enter a query into the computer and instantly identify where we might have an area of concern, and then we can set up professional development in that area for all of our teachers.”

After the evaluations are complete, student performance scores are factored in to determine a teacher’s final rating.

The president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, Teresa Meredith, said she hopes principals are factoring in personal knowledge of a teacher’s performance and background, such as how long he or she has been teaching, into the ratings.

“There needs to be some room for administrative override,” Meredith said. “There’s no reason for teachers who might have been just a fraction of a point away to not receive a pay increase.”

But Lampert said educators should be focused more on kids, not ratings.

“This program is just a tool,” Lampert said. “It frees up more time for administrators to collaborate with our teachers. The more we collaborate, the better things are for our kids. And that’s really the goal.”•

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