Union: DISD's Teachers Want Answers About the District's New Mystifying "Spot Observations" [Updated]

The Dallas Independent School District has been wrestling with how best to evaluate its teachers for going on forever. In August of 2011, the district unveiled a plan to develop an evaluation system, a lengthy, three-committee process that would take until 2014 to implement. That's right: just creating the evaluation process was supposed to take more than three years.

In the meantime, though, DISD teachers were under the impression that they were being evaluated using the same metric as most other school districts in Texas: the Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS. PDAS evaluations are supposed to happen once a year, a process that consists of at least one 45-minute observation per year, plus follow-ups at the evaluator's discretion. According to the Association of Texas Professional Educators, that 45-minute observation period isn't allowed to happen any time within the first two weeks of instruction.

But wouldn't you know it, things seem to be going down a little differently at DISD.

According to local teachers union Alliance-AFT, several DISD teachers have already been subjected to random "spot observations," a system Alliance president Rena Honea calls "very confusing."

Honea says a DISD high school teacher was in the middle of her first day of classes when an "appraiser" -- a school administrator who Honea didn't identify -- swept in and started conducting an evaluation.

"She was totally caught off guard," says Honea of the teacher, who she didn't want to name. "She was teaching, doing what she was supposed to do."

The teacher was later told by her appraiser that she'd received a score of one, which means "progressing," as one might expect a teacher would be doing halfway through the first day of school. The lowest score on the spot evaluation forms Honea has seen is zero, and most of them go up to three, which is "exemplary."

But not all of them. Honea has heard from other teachers who have been "spot evaluated," and seen other forms where the scores go up to five. There's no standardization, she says.

"From what I'm hearing, there's differences on the forms," Honea says. "One teacher said that her principal didn't like that form, so he changed it."

The high school teacher who received a one was unhappy with her score, Honea says, and unhappy to learn that multiple appraisers could pop into the classroom throughout the year. Honea says that could mean "the principal, anybody from downtown [the district headquarters], a department chair, one of the chiefs, an associate superintendent. Anybody can come in. Teachers have been told to expect visits all year." The spot observations last about ten to 15 minutes.

Honea attributes the new evaluation system to new superintendent Mike Miles, but says the union and the teachers want to understand how it's being used in conjunction with the PDAS -- especially since some teachers are apparently being warned that poor spot evaluations could endanger their jobs.

"We've asked for how this will be used," Honea says. "Because we're getting word that some of the principles are threatening teachers that if their spot checks aren't at a certain level by a certain time of the year, they could be in jeopardy with their job."

More importantly, though, Honea asks: "Why the spot checks? Why the additional observations? We know Mr. Miles wants teachers in the classroom being observed." But the new system, with competing evaluations flying in every direction, is "very confusing for the teachers," she says.

Those teachers are also very tired, Honea says. Along with the new evaluations, this year saw an additional 45 minutes tacked on to each school day .

"We're hearing from teacher they're totally exhausted already," Honea says. "Many of them have to report for early duty before the students get there. When the students leave, most of the campuses are having to go to meetings every day of the week till 5 or 5:30. The work they would've gotten done for next day -- grading, posting grades, averaging, preparation, getting the room ready -- none of that can be done until after these meetings. They have families. So many of them are staying at the schools until 7 or 8 at night, just to be ready for the next day. And they're still taking work home, because there's just no time."

Alliance-AFT has a survey up on their website, asking the teachers how they feel about the new, extended school day. So far, Honea says, "97 percent" of the teachers say it's "not useful."

Reached for comment, DISD spokesperson Jon Dahlander said he'd prepare a written statement and send it over to us. We'll update accordingly.

Update, 4:51 p.m.: Dahlander's full statement is below:

The term "spot observation" is synonymous with instructional walk-through. Spot observations are intended to provide instructional feedback to all teachers on the instructional priorities of the District and school. For example, principals should provide feedback to teachers on the lesson objective - what students are supposed to learn during the class.

Principals have been trained in how to provide effective instructional feedback. Feedback should validate what is working well, prompt teachers to reflect on their teaching, and provide helpful suggestions or tips on how to improve the quality of instruction.

Spot observations are intended to provide feedback to staff to enable them to grow professionally. Any time an appraiser observes instruction, whether that observation happens formally or informally (such as walking by a classroom and hearing a teacher's interaction with her students), the information gleaned from that observation may help the appraiser assess the instructional proficiency of the teacher and help determine areas for improvement. Thus, spot observations may be considered as part of the cumulative data.

Teachers should understand that information gained during the spot observations can be used to help assess their proficiency and will help inform the summative PDAS evaluation.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan

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