The basics of teacher evaluation in Indiana, part 1: A political battle

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here. This is the first of two parts on teacher evaluation. For Part 2, go here.)
Indiana teachers for the first time, all had their teaching rated — including a measure of their ability to raise student standardized test scores — and their pay raises and job security were affected by the result in the spring of 2014.

The result? Not much changed. As with prior systems, teachers were nearly all rated effective across the state.

In 2011, Indiana joined a growing number of states — now more than 35 — to require more stringent reviews of teacher performance when the legislature passed a series of education reforms pushed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, Republican legislative leaders and the state superintendent at the time, Tony Bennett.

It was part of a package of reforms, which also included limits on union bargaining, an expansion of charter schools and the creation of a new statewide private school voucher program. Passing those bills into law was a tough political battle, which saw thousands of teachers and other union members protest at the statehouse. Disagreements over education and labor policies even led Indiana’s Democratic legislators to leave the state for Illinois for several weeks as a way to try to stop the bills from moving forward. But in the end, all of them were passed into law.

Unlike other states, Indiana’s teacher evaluation law did not require a specific percentage of a teacher’s rating to be based on student test scores. It left that up to local school districts, but encouraged them to make test scores a “significant” factor. The law also allows local flexibility when creating evaluation systems. It calls for a state model system but school districts can choose whether to follow it, pick other approved models or to craft their own evaluation designs.

That could change. In 2015, the Indiana State Board of Education was considering giving guidance to schools for what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on test scores.

Since the beginning, Indiana’s effort to change evaluation has been at the center of intense political debate, with Democrats often at odds with with Republicans over policy, and teachers’ unions sometimes in disagreement with school district administrators over how the systems should work.

But in some cases, there have been cooperative efforts to build the new systems.

The law’s requirements

Under Indiana’s law, teacher effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 4 scale. Factors that go into teachers’ ratings include observations of their teaching by administrators or other trained evaluators; state test scores and other factors that vary by school or depend on the subject taught.

Sanctions for teachers rated in the lowest categories are serious. An ineffective rating, a 1 on the scale, can be cause to fire a teacher immediately. Those who are rated in the next lowest category, a “2” or in need of improvement, can be dismissed if they fail to rise to a 3 or 4 after two years.

Merit pay

Under the law, teacher pay depends on their annual evaluation Districts can choose not to give raises to teachers whose ratings are less than 3. They may choose to give extra pay to those rated highly effective. Go here for an explanation of how evaluation connects to teacher pay.

The transition year

Despite the heated rhetoric during the political debate, there was much agreement in Indiana that evaluation should change.

Bennett argued that a study conducted by his department of a sample of Indiana school districts showed 99 percent were rated effective, which he termed a “statistical impossibility.”

Democrats and teachers union leaders, who opposed the bill, called for better evaluation, too, but wanted assurances the new systems would be fair to teachers.

Tony Bennett (Photo by

After the law passed in 2011, the next school year was used to pilot evaluation models picked by Bennett’s education department.

The state-created model, known as RISE, was developed with assistance from The New Teacher Project. The state also offered districts the chance to use a nationally-known system called Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Three districts piloted evaluation systems had been locally created in Warren Township and Beech Grove schools in Indianapolis and Bremen Schools in northern Indiana’s Marshall County. The idea was to show different ways to approach evaluation. Districts around the state could use RISE or TAP, or they could copy the district-created models or even invent their own, so long as it fit the law’s requirements.

The flexibility led to a wide variety of approaches. Schools in Greensburg, about an hour south of Indianapolis, decreed that each teacher would be observed five times per year under RISE, three shorter visits by an administrator and two longer ones. But in Warren Township, which adapted a system it used for years to fit under the law’s requirements, full observations were to be twice a year for each teacher and short classroom visits could come as many as 20 additional times.

Implementation begins

After the pilot year, a lot changed in Indiana just before schools began to put their new systems into place, and the state began to take a somewhat different approach to evaluation.

It began with the upset election victory of Washington Township teacher Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, who defeated Bennett and became the new state superintendent at the start of 2013.

Ritz was not a fan of the RISE and sought to replace or revise it, which was a source of tension with the state board, which insisted on keeping the model.

Ritz, the former head of the teachers union in Washington Township, had been part of an Indiana State Teachers Association’s team that met with legislators in 2011 as they crafted the teacher evaluation law. She has said she strongly believes in good evaluation systems and praised the 2011 law’s intentions. Ritz said evaluation should be as much about training teachers to improve as about punishing those who are fall short by blocking pay raises, although she said she favored removing the lowest rated teachers from the classroom.

New system, same results
In April 2013, Indiana released the first evaluation scores for teachers under the new system, which showed very little had changed. Nearly all teachers were rated effective.

Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective,” representing less than 0.5 percent of the 50,000 educators who received ratings. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. About 10 percent of educators were not rated for reasons such as not completing the year due to maternity leave or retirement.

Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest district, just five educators were rated ineffective. (Find each school’s data here.) The results placed renewed scrutiny on how prepared school principals were to administer it and prompted debate about whether the results made sense or under estimated the number of struggling teachers.

Similar results were posted in 2014, leading some critics to call for changes, arguing that such few low rated teachers did not match with the reality.

-Updated December 2015