The Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan

Many years ago, I listened to Alfie Kohn expand on the dire consequences of merit pay for teachers. I have worked in schools in which faculty salaries were determined subjectively, if not whimsically, favoring seniority and squeaky wheels. And I became head of a school with a rigid years-of-experience and credits-beyond-the-BA salary scale where teachers could accrue additional compensation by taking real estate courses and teachers who were actually enhancing their classroom performance with remarkable, but noncredit, professional development plodded down their "years of experience" column with little hope of monetary reward for their enhanced expertise.

Over the years, I've seen schools adopt "salary bands" and "master teacher" categories, stipends, bonuses, and all sorts of other incentive or reward systems. No one model seemed to catch on as being the long-sought solution. Still, I believed that there just had to be an answer to devising an effective and credible way to link compensation to professional development and improved teaching. Such a model would need to be transparent, equitable, and financially manageable for the school. It would need to marry objectivity with the art of teaching, and have buy-in from those participating in it.

Characters of Good Teaching


I began with transparency. We all know that if you're going to be evaluated, it's awfully helpful to know what the criteria are, the "rules of the game" as it were. Additionally, if there are going to be "evaluators," it's most effective if they know what they are doing and have the capacity and imprimatur to carry it off in a way that gains the confidence of the teachers.

So this being Seattle, where everyone's voice must be honored and people talk things into the ground, we got the faculty at my school, University Prep, started on writing Characteristics of Good Teaching (CGT). This comprehensive list was vaguely sorted into domains, somewhat a la evaluation expert Charlotte Danielson, but the content and focus more definitively reflected the mission and culture of our school. At the same time, over a period of two years, we worked to escalate the responsibilities and enhance the skills of our department heads from peer representatives to administrative leaders who could gain the trust from their teaching colleagues as observers and evaluators.

For the system to be equitable, success needed to be accessible to everyone regardless of his or her experience and education. We replaced the "degrees beyond the BA" column labels on our salary scale with "Individualized Teaching Improvement Plan (ITIP)" level, representing a different set of criteria that, unlike the advanced university credits, actually related to observable improvement as a teacher. The ITIP takes place over three years. At the beginning of Year One, teachers are encouraged, counseled, guided by their department chair and division director to select from the Characteristics of Good Teaching a small, specific area of focus. This should not be simply an area in their subject that interests them (people's areas of interest tend to be things they are already good at), but rather something that they (or their department chair) know is a challenge for them pedagogically, content-wise, or culturally.
 

Year One

Formal Observation
 
  • In the first quarter of this year, the department head will meet with the teacher (at the teacher's behest) in consultation to design the three-year Individualized Teaching Improvement Plan (ITIP) reflecting the selected Characteristics of Good Teaching (CGT) domain(s). This plan should be submitted to the department head in writing for approval and a copy filed in the department head's ITIP notebook.
  • The teacher will then assemble an observation team comprising his/her department head, division director, and one or two peers (preferably in different disciplines). In the following three quarters, the team members will observe the teacher's classes, focusing their attention on the teacher's progress relative to his/her three-year professional development plan.
  • Teachers will have a minimum of three observation sessions spaced throughout the year (the teacher should schedule these in consultation with the team members), each visit the duration of an entire class. The department chair or a division director will be present at all sessions, and each team member must take part in at least two of the observations. The entire team should be present at one of the observations.
  • Each observation session will be preceded by a meeting in which the teacher and the team will discuss the teacher's goals for the class, and how they relate to his/her professional development plan.
  • After each session, the observers will meet with the teacher to debrief the class, focusing on the previously outlined goals for the class and the teacher's plan for professional development within his/her specified domain.
  • The department head is responsible for completing the CGT Report Form for each of the three observations, and the ITIP Checklist, each within a timely fashion.
  • The teacher will meet with his/her team at the end of the year to discuss and summarize what went well, what needs improvement, and what the ITIP Year Two will actually look like. The teacher should subsequently provide a brief written summary of that meeting (including the Year-Two plan) to the department head to file.
  • The department head will report on the teacher's progress to the head of school and the division directors at their usual end-of-semester meetings. At the June meeting, those administrators will assess the teacher's Observation Year progress relative to approving satisfactory completion.
 
Year Two

Professional Development
 
  • In the early part of this year, the teacher in consultation with her/his department head, will refine and finalize the plan for professional development and inquiry to be completed beyond the walls of University Prep. The teacher's department head and division director need to approve the plan. (This presumes an expectation that the department head is or becomes conversant with professional organizations and the opportunities they offer in his/her discipline, and can suggest and guide department members to a variety of external development ideas and opportunities.)
  • This plan must support the teacher's three-year professional development goals as outlined in his or her ITIP.
  • Examples of external professional development include pursuing an advanced degree in a relevant field, taking classes in pedagogy and/or content, participating in noncredit substantive programs, visiting schools and universities, and attending conferences and workshops.
  • The plan should have coherence and an articulated desired outcome, and in all cases demonstrably relate to the teacher's three-year plan.
  • The external professional development may take place in the summers and/or during the school year.
  • The plan should be financially feasible. The teacher and department head should consult with the academic dean regarding availability of funding.
  • The teacher will provide the department head with documentation demonstrating successful completion of each facet of the plan and a brief written reflection on the efficacy of each aspect of external development undertaken.
  • The teacher should continue to make discernible improvement in the domain and focus of his/her three-year plan. This will be the focus of assessment by the department head in his/her monitoring and mentoring via classroom visits and conversations with the faculty member throughout the year.


Teachers are not asked abstractly just to improve, nor do we encourage them to take on more than one or two areas on which to concentrate. For a teacher to succeed, the selection must be manageable with the good possibility of a positive and demonstrable outcome.

After the teacher drafts an ITIP proposal, and gets it approved, a three-year sequence begins to unfold. The details of the ITIP model can be accessed through University Prep's website1, but the framework looks like this:
 
  • Year One is a formal observation year by a team of peers and administrators setting the baseline and observing progress and change relative to the CGT areas identified in the plan.
  • Year Two is a professional development year. Observations continue, but teachers must also step outside the school in a significant way to "look around." (We are fortunate to have professional development funding that can support this.)
  • Year Three is a portfolio year of continued observation in which the teacher assembles materials to support demonstrable improvement in the CGT/ITIP area. Teachers present their portfolios to their departments and to the head of school.
Each year's success is evaluated and signed off by the department chair, division director, and head of school. At the successful completion of the three-year cycle, the teacher moves over one column on the salary scale, and begins the ITIP process all over again. We are currently beginning our fifth year, having started the faculty in this process in cohorts. At this point, every teacher is involved in an ITIP, working in one of the three years, some in their second round. I have this vision in my mind of the whole teaching faculty inexorably rising up in their professional capabilities, simultaneously transforming the educational experience of all our students. And their salary increases are directly linked to that improvement.
 
Year Three

Portfolio and Documentation
 
  • In this year, the teacher will create a portfolio documenting the development and implementation, and progress of his/her new skill sets and capabilities.
  • This plan must support the teacher's three-year professional development goals as outlined in his or her ITIP.
  • The portfolio should include:
    • Copies of any feedback notes from your team observations;
    • Self-reflections (at least one each quarter) about the team's observations over time, the changes you are implementing, and the effect they are having on the students' engagement and mastery, on your instructional method and style, and in the school in general;
    • Student assessments related to any of your newly implemented teaching strategies developed from your ITIP focus;
    • Examples of classroom materials, lesson plans, etc., created in support of the plan's goals;
    • Any observations or assessments by colleagues, or measurements or metrics, that would demonstrate change and progress;
    • Samples that represent and demonstrate the changes you have made as a result of this ITIP (e.g., videos of your teaching from Year One to Year Three, or samples of tests and/or lesson plans from Year One compared to Year Three);
    • Student works; and
    • A description of information about, and/or documentation of your "external adventures" in Year Two.
  • The portfolio should be reviewed periodically over the course of the year by the department head and division director.
  • In the spring of the year, the faculty member will make a presentation of his/her ITIP cycle, including the portfolio, to the department and any team members available. Organizing this is the responsibility of the faculty member.
  • At the close of the year, the teacher should provide a summative reflection on the success of the three-year program of professional development, focusing on its effects on the teacher, the students, and the school in general. In June, the department head, the division director, and the head of school review and evaluate the success of the teacher's three-year ITIP plan. Should they determine that satisfactory progress has been made, the teacher's status on the salary scale shifts to the next higher ITIP column.
 

We are all in this together


The start of this process five years ago was challenging. Even though everyone had been involved in the development of the CGT, brought along as the ITIP design was fleshed out, and reassured that we would be tweaking and revising the model as we experienced it, there was consternation and resistance. Change is hard, particularly when it might require personal involvement (i.e., alteration of teaching practices and increased responsibility on the administrative side). I am not a particularly autocratic administrator, but I will admit that in this instance, I made clear that the decision to implement the ITIP model was mine (of course, I had run it by the board), and that we would in fact be doing it. While we would inevitably be making alterations to the model over time, this was not a trial run for the program. It was here to stay.

After the initial skepticism and inevitable design glitches, the responses and results have been remarkably positive. Teachers feel invested and in control of their professional development and recompense. Since absolutely everyone is involved in the process, much of the sting and anxiety have been taken away from classroom observation and evaluation. Almost everyone has, at some point, been involved as an observation team member and reported this as an often transformative experience for their own teaching. Faculty members have begun to share their ITIP experiences with one another, and new cross-discipline alliances have formed. The idea that we're all in the business of improving teaching and learning is pervasive.

There will continue to be challenges. The ITIP model is a lot of work for department heads in particular. But to me, demonstrable and continuous improvement of teaching, the quality of what happens in their classrooms, should be their highest priority. Some faculty members are more invested than others, but the trend is very much toward increasing engagement, good will, and excitement even among the most recalcitrant. The fact that approximately one-third of the faculty will be moving from one column to another on the salary scale makes planning for the next year's budget much more predictable. And the cost is close to a financial wash with the previous system.

Several other schools have become interested in implementing this model. Of course, every school is highly individualized and we wouldn't presume to suggest this would work for everyone. But from our experience, I believe that there is, in fact, a model or program that will fit a school's culture and that will address the need for compensation to reflect good teaching and intentional improvement. I would suggest keeping that pencil and yellow legal pad right by your bedside — just in case.

Notes

1. See University Prep's Three-Year Professional Development Model: Individualized Teaching Improvement Plan, www.universityprep.org/about-us/faculty.
Author
Erica Hamlin

Erica Hamlin is head of University Prep (Washington).