Florida public school teacher evaluation system too flawed

December 5, 2013 

Rosa Cline's kindergarten class presented a message of encouragement for Olga Tharp's third grade students, who were about to take their first FCAT in April 2013. ERICA EARL/Bradenton Herald

Imagine an annual performance evaluation whereby the employer ranks workers based on responsibilities they don't even have. Like a brick mason held accountable for the wooden frame of a house.

Yet that's one of the aspects of Florida's flawed teacher evaluation system. As many as two-thirds of the state's public school teachers are scored on the test results of students they've never seen nor taught. This broken system demands reform but the solution is not within grasp -- not without the development of hundreds of new -- and costly -- exams. While those new exams are expected for the next school year, doubts remain about the entire system.

This week, the Florida Department of Education released new evaluation results as required by the state's job review program. Manatee County fared well in the report card. Of the 3,153 teachers in Manatee schools, 51.3 percent ranked as "highly effective" and an additional 44.1 percent earned "effective" marks. Not one scored an "unsatisfactory." The other categories, "needs improvement" and "developing" (for new teachers), came in at 2.2 percent and 2.4 percent respectively.

Those evaluations are based on student performance and test scores -- think the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other exams -- as well as principal reviews, all from November 2012 to this past November.

What does that tell us? The state allows each school district to negotiate with teachers on a grading system, in effect comparing apples to oranges. Floridians have no way of relating county-by-county figures, rendering the state system suspect. For example, only 4.7 percent of Pasco County teachers earned "highly efficient" marks while 93.6 percent scored "efficient," according to a Tampa Bay Times report Wednesday.

Compare those numbers with Manatee's. The reasonable conclusion is Manatee has better teachers, based on the number of "highly effective" scores. But is that true? How would anyone possibly know?

Across the state, 98 percent of teachers rank in the top two categories -- a figure that should be reassuring. Yet the high number of failing schools -- despite all those "highly effective" teachers -- continues to be troublesome.

Parents, employers and all manner of Floridians demand a public education system of the highest caliber, but politics keeps intruding and failing us as Tallahassee muddies the system with policies that undermine their intent.

Good idea, bad system

The very idea that a merit pay system that rewards and penalizes the best and worst teachers based on student achievement and classroom skills is something similar to the private sector's basic compensation technique. Perform well, earn a raise -- a time-honored tradition and one well worth the investment in talent. The outdated notion that government employees "earn" a pay increase by merely working another year no longer holds weight with taxpayers.

Despite all the good ratings of Manatee County teachers, the state's system contains a basic defect. How can teachers be judged on job performance without accurate and detailed information on their work, not someone else's? But that's how many teachers are graded. Even top legislators are questioning this dysfunctional system, including Senate President Don Gaetz.

Every one of Florida's 67 school districts is now grappling with this dilemma -- with the answer doubtful for the next school year. So teacher pay and job security will still be in limbo as the evaluation system remains a work in progress.

The development of hundreds of new exams could cost billions, skeptics claim, a terrible indictment of lawmaker shortsightedness.

When the Legislature passed the Student Success Act that implemented the new teacher evaluation system in the 2011-2012 school year, the shortcomings of the merit pay system were readily apparent -- and widely decried. Yet here we are a few years later and defects endure.

Florida needs a teacher grading system that applies everywhere and judges people on their own accomplishments -- an equitable and uniform evaluation program that informs people instead of confusing them.

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