September 17, 2009

YES Prep: Ensuring Accountability for Student Success

This case study explores the “nuts and bolts” of how YES Prep Public Schools, a charter organization based in Houston, Texas, succeeds in preparing low-income students not only to graduate from high school, but also to enter college ready to meet the challenges of a post-secondary education.

We have a mission-driven culture, and we have bright, ambitious folks who really want to get every single one of their students to college. And they realize that in order to do that, they need to be constantly improving. (Jennifer Hines, Chief Program and People Officer)

YES Prep puts students at the center of a systematic teacher feedback and evaluation system. This system continues to evolve as YES Prep builds a stronger experience base and develops new tools. The general philosophy, however, is unchanging: Hold teachers accountable for student performance and support teachers' growth through clear, documented performance expectations that align to the college graduation goal.

To that end, the YES Prep instructional team developed and continues to refine a robust Teacher Summative Evaluation Rubric (TSR), which serves as a tool for translating effective teaching practices into a clear and actionable definition of what every teacher at YES prep needs to do.

The TSR is based on frameworks used by successful organizations such as Teach For America and Aspire Public Schools, but has been customized to reflect YES Prep’s values and experience with what successful YES Prep teachers do and its knowledge of where new YES Prep teachers typically struggle.

In the beginning, the YES Prep leadership team used classroom observations, student performance data, and self-assessments of the leaders' own instructional practices to make sure that the performance levels were set to appropriately match YES Prep’s standards and to make sure that the “mastery” level truly reflected the ideal (not simply an above-average) YES Prep teacher. The team continues to calibrate the framework against student results and is working to identify and prioritize behaviors that have the highest correlation with student achievement, according to student performance data. 

Populated with data gathered from observations, student course surveys, test scores, and a wide range of feedback from grade-level and department heads, coaches, deans of instruction, and school leaders, the TSR plays a central role in YES Prep’s performance measurement and compensation system. Currently, YES Prep teachers are eligible for up to $1,000 in merit pay if their school reaches student academic performance targets, with up to $3,000 in additional merit pay related to individual performance on the TSR (the average bonus is $1,500). The TSR also plays an important role in helping school leaders identify teachers who are struggling, and YES Prep has a variety of systems to support teachers who fail to make progress and do not perform up to standards (including structured feedback conversations and a growth plan progression). 

YES Prep school directors rely on the evaluation system not only to help teachers develop in their roles but also to determine whether or not to keep a teacher on staff. In an average year, YES Prep releases 10 percent of its teachers for reasons related to performance. Bill Durbin, a school director and current Head of New Schools states, “we have a low tolerance for mediocrity;” if a teacher isn’t able to perform against the standard, then the decision to let that person go is relatively straightforward. As Durbin says: “We are here to do whatever it takes for students; that’s our bottom line.” 

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