Washington News
thenewstribune.com, June 6, 2010

State's educator evaluations foray is a weak compromise


Sometime in the next week, a handful of Washington school districts will be chosen to lead the state in a new direction. Each will be asked to develop a new way of evaluating teachers and principals.

There’s a lot riding on these pilot projects called for in Senate Bill 6696. Improving evaluations as a means of improving teaching and school leadership is central to President Barack Obama’s school reform agenda.

It’s also a reaction to studies – especially the New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect” – that show most American schools don’t adequately evaluate teachers and those that do don’t do anything with the information.

Most teachers – 99 percent in the districts studied – are rated highly and very few are ever dismissed for poor performance. (Washington state keeps no statistics on evaluations or dismissals, but school officials think state numbers are similar.)

“Put simply, they fail to distinguish great teaching from good, good from fair, and fair from poor,” the study concluded.

“A teacher’s effectiveness – the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement – is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in a reasonable way.”

The state touts its evaluation changes in its application for Obama’s Race to the Top sweepstakes, in which a dozen states will divvy up $3.7 billion.

But Washington’s foray into evaluation reform – its first in a generation – is a compromise at best.

First, new evaluation systems are subject to union bargaining in 295 districts, with only a few guidelines from the state. They must have four grade levels rather than a simple satisfactory/unsatisfactory, for example. They also must cover a list of topics such as teaching practices and knowledge of subject areas.

While the pilot districts will develop prototypes, there is no requirement that districts use them once developed. And contrary to RTTT guidelines, the state system is weak on the use of test scores in evaluations.

The Washington Education Association argued successfully that because there is no clear way to attribute one student’s scores to one teacher’s performance, they shouldn’t be used to grade teachers.

But Jeffrey Wilson, a researcher with the New Teacher Project, said there are ways to do it, such as a model developed collectively by teachers and administrators in New Haven, Conn.

And Wilson thinks teachers should support the use of data as a means of protecting against administrator bias.

“It would hold them honest,” Wilson said last month prior to a study session on teacher evaluations sponsored by Stand for Children. “This is to benefit the student and I think collaterally (better evaluations) are in the best interest of the teachers as well.”

Real evaluations are vital to meet the goal of getting quality teachers in each classroom, said Raegen Miller, an education researcher with the Center for American Progress. Schools are currently evaluated for how students progress, but not teachers.

“But unless you’re working to get into each classroom, where the real learning happens … unless it’s tied to individuals, no one will take it seriously,” Miller said.

Some districts have embraced better evaluations as a means of improving teaching. The Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor is often cited as a district moving in that direction. It has a well-defined matrix and frequent observations. It also includes consequences, using the system to decide whether rookie teachers stay and whether veteran teachers get more help or even face dismissal.

That is rare. And despite the reforms contained in SB 6696 and the hype around the state’s RTTT application, Washington continues to base pay and assignments primarily on seniority. (Teachers do get pay incentives for education level and National Board certification.)

Without incentives or accountability for performance, Washington’s new law has a glaring shortcoming. Except for entry-level teachers, there’s no mandate to make anyone take results seriously.

A bad evaluation would not threaten tenure of continuing teachers. Nor would it affect pay, school assignments or lay-offs.

Conversely, a good evaluation would not trigger better pay, more responsibility or higher stature.

So while the evaluation pilots start amid high hopes, the biggest issues have been kicked ahead to the 2012 Legislature or beyond.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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