March 2016

Getting ready for T-TESS

T-TESS, the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, is coming soon and it promises to be a sea change in the way teachers and instructional leaders work together. About 200 school districts have gotten a leg up by participating in the two-year piloting process with plenty of training and guidance from the Education Service Centers. The remaining 800 plus districts that have not been part of the pilot have a lot of learning and planning to do between now and the start of next school year.


T-TESS is replacing PDAS (Professional Development and Appraisal System) as the new state recommended model for teacher appraisal. PDAS was adopted by the state in 1997 and no longer reflects the latest research on effective teaching practice. PDAS has been described as a “dog and pony show” or a “gotcha” system where appraisers make cursory observations using checklists on which teachers are trained to perform. Performance results have been largely indistinguishable among teachers and little attention is paid to student learning in the process.

T-TESS aims to change the culture of appraisal to a coaching and development model for teachers. The new system will be more focused and streamlined. While the PDAS rubric includes 51 criteria within eight performance domains, the T-TESS rubric includes 16 criteria within four domains. PDAS ratings were a four-level scale tied to how frequently certain teacher behaviors were observed. T-TESS employs a five-level scale that describes both teacher-centered and student-centered behaviors, and will consider student growth at a later date. Feedback from the pilots indicates that teachers feel the new rubric is more clear and concise and they are getting more useful feedback through post-observation conferences.

Example of Rubrics / Standards for a Proficient Rating in Communication.

Old PDAS Rubric for Proficiency in Communication New T-TESS Rubric for Proficiency in Communication
Most of the time:
The teacher:
1. The teacher uses appropriate and accurate written communication with students. 1. Uses probing questions to clarify, elaborate learning.
2. The teacher uses appropriate and accurate verbal and non-verbal communication with students. 2. Recognizes possible student misunderstandings and responds with an array of teaching techniques to clarify concepts.
3. The teacher encourages and supports students who are reluctant or having difficulty. 3. Asks remember, understand and apply level questions that focus on the objective of the lesson and provoke discussion.
4. The teacher uses appropriate and accurate written communication with parents, staff, community members, and other professionals. 4. Provides explanations that are clear.
5. The teacher uses appropriate and accurate verbal and non-verbal communication with parents, staff, community members, and other professionals. 5. Uses verbal and written communication that is clear and correct.
6. The teacher’s interactions are supportive, courteous, and respectful with students, parents, staff, community members, and other professionals. 6. Establishes classroom practices that provide opportunities for most students to communicate effectively with the teacher their peers.
The Key is in the Rubric
The new evaluation rubric is based on decades of research on effective teaching practice and describes effective teacher practice in these four performance domains:
  • Planning
    • Standards and alignment
    • Data and assessment
    • Knowledge of students
    • Activities
  • Instruction
    • Achieving expectations
    • Content knowledge and expertise
    • Communication
    • Differentiation
    • Monitor and adjust
  • Learning Environment
    • Classroom environment, routines, and procedures
    • Managing student behavior
    • Classroom culture
  • Professional Practices and Responsibilities
    • Professional demeanor and ethics
    • Goal setting
    • Professional development 
    • School community involvement
After the first year of learning and practice with the new rubric, student growth measures will be added to the process beginning in 2017–18. Districts will have a choice of which growth measures to use for which teachers.

Early indicators are that many districts prefer measurable student learning objectives developed by teachers, commonly known as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs). Value-added measures have proven complex, controversial, and costly to implement.

It’s About Time

The biggest challenge commonly cited by pilot districts is the amount of time that will be required from appraisers to effectively implement the T-TESS process. Estimates have ranged from four to eight hours per teacher required for an appraiser to complete a full appraisal process, which includes a pre-observation conference, formal observation, post-observation conference, and end-of-year conference. Contrast this with one to three hours for the PDAS process, with more opportunity for bypassing or short-cutting observations and conferences, and it is clear that districts will have to invest more time into T-TESS.

Local Control Galore

Getting ready for T-TESS also means making lots of local policy and procedural decisions, the first of which is whether to use T-TESS at all, or an alternative system developed locally. Districts have the option of using alternative systems at the district or campus level provided the local system will meet state standards. Early polls have indicated that about eighty percent of districts are planning to adopt T-TESS as their local teacher appraisal system next year.

Plenty of other local decisions will also have to be made such as:
  • Who will be the appraisers for each campus
  • Setting the annual appraisal calendar
  • What to use for student growth measures for each teacher (effective 2017–18) and how much growth to expect
  • Whether to calculate a single summative appraisal rating and how
  • How many observations will be required and for which teachers
  • Whether teachers must be given advance notice of observations
  • Whether and under what conditions veteran teachers can receive less frequent appraisals
  • Who will conduct second appraisals if requested by a teacher

To Sum or Not to Sum It Up

The issue of whether or not to summarize a teacher’s evaluation into a single overall performance rating has been a subject of discussion during the pilot process. The proposed rules now call for leaving this decision up to local districts.
Tim Regal is the TEA director in charge of T-TESS development. Regal explained that feedback received from principals indicated that sometimes dimension ratings had been manipulated under PDAS to ensure that teachers ended up with a good score overall and many principals feel that it would be demoralizing to label teacher performance. Based on that feedback, TEA staff decided that it was better to protect the integrity of dimension feedback by leaving a summative scoring system out of it. Regal explained “The feedback for a teacher does not change just because there is no summative score. This is a system about development—not about labels and ranking and sorting.”

Lessons Learned from the Pilots

The pilot districts have been providing feedback all along the way to TEA and to the non-pilot districts by sharing their lessons learned. These are some of the most important.

Appraisers will improve with practice. Using the new rubric requires learning new skills and that will take time and practice on the part of the appraisers. The process should take less time after appraisers have a year or two under their belt.

Communicate with teachers early and often. Being evaluated is uncomfortable and threatening for most people. Teachers will be more positive and comfortable with T-TESS the more they understand it. Rhonda McWilliams, executive director of human resources in Pflugerville ISD, advises management to get a head start by introducing teachers to the new rubric at every faculty meeting this spring and then continuing the discussions next school year and beyond. Pflugerville developed an orientation video for their teachers, PfISD Transition to TTESS, and put it on YouTube and the district website.

Keep talking about the rubric. Savvy pilot districts have broken down the rubric into bite size pieces for administrators and teachers to learn and discuss the meaning and expectations of the different performance levels. This helps to calibrate expectations and relieve teacher anxiety.

Messaging to teachers is important. Regal believes it is important for districts to convey the message to teachers that it is okay to be wherever they are on the appraisal rating scale. Research shows that it takes about five years in the classroom for most beginning teachers to become proficient in their practice. Thus, being rated as a developing teacher for novices should not be considered a bad thing.

Recalibrate performance expectations. Under PDAS, nearly every teacher was rated as Exceeds Expectations or higher. Under T-TESS, the median rating of Proficient is the expected level for a fully developed teacher. Pilot results are showing less inflated appraisal scores than under PDAS and teachers need to understand that the old Exceeds Expectations will now be the new Proficient.

Investing More in Teacher Development
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The pilot districts say that T-TESS is a much better system. Teachers say that the conferencing helps them to understand the feedback they receive and how to get better. Appraisers say that the system takes a lot more time but it is worth it. When it comes to coaching and developing our teachers to become more effective with their students, what could possibly be a better investment of our time and money?