Teacher evaluation flap is much ado about not so much

It’s a problem with being a legislator. You pass a law, and you expect everyone will fall in line. And sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Case in point: Indiana’s teacher evaluations. Results were released last week, and they weren’t what some lawmakers had in mind when they mandated that all teachers be evaluated annually and rated highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective.

Of the teachers who were rated – and quite a few weren’t, either because their districts have multi-year union contracts that supersede the law or for other reasons – over 97 percent were rated highly effective or effective.

Rep. Bob Behning, who sponsored the 2011 legislation in the House, told Chalkbeat Indiana the results showed the system wasn’t working. “We may have let there be too much local control,” he said. “There’s obviously too much subjectivity.”

Some thoughts:

It’s a new system. Even if you think the teacher ratings are a good idea, they’re a new way for schools to do business. The state didn’t provide any extra resources, leaving it to school principals to find time to do the evaluations themselves or scrape together money to hire and train evaluators. Many districts adopted the state’s RISE system and are learning to implement it. Others are creating their own systems. With either approach, they may be feeling their way.

Beware of unintended consequences. The law says any teacher rated ineffective or needs improvement can’t get a raise. As state Superintendent Glenda Ritz suggested, that creates a disincentive for low ratings. Suppose you’re a principal and you’re evaluating a new teacher who shows lots of promise but needs to get better. Do you rate the teacher “needs improvement,” deny a raise and risk driving away a potential future star?

Labels aren’t everything. The undifferentiated ratings don’t necessarily mean the evaluations were a waste of time. Maybe the classroom observations, consultations and data that were part of the evaluations will help teachers improve. “If, as is hoped, the feedback generated from these reviews is more helpful to teaching and learning, then perhaps the year-end score isn’t the most important thing to consider,” Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week.

The “bell curve” idea is nonsense. Len Farber nails this in a post for Indy Vanguard. If you randomly pulled people off the street and put them in a classroom, sure, you’d expect some to be lousy at teaching. But teachers have selected to teach. They’ve finished college; many are motivated enough to get a master’s degree. If they aren’t good at it, chances are they figure it out and leave the field. It’s not surprising that most would be competent.

It’s a myth that only in public education are most employees rated effective. California teacher-blogger Paul Bruno makes this point, citing an economics paper that examines why businesses don’t use employee evaluations to reward superior performance. The paper focuses on two large manufacturing firms where 95 percent of managers and professionals were rated good or excellent.

Finally, in nearly 40 years of working in the private and public sectors – and not as a teacher – I have never experienced annual evaluations as a tool for weeding out “bad” employees. I can recall maybe one time that a co-worker was urged to leave for being ineffective. Maybe I’ve been blessed with remarkably tolerant bosses. But I doubt my experience is that unusual.

Dispute may be brewing over when Indiana schools must implement new evaluations, merit pay

The debate over whether to enact Senate Enrolled Act 1, Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation and merit-pay law, ended in late April when Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the legislation. But the debate over how and when the law will be implemented is still to come.

One likely point of contention: When will the provisions kick in for school districts that approved valid, long-term teacher contracts before SEA 1 took effect?

The Monroe County Community school board, for example, approved a four-year contract with its teachers’ union in early April. The contract provides a 1-percent pay increase for teachers in 2011-12 and specifies that salary negotiations may be “reopened” in subsequent years.

It’s generally agreed that the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from nullifying valid contracts. So the provisions of SEA 1 that clash with existing contracts – typically, provisions that specify how teachers are evaluated and how their raises are determined — won’t come into play until the existing contracts expire.

But when do the contracts expire? According to the Indiana Department of Education, if a school district and union “reopen” their contract to negotiate money matters, the old contract is finished. A change in pay or benefits makes for a brand new contract – and the district must then comply with SEA 1.

The DOE spells out its position in an FAQ: See Question 2.

But Lisa Tanselle, a staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, says school law experts don’t all agree with the department’s position. Continue reading

NEA may change position on using test scores for evaluations and accountability

Leaders of the National Education Association have proposed a policy statement that positions the union in favor of using stepped-up evaluations – and even measures that include student test scores – to improve the effectiveness of the teaching profession.

Squint really hard and you can almost see similarities between the proposal and Senate Bill 1, the teacher evaluation and merit-pay measure that the Indiana legislature approved last month.

The statement “outlines a system to help teachers improve instruction and meet students’ needs,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a news release. “It offers sweeping changes to build a true profession of teaching that is focused on high expectations.”

It calls for “regular, comprehensive, meaningful and fair evaluations” of teachers that will be conducted by trained evaluators and based on multiple factors. And in language that can only be called cautious, it says such factors may include “valid, reliable, high quality standardized tests that provide meaningful information regarding student learning and growth.”

The statement says evaluations must be fair and comprehensive. And it says they must be used to provide feedback to help teachers improve. If a teacher “fails to meet performance standards,” an improvement plan should be developed for the teacher. And if the teacher doesn’t improve, he or she “may be counseled to leave the profession or be subject to fair, transparent and efficient dismissal process that provides due process.”

Indiana’s SB 1, a key part of the Daniels-Bennett education agenda, calls for annual teacher evaluations based on several factors. It does require implementing improvement plans for teachers who get bad evaluations. It also says teachers can be dismissed for multiple evaluations that result in a verdict of “needs improvement” or “ineffective.”

While the NEA statement says standardized test scores may be used in teacher evaluations, SB 1 says they must be. Continue reading

Indiana merit-pay bill: Still waiting for details

Forget vouchers and charter schools for the moment. Senate Bill 1, a merit-pay bill that establishes new procedures for evaluating, compensating, hiring and firing teachers, is arguably the most far-reaching education legislation being considered this year by the Indiana General Assembly.

But what exactly will it do? Maybe we’ll have a more complete picture Monday, when the House Education Committee considers the bill and long-promised amendments may be made public.

We know the bill is a big deal because of the effort that’s going into passing it. Stand for Children, an organization based in Oregon, was brought to Indiana to lobby for SB 1. Aiming Higher, which advocates for Gov. Mitch Daniels’ initiatives, is running TV ads supporting it. The ads urge viewers to ““Tell legislators to pass reforms to pay teachers for their excellence and results, not seniority.”

Paying for excellence and results sounds obvious. But it gets messy when you try to define excellence and implement a fair system to measure and encourage it. And recent studies of merit pay in Tennessee and New York have raised questions about whether it will produce better results. The biggest challenge may be scaling up the resources and personnel to implement this system in 2012.

The SB 1 centerpiece is a mandate for annual evaluations that place teachers in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective. Teachers in the two lower categories wouldn’t get raises. If rated ineffective or improvement necessary multiple times, they could be fired.

The bill says that “objective measures of student achievement and growth” must “significantly inform the evaluation.” That means results or improvement on ISTEP-Plus tests for teachers who teach subjects that are covered by the exams, and other measures for teachers who don’t. Continue reading

Reasons for caution on performance-based evaluation of teachers

If only we could give assigned reading to state legislators. At the very least, Indiana lawmakers should read these brief articles as they consider Senate Bill 1, which mandates performance-based pay for educators and makes it easier to fire teachers who get bad evaluations.

Start with this column by Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker. He explains the drawbacks of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test-score improvements, and why “getting a good rating is a statistical crap shoot” with value-added formulas for measuring teacher effectiveness.

“We may be able to estimate a statistical model that suggests that teacher effects vary widely across the education system – that teachers matter,” Baker writes. “But we would be hard-pressed to use that model to identify with any degree of certainty which individual teachers are good teachers and which are bad.”

Michael Winerip, in his “On Education” series in the New York Times, shows what happens when the dice come up snake-eyes. He writes about Stacey Isaacson, by all accounts a dedicated, hard-working English and social-studies teacher at a selective public middle school in Manhattan. Almost all her students scored proficient on state tests; her supervisors and students say she’s a wonderful teacher.

But according to the complex formula used by the New York Department of Education to measure student learning gains, Isaacson is one of the city’s worst teachers. Continue reading