Analysis: Experience in Florida suggests caution with teacher evaluations not a bad idea
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Last week California lawmakers failed for a second consecutive year to find agreement on a new system for evaluating classroom educators - shooting down in the state Senate what the author called a modest proposal requiring districts to use multiple measurements in performing evaluations at least every three years for veteran personnel.
The legislation faced stiff opposition from the state's powerful teachers unions, and while linking teacher pay with student performance remains a key goal of the Obama administration, there remained enough uncertainty around the proposal to cause its demise, again.
SB 441 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, is scheduled for reconsideration this Wednesday but even the author does not appear optimistic he will find the one additional vote needed to move the bill along.
There may be good reason for critics to howl about this outcome - especially as evidence mounts that the current system is not workable.
But looking around at other states, particularly Florida, might suggest the best move is to wait for a better answer.
The sunshine state, which has basked in national attention for its progressive education agenda, was an early entry in the movement to fix teacher evaluations. The state won $700 million in the 2009 federal Race to the Top competition - at least in part due to its commitment to link pay with test scores.
Two years later, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the sweeping legislation and instituted one of the nation's first merit pay systems for teachers with evaluations tied to test scores.
Today, significant flaws in the system have been discovered and lawmakers in Tallahassee are being forced to reconsider their action as challenges mount in both state and federal court.
Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan - a big fan of most of the new education agenda in Florida - took notice last week and urged action. If something doesn't make sense," he said. "We should move rapidly to fix it."
The glaring problem with the Florida law appears to be that while all teachers are subject to the evaluations, only some are engaged in the underlining instructions from which the evaluations are largely based.
The Student Success Act, adopted in 2011, established a value-added formula for judging teacher performance and relies on student test scores from statewide assessments as the primary measure.
In Florida, math and English language arts are the only two subjects covered by statewide testing. Thus, a history or science teacher will have had no connection to the instruction over which they will be evaluated.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this month, a group of teachers who do not instruct math or English - but nonetheless are being evaluated on those scores - have challenged the system on constitutional grounds of due process and equal protection. A similar argument is being made in state court by another group of teachers.
State officials seem to be aware of this problem and have put into place plans to phase out the existing test system - but the replacement is still in the works. Meanwhile, district administrators and state fiscal officers are struggling with how to implement the new merit pay component of the state budget - which is supposed to give $2,500 raises to successful educators.
A remedy bill drafted earlier this spring would have clarified that teachers could only be evaluated on the performance of students that they have actually had in their classrooms. It might have required a significant amount of work on the existing performance formula but it appeared to have consensus support.
Then, last week, politics got in the way.
There is one other major education issue pending this session in Florida - consideration of a Parent Trigger law. An import from California, the proposal would allow parents to petition for restructuring of failing schools. But the Florida version includes a provision that would prevent students from having low-performing teachers for two consecutive years.
The bill passed out of the lower house, dominated by Republicans, but its fate is far from secure in the more moderate Senate. In an effort to backstop part of the measure, the Republican author of the teacher evaluation remedy decided last week to amend the bill to include the restriction on low-performing teachers.
That move prompted the Florida Education Association - the state's teachers union - to pull its support of the evaluation remedy bill, leaving that issue up in the air as well.
Re: Bills die to impose new teacher evaluations, layoff rules
I recently had lunch with a new science teacher who was considering transferring to another campus because he had received an unsatisfactory evaluation this year from our principal. At his former school, he gained accolades for his work from staff, students and parents but for some reason he didn't hit it off with his new boss. I urged him to stay and to simply add some letters of recommendation to counter the negative points made on his evaluation. Alas, if legislation such as what has recently been proposed should pass, this young man could find himself without a job.
While one would think that good student test scores could offset the harm done by a vindictive evaluation, that may not be the case. There is good evidence that California's standardized tests are a poor measure of student achievement. Students who learn a lot can do poorly on the tests, and students who have hardly learned anything in class can do well. Why? James Popham, a UCLA Emeritus Professor, explains in his ASCD article "Why Standardized Tests Don't Measure Educational Quality." 1999:
"One of the chief reasons that children's socioeconomic status is so highly correlated with standardized test scores is that many items on standardized achievement tests really focus on assessing knowledge and/or skills learned outside of schoolâknowledge and/or skills more likely to be learned in some socioeconomic settings than in others."
This is certainly the case in my son's school which routinely scores in the 900's on the CST. We live in a very high socio-economic area. I've observed several teachers there while volunteering in the classrooms and seen the work sent home. It does not compare with the high rigor and creativity of the programs offered by the teachers in the school district where I work, which is urban and poor. Yet we struggle to achieve scores in the high 700's.
Personally, I would like to see my union take the lead in improving teacher quality nationwide. Credentials should be harder to get so that every teacher hired can be assumed to be a quality educator from day one. I'd like to see teachers do intensive internships like medical doctors do. However, we would need to be able to compensate our teachers better in order to justify the cost of more rigorous preparation. Alas, our culture simply does not value education enough to do this.Judy Bryson, Library Media Teacher