Repair defective teacher evaluation system

December 9, 2012 

Florida's new teacher evaluation system got off to a rocky start last week with the release of educator ratings. While those initial numbers appear remarkable, the deeper story looks dimmer -- with trouble ahead unless modifications are adopted.

Out of the gate, the state Department of Education admitted the agency flubbed the release of teacher grades, retracting the numbers quickly after discovering a fundamental error -- thousands of teachers were counted twice because they were listed under more than one "job code." But DOE quickly fixed the ratings and the changes were negligible.

The good news: 21.9 percent of Florida's teachers were rated "highly effective" and another 74.6 percent "effective." The vast majority of educators -- 97 percent -- earned good marks. The Manatee County school district earned better grades, with 47.2 percent deemed highly effective and 50.7 percent as effective.

The bad news: The figures are misleading because assessments are not set to the same standards and many teacher ratings are not based on student achievement in their classes.

The new teacher evaluation system's value-added model, or VAM, focuses heavily on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. When fully implemented in three years, the ratings will determine which instructors receive merit pay and which ones are not retained.

The primary problem is only 35,000 of the state's 225,000 teachers instruct students in FCAT-tested grades in the core curriculum subjects in the current VAM evaluation system: reading, writing and math. A teacher like Larry Hickman of Lakewood Ranch High, profiled in the Herald's recent "Committed to the Classroom" series, will be judged not on his ability but on his colleagues' results. As an instructor in marine biology, his rating will be determined by the school-wide VAM score.

Plus, not all students are tested. The FCAT is only administered in certain grades, beginning with third.

These two fundamental flaws underscore the unfair nature of this beast.

As Herald education reporter Katy Bergen discovered, the enthusiastic Hickman engages students in creative and compelling ways to enhance the educational experience. But he's frustrated by a ratings system completely out of his influence -- like hundreds of thousands of his colleagues.

We can't begin to imagine how such a system would play out in the private sector. The very idea of an employee performance based on co-workers and a company-wide grade would be roundly rejected.

There's another critical deficiency in the system, an apples and oranges thing. The scoring system in not standardized. School districts are free to create their own way of determining teacher ratings within the confines in the new law. One district could be far more generous than one with tough criteria. That renders a district-by-district comparison difficult at best.

On Thursday, Pam Stewart, the state's interim education commissioner, fielded questions from a Senate panel worried about the reliability of the system in the wake of the teacher ratings glitch. "Any time you implement something this large for the first time there are growing pains," she remarked. Agreed.

She also noted: "This is a painful year." Indeed.

Last week's miscue on teacher ratings comes on the heels of last summer's miscalculations in school grades in 40 of the state's 67 school districts. Just a few weeks before that fiasco, student scores on the writing portion of the much-maligned FCAT came in shockingly low after the state set higher standards without properly informing stakeholders. The state quickly lowered the passing grade.

While all of this points to a measure of ineptitude in DOE, the lion's share of the blame belongs on the Legislature for rushing education reforms into practice. The state has come under withering criticism for creating a flawed and unfair system, and rightly so.

The ultimate goal of improving student achievement and making teachers accountable is undeniably sound public policy. But the current roadmap shows a cliff ahead unless lawmakers steer clear of a faulty teacher evaluation system and take an equitable route.

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