By Susan Flynn

Teachers will soon be judged – and rewarded – in a whole new way in Massachusetts public schools under a dramatically different evaluation system approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over the summer.

Under the new guidelines, MCAS scores must be used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher, along with the more traditional route of classroom observations by principals. Teachers will be assigned one of four ratings (which are, themselves, similar to the MCAS grading system) – exemplary, proficient, needs improvement or unsatisfactory. Any teacher who receives a rating in the bottom two categories will be put on an improvement plan and face disciplinary measures or dismissal unless changes are made.

The new evaluation system also requires school districts to reward top-performing teachers, although how they choose to do so will be subject to negotiations between school districts and individual teacher unions. It could be with an increase in pay.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, says the new evaluation regulations are not meant to punish teachers, but to identify ways to grow and improve. The regular performance reviews can also identify exceptional teachers who could be tapped as mentors and used in leadership roles, he says.

“The effectiveness of the teacher is by far the most influential aspect of schooling,” says Chester. “At its core, this is about ensuring every child experiences a high-quality level of instruction in Massachusetts schools.”

Here are some more specifics about the new evaluation system and what it means for teachers, students and parents:

Why was a change needed in the teacher evaluation process?

This is the state’s first update to teacher evaluation regulations in 16 years. “You would think this was something that was done well all along, but we found evaluations were done very uneven from school to school and, in the worst cases, they were not even done at all,” says Chester. While previous regulations had suggested using MCAS scores in evaluations, it was not put into practice.

When will the new evaluations start?

In 10 school districts, including Boston and Springfield, the new regulations will be used this fall. Every other school district has two years from this month to put the system into place.

Why should parents care about these changes?

The new evaluation regulations validate what parents already know – a strong teacher makes all the difference in a classroom, Chester says. No child, he says, should have to lose out on a year of learning because of a weak teacher, and parents shouldn’t have to resign themselves to accept one lost year because of a bad luck of the draw when assignments are determined.

Will the use of MCAS scores pit teachers against each other? Won’t everyone want the smart kids?

No, argues Chester. The evaluations will be based on MCAS data that charts a student’s progress from one year to the next, and not the overall score. “We are emphasizing student learning. How much progress did the student make over the year earlier?”

Will students get to evaluate teachers?

Yes, the new rules allow input from students in the middle and high schools. Over the next two years, the state will develop an evaluation form. “It’s important it is done in a way that’s constructive,” says Chester. “It’s not just, ‘Do you like your teacher?’ But, ‘When you are struggling to learn, does your teacher have another way to explain that material?’”

Will parents get to evaluate teachers?

Not yet, maybe some day. The state board is trying to determine the feasibility of including parent feedback. It will not be part of this new evaluation system taking effect within two years.

Will the evaluations or ratings be made public?

No. The information will be part of a teacher’s confidential personnel file.

What do the teachers’ unions think of the new evaluations?

The Massachusetts Teachers Association endorsed the new regulations, although the organization has expressed concern about the kind of training the teacher evaluators will receive.

Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper.