SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois' slow implementation of an evaluation program aimed at grading teachers partly on whether their students' test scores are improving is creating problems for statewide school districts that for the first time will be using the groundbreaking reforms beyond Chicago.
Problems include the state's inability so far to obtain a waiver from some of the more punitive tenets of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including requiring 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The 34 individual districts making evaluation changes this year also say they're not getting help in preparing to implement them.
"The state board has not given much guidance with incorporating the student growth," Tim Buss, superintendent of Wabash District 348 in downstate Mt. Carmel said, where his 1600-student district this fall will beginning tying student performance to evaluations for its 125 teachers.
"They talked about coming out with a template, we have yet to see that."
As districts change how they judge teachers, there is little state support available, Eastern Illinois University education chair Marleis Trover said, particularly for districts which don't have a large administrative staff or can't afford to hire outside help.
"The whole idea is a good idea," Trover said of the reforms. "But it's implementation."
Illinois' 2009 Performance Evaluation Reform Act requires districts to design and implement evaluation systems that assess teachers' and principals' professional skills. By 2016, 70 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on observations of classroom performance. The other 30 percent will be based on "student growth" -- students' improvement on a combination of national, district or teacher-developed tests.
While all Illinois teachers must be rated using the same categories -- excellent, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory -- districts will decide which assessments they'll use to gauge student growth. State law now requires performance, not seniority, to be prioritized in layoff decisions. High ratings are required for at least two consecutive years before tenure is granted.
The law was hailed as historic, and part of a national trend, spurred by states' desire to qualify for the Obama administration's Race to the Top federal education grants.
The student growth component of the evaluations will be phased in, with all districts tying student performance to teacher evaluations by the 2016-17.
Last year, Chicago Public schools began incorporating student tests into evaluations. This fall, 34 districts which received federal education stimulus money -- including Wabash -- will begin using the new criteria.
The lowest performing 20 percent of schools start in 2015.
In 2011, President Barack Obama administration began offering an "out" to the federal education law passed a decade before, which works by punishing districts for not meeting federal benchmarks. Waivers, the administration said, would be given to states that agreed to adopt certain education ideas, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.
Illinois quickly sought a waiver in 2012 because of its implementation timetable on evaluations. It continues to wait on a verdict.
"The issue has been how quickly we implement teacher evaluations," state board of education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. "The feds would like that to be a year earlier. We have said we'd like to follow what's in the state law."
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Ed. announced it's now permitting some case-by-case flexibility on states' timelines in using growth in teacher evaluations. Illinois is seeking an exception.
States nationwide -- including Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida and Nevada -- have been given waivers, after their teacher evaluation systems were approved by the department.
Meanwhile, the number of schools in Illinois labeled "failing" by the federal government continues to increase. More than 82 percent of the state's 860 school districts failed to meet federal benchmarks in 2012, up from 64 percent in 2010.
Fergus said a state board study expects to finish a study next fall about districts' usage of the new evaluation systems. A state appointed committee has yet to come up with an evaluation model to use as a blueprint for districts statewide, something local superintendents calling for more guidance say would help eliminate problems.
"We want to be proactive rather than reactive," Niles District 219 Assistant Superintendent Anne Roloff said.
ISBE administrator Vicki Phillips praised the local control aspect of the state's teacher evaluation system. She said meetings are set up for the fall and officials are working to provide as much guidance as possible.
"There's a tension between giving enough leeway to districts making their own decisions ... but then providing them as much as you can humanly provide," she said.
At CPS, officials expect to finish the evaluation work later this month, spokeswoman Molly Poppe said.
Sue Sporte, the Consortium on Chicago School Research's research director, said CPS teachers revealed in surveys and interviews they were apprehensive about the evaluation changes last year.
"There was a lot of misinformation about it, how much (the test scores would count)," she said.
The consortium, part of the University of Chicago, conducts research and helps CPS recognize how the district is functioning.
But since many Illinois districts don't have that kind of outside help, other organizations, including the Illinois Teacher Evaluation Development Program, are stepping in to help districts statewide craft new evaluation plans.
"I think we're on the right track but we don't have all the pieces," Trover said. "I think we're building the capacity."