What to Expect from the New Teacher Appraisal System

by Scott Bailey

Texas teachers will begin the 2016-2017 school year with a new a teacher appraisal system in place, the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS for short. I spent the better part of the summer training administrators in the new system and would like to share what I learned about that system and give you an idea of what to expect going forward.

T-TESS is an evaluation system designed to support you, the teacher. Yes, it has those two words—evaluation and support—in its title, so that may seem self-evident, but the levels of support available transcend those words. If implemented with fidelity, T-TESS will change the way you look at your teaching, your curriculum, and the way you interact with and the level of support you receive from your appraiser. Before we get into the details of T-TESS, let’s examine how Texas got here.

Where We’ve Been

T-TESS is the latest iteration in an evolving series of state-sanctioned evaluation systems. Formalized teacher evaluation in Texas began in 1984 with the roll out of TTAS, or the Texas Teacher Appraisal System. Controversial from the beginning, TTAS gave rise to the much ballyhooed "dog and pony show," because the appraisal was based strictly on teacher behaviors: students need not even be present for the teacher to win! Lessons were judged as distinct entities, set completely apart from student performance, student engagement, or curricular sequence and alignment.

Realizing the hole left by excluding students from the mix, in 1995 the legislature mandated an overhaul of the appraisal system, and the Professional Development and Appraisal System (PDAS) rolled out in 1997 as a result. Unlike TTAS, which focused solely on the teacher, PDAS considered the performance of the teachers’ students: Are the students engaged? Are they thinking critically? Are they learning? And importantly, PDAS attempted to begin an ongoing conversation about performance, by bringing professional development, planning, and goal setting into the evaluation process. Unfortunately, over time, these aspects of the system faded into the background and in many schools PDAS became a formality, a "one and done" system that provided little in the way of development or growth.

T-TESS, the components of which will be discussed at length below, is the result of efforts to extend and tweak the processes established with PDAS and to meet the then pending mandates of NCLB. T-TESS was written and developed by a committee of Texas educators in conjunction with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The system was first piloted by a handful of Texas districts in 2014-2015 and those districts gave input that led to revisions for a second pilot by about 200 districts in 2015-2016. Based on lessons learned from the second pilot, further revisions may be made before the statewide roll out in the fall of 2016-2017.

What’s New, T-TESS?

T-TESS is based on the new teacher standards adopted and enacted June 30, 2014 (Title 19, Chapter 149, Section 1001 of the Texas Administrative Code). The teacher standards are performance-based standards designed to help districts, agencies, and preparation programs target the training and evaluation of teachers. They are built upon the six pillars of instructional planning and delivery; knowledge of students and student learning; content knowledge and expertise; the learning environment; data driven practices; and professional practices and responsibilities. If you are not familiar with these teaching standards, it would be worth your time to look them up.

Some Technicalities

T-TESS is based on a rubric scoring device much like PDAS. The rubric, developed from the teaching standards, collapses those six standards into four domains (compared to eight for PDAS) that form the basis of the observation cycle: Planning, Instruction, Learning Environment, and Professional Practices and Responsibilities. Also, just like with PDAS, each domain is broken down into a set of dimensions and each dimension is characterized by a set of descriptors—all in an effort to provide a clear picture for all parties of exactly what each term means.

Teachers will receive a rating for each of the four domains. For PDAS, there were four rating levels, which should be familiar: unsatisfactory, below expectations, proficient, and exceeds expectations. T-TESS expands the rating system to include five levels: improvement needed, developing, proficient, accomplished, and distinguished. Some will wince at the word "proficient" and some will wonder why it’s the only rating carried over from PDAS. The answer is that proficient is the only rating defined and required by statute, so it cannot be changed without legislative action.

Sidenote: Let’s stop here and talk about this word "proficient." When you get your hands on a copy of the rubric during training this summer or fall, it’s really important to dive in and take a look at what it means to be "proficient." Proficient is what you want to be. If you are proficient, you are on top of your game in every way. A proficient teacher is a rock-solid teacher. Proficient teachers are the ones for whom administrators should bend over backwards to hire and retain. Proficient teachers should be proud—they are the backbone of the school. Sure, there are two ratings beyond proficient, but those ratings are aspirational in nature. If the rubric is used correctly, it will be incredibly difficult to achieve consistently the distinguished rating, but that’s okay. As I heard one person say, "distinguished" is a lot like Disneyland: it’s a great place to visit, but you can’t really live there!

Some Logistics

Oddly, the two things we don’t seem to spend enough time talking about in schools on a day-to-day basis are the very foundation of what we do: teaching and learning. T-TESS will change that.

I mentioned at the beginning that T-TESS should change the way you interact with your appraiser, and that is because you will be spending quite a bit of time talking with your appraiser. (Full disclosure: for me, as a former principal who was heavily involved in the instructional process, that is a net positive.)

It was helpful to me to begin to think of the T-TESS process as an ongoing conversation related to instructional development. During the process, you should meet with your appraiser at least four times: for a pre-observation conference, for the actual observation, for a post-observation conference, and for an end-of-year conference.

During the pre-observation conference, you will explain to your appraiser what he or she can expect to see in the upcoming lesson. You will outline your planning process, highlight any special areas to watch for, and familiarize your appraiser with what has happened up to this point to illustrate how the observed lesson is part of a logical sequence. Think of the pre-observation conference as a way to prime the pump, so to speak, for all the good things the appraiser will observe during the classroom observation.

The actual lesson observation will be much similar to customary PDAS observations. It’s 45 minutes and may be announced or unannounced depending on district policy (of course, unannounced observations will change the pre-observation conference process a bit). During the observation, expect to see the appraiser scripting furiously. Your appraisal and your rating must be based on evidence, and the appraiser will be collecting that evidence during this time. Expect him or her to capture what both you and the students say and do throughout the observation.

Once the observation is complete, your appraiser will schedule a post-observation conference. As the name implies, this time is set aside to discuss how the lesson went and what ratings the rubric provides. The appraiser will likely ask you how you thought the lesson went or what went well. He or she will ask you to reflect on key portions of the lesson, and will lead you through a process to determine an area for growth. Don’t be surprised by that last part—the area for growth. Continuous growth is central to the T-TESS process. Every teacher, no matter whether you are a superstar or are struggling or somewhere in between, will be involved in a goal setting process to identify and build on a targeted area for growth.

Working collaboratively, that area for growth will become the basis for goal setting and for the professional development plan, which every teacher will develop. This plan will be based on your needs, your strengths, and the areas in which you would like to grow. Most teachers will self-select this area: maybe the goal is improve formative assessment strategies; maybe it’s to utilize social media; maybe you’re an expert at Socratic questioning and you want to teach others how to do it. Whatever the case, setting a goal and developing a plan to reach it is the focus of the end-of-year conference. Not only will you and your appraiser discuss and develop a plan, he or she will also share final ratings, wrap up the year, and, hopefully, utilize it as a springboard to launch right into next year.

Much more information about the actual T-TESS process can be accessed at the T-TESS website: teachfortexas.org.

A Wrinkle

As of this writing, there remains a significant open question related to the T-TESS scoring. A full 80% of the T-TESS score is based on the observation process; the remaining 20% is tied to student performance. For the US History teachers, it seems obvious that portion for student performance would be tied to

STAAR and EOC scores. For others, there is far less clarity. The wrinkle is that, currently, how to score student performance, especially outside of tested areas, is delineated as a district decision. I simply don’t know what that is going to look like. Further, given the recent elimination of NCLB at the federal level and its replacement with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and any other legislative action that might arise on the state level, those uncertainties may well persist into the coming year. But that’s okay. Change is a process; it takes time. Meanwhile, you will keep teaching and kids will keep learning.

Sundry Thoughts and Observations

When learning something new, getting lost in the who? what? where? and when? questions is all too easy. The same is true for T-TESS training, which is brief and intense. The immediate questions that always swirl to the surface relate to when things are due, what forms should be used, what do particular terms mean, etc. Having now been a participant in the training twice, and having turned around and trained several administrative teams at different schools, I have noticed two important patterns emerge.

Observation 1

T-TESS may change the way we currently look at the teaching process. Remember that, historically, the state has moved from looking at teacher behaviors (TTAS) to looking at teacher and student behaviors (PDAS) to now utilizing T-TESS to look at teacher and student behaviors and how those behaviors interplay with the both the lesson objective and lesson structure (see Fig. 1).

A strong, implicit thread runs through T-TESS that demands highly structured lessons, defined by specific and concrete objectives (obviously tied to the appropriate TEKS). Careful study of the T-TESS rubric reveals that teacher actions should be guided by the lesson objective and should, likewise, respond and adapt as needed in relation to student behaviors and student understandings. There is close interplay among these three components. A thoughtfully and tightly constructed lesson is necessary to hold these components together.

Observation 2

T-TESS will change the conversations we have about teaching and learning--largely because we will actually carve out time to talk about them!

The first concern that teachers typically raise is related to the scoring: they want to know what the rating labels mean and how to achieve the highest one. The first concern from administrators is related to the time aspect: they want to know how they will ever have time for all of these conferences. But the consensus that emerged from the pilot schools I’ve worked with was a positive one. Concerns were overblown; fears were misguided.

What mattered in the end, to both the teachers and the appraisers, were the conversations they had. They moved closer to each other in unanticipated ways. The teachers said the conversations made them better teachers. The appraisers said the conversations made them better appraisers. Stop. Read those last two sentences again, and let them soak in.

If we start really talking about teaching and learning in our schools, and if teachers are getting better and appraisers are getting better—then aren’t our students necessarily getting better as well?

Then it’s worth the trouble….

Dr. Scott Bailey teaches aspiring principals at Stephen F. Austin State University. He also serves as a TTESS, TPESS, and AEL trainer; works with beginning teachers through the Region 7 Alternative Certification Program; serves as a PSP; and regularly provides staff development for campuses and districts throughout the state. Contact: baileysb73@gmail.com.