When policymakers in New Hampshire took steps in 2011 to revamp the way teacher evaluations were conducted in the state, they were guided by a core principle: evaluation should support teachers.
“Evaluation doesn’t have to be punitive,” says Virginia Barry, the NH Commissioner of Education. “From the moment we decided to take on teacher evaluation, we made it about instructional improvement.”
New Hampshire turned to the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northeast and Islands at EDC, which has played a leading role in supporting the state’s educator evaluation reform efforts over the past five years. REL researchers conducted a key study that informed the implementation of new systems in districts across the state. They have also worked directly with teachers and administrators to help them use data—including student assessment data—to build fair and effective evaluation systems that support teacher learning.
“Research from the REL has helped teachers understand the importance of data in the evaluation process,” says Barry.
The partnership with REL Northeast & Islands came at a critical time for New Hampshire. In 2011, a new law was put into place requiring all school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems, but only one-third of Granite State schools actually had such systems. The state’s Department of Education wanted to identify and recommend some elements of effective teacher evaluation systems so that each district did not have to start from scratch in creating its own.
The key was to find districts that were currently implementing teacher evaluation systems. Fortunately, 15 New Hampshire schools were already in the midst of building new systems as required by their participation in the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. This group of schools provided a perfect case study: the revamped systems were being designed with the new state law in mind and were being implemented in districts across the state. In September 2012, researchers from REL Northeast & Islands began a study that pulled lessons and best practices from the experiences of these SIG schools.
“The New Hampshire Department of Education approached REL Northeast & Islands before the adoption of these new teacher evaluation systems so that we could collaborate on the design of an evaluation study,” says EDC’s Julie Riordan. “We wanted to provide Department of Education officials with information about the factors that influenced the implementation of these new systems.”
From study to success
Over the course of the 2012-2013 academic year, REL researchers surveyed over 300 teachers, principals, and district administrators in these schools. They also conducted an intensive document review of each district’s new evaluation plan to characterize the elements of each new system being implemented.
“For example, schools found that there often was not enough time to conduct the number of required observations easily,” says Riordan.
The study also found that the integration of student performance measures—known as student learning objectives (SLOs) in participating districts—into teacher evaluation scores was proving to be a challenge. This finding did not surprise EDC’s Karen Shakman, a REL researcher who specializes in educator effectiveness.
“Districts had not used SLOs as part of teacher evaluation in the past and had different levels of experience using student data to establish goals,” she says. “This was the most unfamiliar piece of work for many districts. They approached it differently and found it challenging.”
The NH Department of Education shared the results of the study with superintendents and administrators throughout the state, and this information was put to good use. According to Barry, nearly every school district in New Hampshire now has an educator evaluation system in place.
Barry adds that the REL’s research and technical assistance has also fostered a culture of professional learning and improvement in New Hampshire. She had anticipated that the development of teacher evaluation systems would be seen as “overburdening” and cumbersome. But this didn’t happen. Instead, an informal learning community grew up around student performance measures and the need to base instructional improvement on actual data.
And more than any individual measure of teacher effectiveness, building a community of educators dedicated to improving their practice has always been the goal of teacher evaluation efforts in the state.
“Once we identified the competencies and expectations related to teacher practice, it really created a whole new way of thinking about professional development,” says Barry. “It’s been incredibly powerful.”