MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Jerry Seinfeld once observed that professional wrestling referees have an enviable job.

“You’re a referee in a sport with no rules of any kind,” the comedian noted. “How do you screw that up?”

Until just a couple of years ago, the same could have been said of Memphis City school principals in charge of evaluating their teachers’ classroom performance. The guidelines they used to rate an educator’s teaching ability were fuzzy at best – and prone to subjective interpretation.

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Many principals simply handed out favorable job reviews to the majority of their tenured staff, if only to avoid nasty and expensive showdowns with the local teachers union.

This approach created a paradox in Memphis City Schools. The district “routinely awarded most instructors good ratings even as their students posted dismal test scores,” reports the Washington Post.

Evaluations were so haphazard that “many tenured teachers … went five years between evaluations,” the Post adds.

This approach was allowed because many Memphis school officials took the view that all teachers were essentially competent at their jobs.

That mindset is finally beginning to change.

Evaluation revolution

In 2011, Memphis City Schools (MCS) received tens of millions in funding from the federal government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a new teacher evaluation system that measures effectiveness through a combination of student achievement data and structured classroom observations.

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The plan is very similar to the controversial one Michelle Rhee set up in the D.C. school district.

While most states and school districts are still in the process of overhauling their teacher evaluation models, MCS is entering its third year with the revamped system. That makes the district – which is being consolidated into the Shelby County school district this fall – a national leader in the evaluation revolution.

Since the new plan took effect, 32 Memphis teachers were fired due to poor evaluations. Another 97 educators could suffer a similar fate this year, reports WREG.com.

Those statistics are not surprising. When the new system was being brought online, Memphis officials estimated that 10 to 15 percent of teachers would have to be “counseled out” of the profession due to inadequate performance.

Conventional wisdom says Memphis teachers should be up in arms over the new approach.

But a new survey conducted by pro-reform group Teach Plus and the Memphis Education Association (the local teachers union) suggests that’s not the case.

According to a new analysis of the survey – “Lessons from the Leading Edge: Teachers’ Views on the Impact of Evaluation Reform” – a significant number of MCS educators believe their job reviews are fair and based on criteria that actually lead to increased student achievement.

They also believe school leaders are providing them with the feedback, support and resources to become better teachers, according to the new Teach Plus-authored report.

There’s one caveat:  Highly rated teachers took part in the survey at greater levels than their lowly rated peers.

The Teach Plus authors note “this is not a representative sample,” but they contend the results provide “significant insight into the group that is arguably of most interest, those with (high) ratings who are having the greatest impact on student learning.”

MCS teachers involved ‘at every stage’ of process

According to the Teach Plus/MEA survey, 87 percent of Memphis teachers say district leaders have either been “extremely clear,” “quite clear” or “somewhat clear” in explaining what they need to do to receive a good rating during their classroom observations.

Fifty-eight percent believe the teaching practices measured during those observations are ones that result in increased student learning.

Sixty-seven percent believe their administrators will give them “significant feedback to improve (their) teaching practice.” And 78 percent say they have access to resources that will help them improve their classroom performance.

Half of MCS teachers who responded to the survey even report that the tougher evaluation plan has led to improved relationships with colleagues. These teachers say they’re sharing more ideas with their colleagues about how to succeed during observations.

They also say they’re doing “more grade level and across grade level planning, as well as becoming more data-driven based on results from assessments,” according to the report.

Why are so many Memphis teachers willingly going along with such “high stakes” evaluations? Didn’t they get the typical union memo to oppose such reforms?

Probably.  And some of those types of attitudes are reflected in the survey results, too.

However, Memphis school officials hit on a brilliant strategy for squelching most union opposition over the tougher evaluations. They did so by involving teachers “at every stage” of developing the new evaluation process, according to the Teach Plus report.

In a 2012 interview with HechingerReport.org, former MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash said the teachers chose the Michelle Rhee-style plan themselves.

“They thought it got more at the different, complex nuances of teaching,” Cash said.

Teachers also helped decide which instructional practices and skills principals look for during classroom observations. MCS educators also “played a major role in determining … how the elements of the system were weighted,” the Teach Plus report notes.

So what lessons can be taken from all this? Most teachers are happy to play by the rules if they feel they helped develop them. It’s also obvious that quality teachers don’t mind seeing unqualified colleagues nudged out the door.

Perhaps the Memphis experience will prove to be a blueprint for a lot of struggling school districts around the nation.