State workshop offers challenges, no easy answers on teacher evaluation
TAMPA -- Teachers aren't widgets.
Some are great and some aren't, but they certainly aren't interchangeable parts in a machine, with one being no different than another.
That was the starting point in Wednesday's keynote address by Dan Weisberg, vice president for policy at the New Teacher Project, at the Department of Education's latest What's Working session on teacher evaluation.
Too often, Weisberg said, districts treat teachers as if they were just that -- widgets. Studies by his national teacher quality organization show that most districts fail to distinguish between excellent and weak teachers. And even when they do, they often don't put that knowledge to use in making decisions on where teachers are assigned, how they're paid or whether they're granted tenure.
"You can develop a beautiful evaluation system," he said. "But if it really doesn’t matter whether (a teacher) is on the top or the bottom, then it’s going to die on the vine."
Wednesday's session was the third in a series of DOE road trips designed to spark local conversation on education reform issues, said Commissioner Eric J. Smith.
"The main point of these is to begin a dialogue, to create a conversation about the direction Florida needs to take," he said.
Officials offered praise for the seven-year reform effort the Hillsborough County school district has undertaken with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which includes a brand-new teacher evaluation system , performance pay, and peer evaluators or mentors to help teachers improve their performance.
"There are great things going on in Hillsborough" and a handful of other districts, Weisberg said.
But in too many districts, he added, policies don't match their lofty goals.
Around 75 people turned out for the event at Hillsborough Community College, with more listening in on a webcast. Several voiced fears about the impact of test-driven assessments.
"We’re worried we’ll have so many teachers in need of improvement that we won’t know what to do with them," one Hernando County resident said.
Barbara Wilmarth, a district special-needs specialist in Pinellas, said she and her colleagues aren't sure how to measure teachers whose high-needs students don't improve in predictable ways.
"Especially for the kids who aren’t on standard assessments, who are on alternative assessments," she said. "There may be a plateau for a long time before another gain is measured. You're not going to see that as a continuous trend line. To compare that teacher’s results to another teacher's results is unfathomable."
Frances Haithcock, chancellor of public schools, offered no easy answers.
In some cases, she said, students' Individualized Education Programs might provide an assessment tool. But even then, it's often hard to measure individual teachers' contributions when a whole team of teachers helps a child to succeed.
"How do you find the teachers who are actually affecting student achievement?" Haithcock asked.