This fall begins a three-year roll out of the system, which was passed into law in 2012. Principals and specialists will be subject to the evaluations in 2014-15.
The new evaluation system replaces one that only labeled teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory based on classroom observation. Former state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis blasted that system, noting that in 2009-10 almost 100 percent of teachers and principals ranked satisfactory.
As a former teacher and schools superintendent, Pennsylvania Department of Education Deputy Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said she knows educators, in most cases, weren't giving each other constructive evaluations.
"We want to make sure we are giving feedback to teachers to help them grow," she said. "We know the most important thing to increase student achievement in the classroom is the teacher."
The department has spent the past three years piloting the new system with 300 of the state's 500 school districts, Dumaresq said.
"It is complex because the artistry of teaching is complex," she said. "And it shouldn't just be one thing that we say, 'We are going to measure this and this and it counts for all things teachers do.'"
Starting this fall, districts will be expected to evaluate teachers using what is known as the Danielson method, which includes typical principal classroom observations as well as a detailed written rubric outlining skills.
"It is a lot more descriptive and takes some of the subjectivity out of it," Dumaresq said.
Bethlehem Area School District Assistant Superintendent for Education Jack Silva said his district is lucky because it already uses the Danielson method to evaluate teachers. Other districts that do not will have a lot of learning to do, he said.
"If the Danielson method is applied well, it is a powerful tool for teacher improvement," Silva said.
The state has been training administrators on the method through local intermediate units and it has provided free professional development materials that include videos of teachers exhibiting desired skills, Dumaresq said.
Preparing for the system has required a huge investment of time that is expected to increase, Silva said. Bethlehem hired recently retired district Principals Jacqueline Santanasto and Michele Fragnito to help implement the evaluations. They will be paid $400 a day on an as-needed basis for up to 60 days collectively.
"We are doing far more work on this unfunded mandate then we have ever done before," Silva said. "We are hopeful."
Multiple skills measured
The new evaluation system integrates multiple measures of student achievement.
"It's beyond the classroom observation of: What did the teacher do?" Dumaresq said. "They're now being held responsible for what the students actually learned."
A teacher's 2013-14 evaluation will take into account student performance through a building-wide grade.
"The state's thinking is if the school isn't doing as well, the teacher shouldn't be doing as well," Silva said.
The grade will be created through a "rich formula" that includes factors such as a student's academic growth in a year's time, SAT and Advanced Placement scores, and building-wide attendance and graduation rates, Dumaresq said.
The department sought input from school officials and residents on how it should measure what is an academically healthy building, she said.
Details of teacher evaluations will not be made public and the state will only know how many teachers are rated satisfactory. But the building profile and grades, which range from zero to 100, will be listed on a public website. Schools can earn a score of more than 100 if they've shown students are making more than a year's worth of educational growth in a single school year.
Teacher contracts contain provisions for unsatisfactory evaluations, Silva said. For example, a contract might say that after two unsatisfactory evaluations that teacher will not get a raise, he said. Silva did not know the specifics of his district's contract but said struggling teachers are put on professional improvement plans in Bethlehem.
"They are professionals," Silva said. "There are standards for their evaluation and when they don't meet them there are consequences."
Starting in the 2014-15 school year, districts get to start including state-approved, locally chosen measures of teacher performance within evaluations, Dumaresq said. It gives teachers a chance to say: This is what is important for our students to learn, she said.
The district has been working closely with the Bethlehem Education Association to customize and implement the evaluation process, union President Jolene Vitalos said.
Then in 2015-16 the state starts providing a three-year rolling average of individual teacher performance based on their students' state assessment scores. It will show how much each teacher helped students grow in a year.
The state starts measuring that data this upcoming year, but it won't be part of the evaluation system until a teacher has three years of student data, Dumaresq said. The evaluation system includes rules taking into account that students are often taught by more than one teacher, she added.
Pennsylvania is pushing hard to make sure the data is fair and quality, but that's been a real struggle, Silva said. The new system leaves open questions, such as: What if a teacher is out on maternity leave half of the semester and a long-term substitute teacher replaces her?
"Being able to isolate the effect of a teacher on a student over a particular time, that is going to be difficult," Silva said.