WESLEY CHAPEL — Veterans Elementary School assistant principal Gretchen Rudolph-Fladd sat in the middle of the classroom, scribbling copious notes as first-grade teacher Heather Cencerik gave her lesson on author's purpose.
Jeff McLean, an assistant principal from Trinity Oaks Elementary School, walked through the classroom, checking its organization and the materials on the walls.
At the same time, Aimee Boltze, district staff development director, knelt beside one of the first-graders, asking him questions about what he was learning.
The three administrators then convened in a meeting room Wednesday morning to discuss what they had seen.
Referring often to the observations they had written on sheets listing 41 standards, they discussed how they would evaluate Cencerik's performance. Their goal was not to rate the teacher, though.
It was, rather, to see if they understood the way the Pasco school district's new teacher evaluation model worked, and to determine whether they saw the same things in her classroom and evaluated her the same way.
That subject carried much urgency.
Formal evaluations are expected to begin Oct. 17. And because of a new state law, they'll carry more weight than ever in teachers' pay and continued employment.
Consecutive "needs improvement" ratings can lead to dismissal.
Teachers have said they want to be sure they're not simply trading one set of subjective standards for another. Through negotiations, they've raised concerns about whether they will have the right to contest a rating, for instance, and other related matters.
"Whether we think this is going to work or whether it's a good way to evaluate teachers, no, we don't," said Jim Ciadella, lead teacher negotiator for the United School Employees of Pasco.
That sentiment makes the effort that Rudolph-Fladd, McLean and Boltze went through even more important.
The district is seeking to establish "inter-rater reliability." That means that each evaluator comes away from watching the same lesson with essentially the same rating.
But that takes some training. So every school-based administrator in the district is learning how to collect evidence and make appropriate ratings for teachers.
It's a growth model, Boltze said, and not a simple satisfactory-unsatisfactory scale.
Many teachers will fall into the "needs improvement" or "developing" category, she noted. "That is not a negative thing. It is the teachers who stay in that category for two or three years where we will be concerned."
Key to the success is letting teachers know exactly where they fall on the model, so they know what to work on. That requires transparency and proof, Boltze stressed.
She made the point clear as McLean discussed something he saw in Cencerik's classroom. He talked about his views on the issue, and as Boltze pressed him for added explanation, he began to talk about what he assumed.
"When you start a statement with 'I think,' that is not evidence," she reminded him. "That means it wasn't evident. … It wasn't there for you."
She offered a hypothetical.
"Say I am a teacher and you gave a 'not using' (rating) in 'celebrating student success,' " one of the 41 categories, "and I said, 'But one time I said I like that vocabulary word.' That bumps me up to 'beginning,' because that's evidence," Boltze explained.
Rudolph-Fladd asked whether she could change a rating after inquiring further with the teacher for proof of a quality.
"Absolutely," Boltze said. "If you feel very strongly and the evidence supports that, then you have the reason."
But if there's no evidence, mark it that way. Such a rating does not in itself mean a teacher fails to do a desired practice, she stressed.
"It just means that we didn't observe it," Boltze said. "Hence the need to have more than one evaluation."
The district is negotiating to have new teachers evaluated three times in a year, and veteran teachers evaluated twice annually.
Rudolph-Fladd and McLean said the training, which continued into two other teachers' classrooms, helped them adapt to the more detailed and specific evaluation system.
"The collaboration between the three of us is helping solidify my understanding of the whole process," McLean said.
Rudolph-Fladd admitted to having her doubts when she first heard about the model.
"Now applying it, I feel after just one a lot more comfortable," she said. "I think it's going to make (evaluations) more meaningful, and I'm going to feel more comfortable giving feedback now."
The teachers who let the team visit their classrooms were not given any feedback, because these were not official evaluations. Boltze said that on the whole, evaluators are finding that about 10 percent of teachers are "highly effective," with the bulk falling into "effective" or "needs improvement."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.