#NEETurns10: Reflecting on NEE, 10 Years Later
It was a rainy Saturday in early April 2011. I was restless because I couldn’t go outside to work in the yard or garden. So, I sat down in my living room chair and picked up a yellow pad of paper. I began to sketch some thoughts about how a teacher evaluation process should really work. (By the way, I still have that yellow pad with the sketches from 10 years ago.)
That simple sketch was the result of a series of experiences from my 10-year tenure at Ozark R-6 and being part of Missouri’s statewide taskforce to create the new teacher performance standards during 2010-2011. Here are a few of the key items from the sketch:
- In-depth training for administrators to improve their skill in observing instruction
- Observation forms with common language that are easier for teachers and administrators to understand and use
- Some form of immediately accessible professional development for teachers
- Field support for remote rural schools to help with implementation
If you look at that 2011 sketch and you know much about the Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) today, you recognize that sketch was a pretty good blueprint for what was to come. The system just had to be built.
A week or two later, the sketch was turned into a proposal that I carried into a meeting in Hill Hall at the University of Missouri College of Education. I met with my immediate supervisor, Associate Dean Glenn Good, and Dean Dan Clay to review the proposal to create a new teacher evaluation system for Missouri. Certainly, the 1990s Missouri Performance Based Teacher Evaluation (PBTE) work of Dr. Jerry Valentine, a Mizzou professor emeritus, had set a precedent for the college’s involvement in a statewide teacher evaluation system. Would the college step back into the position to lead development and implementation of a new comprehensive teacher and leader evaluation system?
We needed to move quickly to prepare and launch a pilot project by August for the 2011-2012 school year, so an answer was needed that day. Fortunately, Dan and Glenn agreed, and they granted permission to plan and launch a pilot project in August. Before we left the table, Dan said, “You need to talk to Christi Bergin.” Being relatively new to the college, I replied, “Who is that?”
After trading a couple of emails to compare calendars, a date was set for a meeting with Dr. Christi Bergin, who at that time was a research professor in the College of Education and was likewise interested in effective teacher and principal evaluation processes. I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived that day. After some brief pleasantries, I shared the proposal with her. She read it and underlined a few lines on the sheet. Then she paused. I wasn’t sure whether she was going to wad up the sheet and throw it at me or just get up and leave. Then she asked, “Can you get schools to join?” I replied, “If it’s done right and it’s affordable, yes, I can.” After that, we embarked on a two-hour volley of questions and answers. In that exchange, Christi offered some significant and innovative changes to how principals should be trained and how the new instruments should be designed. On my side of the exchange, I referred to the sketch-based proposal to ensure the pieces I outlined were on the table. The key points of that exchange still lay at the foundation of NEE today, making NEE a better evaluation system than any full-system offering in the country.
The work done between May and August of 2011 was incredible. A handful of College of Education faculty and staff created a set of observation rubrics and a student survey to measure new teacher performance standards. During that period, a key contribution also was made by Dr. Paul Katnik of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Paul shared with us a copy of a new guide, authored by a group led by Dr. Laura Goe, meant to assist states in developing high-quality teacher evaluation systems. The guide informed the new model and served as a roadmap in the first year of our work.
My primary function during that summer was to gather a small group of districts and schools that would agree to be trained and use our new materials in a pilot mode for the 2011-2012 school year. I’ll mention a few names to give them their due in helping give NEE a solid start: Bob Simpson; Steve Bryant and the Union, Mo., administrative team; Kristee Lorenz and Steve Triplett from Sedalia, Mo.; Kurtis Jensen; Cheri Patterson; Darin Cook and the rest of the Neosho, Mo., administrative team; and others who made up the 42 administrators trained in September 2011 to launch the NEE pilot.
The people that participated in the pilot deserve a huge “thank you” from everyone that has used NEE since. This pilot group experienced a lot of change during the year as they were using materials and processes for the first time. The pilot group worked right alongside the small team of MU faculty and staff in the design, use, and review of every aspect of the system. They likely got tired of us asking them repeatedly for input on the materials and processes, but it was critical to creating a user-friendly system. (And NEE has never stopped asking our users for their feedback.)
Once the NEE project was operational, the phone started to ring as word spread about this new evaluation system developed at MU. In a very short time period, it became clear that my estimate for the number of districts that would join the project was way too low. The rate of districts joining NEE quickly outran the capacity of the handful of staff involved. Adding personnel became a top priority in the second and third year of NEE operation. In January 2012, I moved Tom Hairston to NEE from another project at MU’s Regional Professional Development Center (RPDC). Today Tom is NEE’s managing director, leading the project into its second decade. I am glad Tom was on the RPDC staff 10 years ago when I needed a good hand to help move the project along. After acquiring Tom, Bob Simpson was hired at the end of the 2012 school year. Bob was involved in the pilot phase of the project and knew as much about NEE as anyone in the state. Bob brought his energy and task-oriented attitude to the team, and I give Bob a lot of the credit for getting a ton of work completed very quickly.
At about this time, it became clear that this project was not so little any longer, and we were faced with some scaling issues. Scaling issue No. 1 was the inability of the old, university-developed data tool to carry a load of more than 100 school districts. But by summer 2013, NEE already had 125 districts using the tool and another 100 districts poised to join. We decided to start work with a vendor outside the university to build the next generation of the NEE Data Tool.
With 100 new districts, we needed more staff yet again. So, I dipped back into the pilot project participants and hired Cheri Patterson, the recently retired assistant superintendent of the St. Joseph, Mo., School District. As an administrator with an elementary background, Cheri brought a lot to our team that was made up of all secondary educators. Cheri also knew most everyone in the north Kansas City and northwest Missouri area. Cheri has had a huge impact on the project, with her keen ability to help principals and teachers in the field and her dedication of countless hours to improve NEE processes. Also hired during the summer of 2013 was Kurtis Jensen. Kurtis also participated in the pilot year of the project as a middle school principal at Lathrop, Mo. Kurtis brought a barrel full of energy and fun to our team. Weekly NEE team meetings were never boring after Kurtis joined the team, and the infusion of his energy was much needed during this period.
In May 2014, I received an email from Larry Nossaman, a grant writer in the College of Education, about a Gates Foundation call for proposals. Larry recognized the proposal topic was related to an idea I had shared with him a few months earlier about the need to add an online library of educator training materials to NEE. The rural principals were after us to offer more support for teachers who needed easier access to training resources related to the teacher performance standards.
However, Larry’s email landed right in the busiest time of year for NEE, when our staff was busy training principals. I told Larry I was swamped in training events and I wouldn’t have time to respond to the call for proposals. But Larry wouldn’t give up that easily. Looking back, I thank Larry for being persistent and forcing me to write the proposal because today we have three benefits of that funded proposal:
- NEE now has a professional learning resource library, EdHub, which is filled with high-quality resources that are easily accessible to NEE users.
- The grant allowed us to hire two wonderfully skilled staff members, Cathie Loesing and Javier Leung, who have each made countless contributions to the project.
- EdHub has helped teachers become more effective in their classrooms, meaning students have directly benefited from EdHub resources.
In 2015, the second generation of the NEE Data Tool launched. The transition to our current data tool provided multiple avenues of improvement for us and our network members. It provided flexibility in generating reports, as well as the ability to develop new reports beneficial to school districts’ needs. We also have been able to author more organizers and push those into the tool to meet district evaluation needs more comprehensively. Finally, the integration of EdHub into the data tool (which happened in 2018) makes professional development and further training on NEE readily available and easy to access.
NEE has evolved into a truly unique blended operation that combines the attributes of Mizzou’s large College of Education & Human Development (research expertise, IT support, and business operations) with a quasi-entrepreneurial startup venture.
As NEE begins its 11th year of operation in Missouri, there are 278 member districts in our home state. That’s more than half of Missouri districts, including roughly 35,000 teachers and 2,000 administrators. There are some big advantages to that volume. Like Wal-Mart, volume allows NEE to do things at scale very efficiently and affordably for school districts.
In addition, NEE now serves districts in Nebraska, Kansas, and Illinois. NEE’s growth in additional states is due in large part to two individuals who used NEE in Missouri and then went to Nebraska and Kansas. NEE owes a big thanks to Dr. James Haley, now-retired superintendent at Wood River Rural Community Schools in Nebraska, and Don Epps, middle school principal in Chanute, Kan., for their efforts to bring NEE into neighboring states.
NEE is committed to helping teachers and principals become more effective in providing the very best education system for the children in their communities. That sounds like a lofty goal — and it is. The good news is that NEE is delivering.
NEE has reached a volume that produces a massive amount of data related to teacher and principal effectiveness. Over the past four years, NEE researchers have investigated the learning and leading processes in large blocks of schools. NEE data indicate that NEE positively impacts principals, teachers, and even student achievement. This growth can be shown using several methods across multiple valid measures. The overall impact on 290 school districts spread across four Midwestern states is far beyond the initial project outline presented to college leaders in 2011. Pretty powerful stuff for a sketch on a yellow pad of paper.
Dr. Marc Doss is co-founder and Expansion Director for the Network for Educator Effectiveness. He has 30 years of experience in the classroom and education administration at the building and district levels.
The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.