Seasoned teachers mentor colleagues through ‘TAP’ evaluation program

More than anything, Megan Cheatham loved being a student.

So when she was ready to graduate from college, she lamented the changes ahead of her on Facebook: “If only I could be a student forever,” she wrote.

Fortunately, as a second-year, second-grade teacher at Southport Elementary School in Perry Township, Cheatham found her fit. With the “Teacher Advancement Program,” now known as the “TAP System” — an intertwined system of teacher evaluations, mentoring, and teacher leadership roles that can result in bonuses for teachers who score well — the kids aren’t the only ones expected to learn each day. Teachers are, too, given the program’s heavy emphasis on talking about, observing and learning from other teachers.

“I’m here to teach and help my students learn and grow, but this is the only job I can think of where I’m truly a student forever,” Cheatham said. “I have teachers here in the form of my (master teachers), mentors and administrators … and my students.”

Teacher mentoring is a hot topic in Indiana. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz last year brought together a panel of educators and policymakers to study teacher retention and recruitment in the face of a teacher shortage in certain parts of the state. The panel recommended that schools offer teachers leadership opportunities and customizable mentoring programs. Although Ritz’s specific ideas didn’t pass muster with legislators, the Indiana General Assembly did pass a bill that, in part, creates a state grant program to help schools that want to start using TAP.

TAP is 16 year-old program that doesn’t just rely on a single evaluation template to help teachers improve. Rather, it also sets up a system in which experienced teachers mentor their colleagues. Mentors typically receive $5,000 annual stipends for the extra work they do outside of their own classrooms, and master teachers receive $10,000, to help teachers develop goals for their teaching. They model lessons and offer feedback on teaching style. Mentors and master teachers must receive extra training and guidance from administrators as they work to make sure teachers’ goals support the school’s vision for student improvement.

There are several elements to TAP. Some schools use only its evaluation program — a scoring guide that includes skills teachers should demonstrate in the classroom. TAP is one of several evaluation programs that Indiana schools can choose from to complete required teacher evaluations.

Some schools have enough funding to use TAP to help determine which teachers get bonuses. Southport is one of 28 Indiana schools using the full TAP program, including its robust teacher mentoring component.

The program can cost schools anywhere from about $3,000 per year to gain access to materials and data-tracking software from the nonprofit National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The price goes up for schools that use the program to award salary bonuses, which could be as much as $2,500 per teacher per year, depending on the formula used. Schools that use the mentoring program also must budget $5,000 or $10,000 per teacher for mentor or master stipends, as well as full salaries for educators who work primarily on teacher training.

Southport Principal Danny Mendez but he’s found that pairing mentoring directly with his teacher evaluation system has had an important impact on his school.

“The difference that we see in a first-year teacher now, especially by the end of the year, is what we would’ve seen — prior to TAP — it would’ve taken them three or four years to even get close,” Mendez said.

No external studies have documented clear evidence that TAP can improve test scores or produce other measurable results.

Arizona State University researcher Audrey Beardsley has co-authored reviews of observation-based evaluation programs and will soon publish a study on whether the TAP model’s structure is statistically sound. But the impact on students is still unknown, as little outside research has been done to see how well TAP affects student learning, she said.

“It’s not impossible that increases in student learning are happening,” Beardsley said. “But they just are not being demonstrated or observed on standardized tests.”

One study out of Chicago reported in 2010 that Chicago Public Schools’ use of TAP had no measureable effect on student test scores or on teacher retention compared to non-TAP schools. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching disputes the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

Yet TAP’s possible shortcomings in student test results isn’t unique — Beardsley said no current evaluation system has shown that it definitively raises student test scores.

The best thing TAP does, she said, is create a system that forces teachers to talk about their teaching and includes a model where they are paid to coach others.

“The No. 1 benefit of TAP is that it forces teachers to have discussions about their practice and it forces them to do it in a systematic way four times a year,” Beardsley said. “A strong majority of teachers enjoy engaging in those conversations.”

Mendez said he’s noticed a clear benefit to intensifying the school’s focus on making sure inexperienced teachers have a seasoned educator to turn to. Southport improved it’s A-F school accountability grade to an A in 2014 from a C in 2011-12 — the first year the school implemented TAP.

Under TAP, teachers receive formal evaluations four times per year, but mentoring takes place every week.

A leadership team at Southport made up of Mendez, his assistant principal, two “master” teachers and four “mentor” teachers developed a teacher training program using TAP.

The program consists of weekly “cluster” meetings where teachers set goals for themselves and talk about what lessons that week resonated with students and which ones needed some work. The school also schedules conversations between teachers and their mentors throughout the day and makes arrangements, as needed, for a teacher needing help to get an extra pair of eyes in his or her classroom.

The key to the program’s success, Mendez said, is assuring teachers that they aren’t in it alone, he said.

“We had eight of us to go out and coach, weekly, every teacher, and every teacher needs that feedback,” Mendez said.

The master teachers focus primarily on helping their colleagues. They model lessons, give evaluations, have discussions with teachers about how they’re doing and keep track of school’s goals for its students and teachers. The mentor teachers balance some of those duties with full-time classroom teaching.

Jennifer Oliver, the director for TAP in Indiana with the the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis, said this program is much more comprehensive than traditional teacher training programs.

Tying mentoring to evaluations can be make teachers skeptical about the program, but Oliver said that tying mentoring to evaluations makes it easier to set expectations and make it clear to teachers what changes they need to make if they want to improve.

“When I hear policymakers talk about bringing back the old form of mentoring for new teachers we had in the past, I think, ‘We can do this so much better’ when I see how well support and coaching are provided to all teachers in TAP schools,” Oliver said.

Southport and Perry Township are among 14 districts that use the TAP program. Southport was recently awarded $50,000 from TAP for the student progress it’s seen while using the program. The school was among six finalists from across the country The annual Founder’s award is funded by the Lowell Milken Family Foundation, whose namesake founded TAP.

Southport, in a part of Marion County that has seen an influx of Burmese immigrants over the past decade, has seen dramatic change in its student demographics in that time. Now, 56 percent of students are English-learners, up from 3 percent in 2007. Most of the school’s students — 81 percent — are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, up from 45 percent. Of its English-learners, 40 percent are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma. That means teachers, as well as students, have needed extra support.

The school has typically posted above-average test scores and has been recognized for its successful work with students in poverty and those with special needs, but Mendez says since he started using TAP five years ago, he’s seen improvements in his school.

Originally, he heard about the program from his assistant superintendent, who asked if he was interested in learning more. He was impressed by what he saw at first, but he wondered if there was a catch. There wasn’t one, Mendez said.

“I had some other principals say, ‘Well Danny, why would you change a thing?’” Mendez said. “This is the next step. It’s easy to jump to a new system when you’re struggling. Our school was not.”

Mendez said he was attracted to the program by national data showing TAP helps English-learners and other students with special needs move ahead and reduce teacher turnover at schools. Data from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which is affiliated with TAP, showed that schools using TAP hold on to 94 percent of their teachers from one year to the next — an improvement over a typical school where the retention rate is 84 percent.

In her second year, Cheatham said she’s really felt her teaching solidify. By watching others, talking extensively with master teachers and other teacher leaders and focusing on changing just one skill or lesson at a time, Cheatham said she feels like it’s all “clicking.”

Angie Kendall, a master teacher at Southport who’s been teaching for 15 years in Indianapolis, said she loves that her job allows her to both coach her peers and still have some time with students. The discussions and conversations teachers have certainly play a big role, she said. People are always stopping by her office to ask for advice on a lesson or to show off student work when things have gone well.

“Just like we want our teachers to believe in every student, our leadership team believes in every teacher,” Kendall said. “There’s not one teacher in our building that hasn’t grown from this process.”

The story has been updated to reflect new information provided by TAP about teacher stipends and schools involved with the program.