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Hernando County rolls out new teacher evaluation system

BROOKSVILLE — Jason Galitsky started his lesson about the future of teacher evaluations with a question about the past.

"How did we use to do evaluations?" Galitsky, a teacher support specialist, asked a half dozen Moton Elementary School fourth-grade teachers gathered in the school's data lab last week.

Elane Rogers didn't hesitate.

"It was a dog and pony show," she said.

It's an oft-used phrase to describe how principals would visit classrooms once a year, watch teachers in action for 30 minutes and jot down scores on a checklist to come up with an annual evaluation. The process is widely panned as flawed because it relies heavily on an administrator's subjective assessment of a snapshot of what goes on in the classroom.

Those days are over.

Hernando school officials are now rolling out the first part of a two-piece system that will revolutionize how teachers are evaluated and paid.

The first piece still depends on observation by administrators, but it requires principals to visit teachers' classrooms multiple times throughout the year. The goal is to have ongoing, structured communication between the principal and the teacher, and to document the observation process every step of the way.

"It makes it a lot easier on both of your parts," Galitsky told the Moton teachers. "It takes a lot of the subjectivity out of it. The proof is in the pudding."

The observation component, though, is the relatively easy part.

Not yet finished is the piece that will tie teachers' pay — and, in essence, their careers — to student test scores. State officials are still working on that component, but the results of this school year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and end-of-course exams will count toward the evaluation. By fall of 2013, teachers could be terminated after two years of unsatisfactory performance.

The district is making good progress on the observation component, said Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt. But the 40-year veteran educator has seen similar attempts to rate teachers based on student test scores, and the track record is not encouraging.

"Our task," Blavatt said, "is to do in one year what no one in education has been able to do in 25 years."

• • •

Hernando got a bit of an early start on the observation component, compared to other districts.

Spurred by Florida's application for federal Race to the Top grant money and another grant to improve student performance at Hernando and Central high schools, district staffers and members of the local teachers union began meeting early last year to craft a new teacher observation system.

Then, earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill pushed by the Republican Party that did away with multiple-year teacher contracts for new teachers and requires that teacher pay be tied to student test scores.

Though the mandates for the new evaluations came from the state and federal government, the rollout is a homegrown affair, Galitsky tried to assure teachers during his visit to Moton last week.

"I'm still one of you," Galitsky told a group of second-grade teachers.

Just last year, the 10-year veteran was teaching advanced placement psychology classes at Hernando High School. As then-chief negotiator for the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, Galitsky took part in discussions about the new observation model.

In August, he was hired as a teacher on special assignment. One of his main duties is to visit every school in the district to train teachers and principals on the new evaluation system and help troubleshoot when problems arise.

For now, Galitsky is focusing on the observation component. Called Framework for Teaching, the system is a product of Charlotte Danielson, an educational consultant and former teacher based in Princeton, N.J.

Teachers are evaluated on four parts, or domains. Two of the domains cover classroom environment and instruction practices, or what Galitsky calls the "look for" categories. These are the pieces that principals will look for when they visit classrooms.

Are teachers keeping student behavior in check? How well do teachers engage students in discussion? Is a teacher using student assessment results to target areas where they need help? A principal who notices an area that needs work will type comments on an iPad, choose from one of some 1,500 instructional videos that could help reinforce the skills, then e-mail to the teacher the comments and video link.

Moton principal Mark Griffith, who recently started using the system, said the more frequent visits mean more interaction with staffers and students and less time waiting for issues to bubble up to the front office.

"A lot of times, I'm solving problems that used to come to my door," Griffith said.

The other two domains rate teachers on how they prepare and improve lesson plans, the grasp of their students' needs, and their communication with parents, among other markers. Galitsky calls these the "show me" domains because they rely largely on records teachers keep during the year and present to principals as evidence.

At the end of the school year, principals should have a wealth of information to review as they score teachers in each domain and come up with an overall rating of "unsatisfactory," "needs improvement," "effective" or "highly effective."

"Everything we're asking you to do is things you've always done," Galitsky told the Moton teachers. "What's changed is the way we're looking at you."

The observation template principals use will be tweaked to reflect specific conditions in classrooms at the elementary, middle and high school levels, Galitsky noted, and teacher input will be vital to that.

The new observation system is clearly better than what was used up to now, said Lorrie Zelakowski, a second-grade inclusion teacher at Moton.

"Anyone can pull it together for 30 minutes," she said. "This holds us accountable."

• • •

Teachers are much more apprehensive about the test data component and how it takes into account challenges at a school such as Moton, where students come and go often and the rate of children on free or reduced-price lunches is high.

"That's the scary thing," said Rogers, the Moton second-grade teacher, "We have great kids, but we have some problems other schools don't see."

So how do you use test scores to evaluate educators, given the broad range of students they teach every day?

The state's answer is called the value-added model. One of the leading experts on the subject, Rob Meyer, director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, uses a tree farmer analogy.

To determine which of two tree farmers had more success in a year, it's not enough to simply compare how tall the trees on each farm are at the end of the year. A better way is to first consider how tall the trees were at the start of the year and predict how tall the trees should grow based on the growth of other trees in the farmers' respective regions, taking into account variables such as soil quality, temperature and rainfall. The farmers are then rated based on how much their trees grew beyond — or fell short of — predictions.

In this analogy, the teachers are the farmers, the students are the trees, and the variables are characteristics such as learning disabilities, attendance records, performance on past tests, gifted status, knowledge of English as a second language, and how often students move from school to school.

A teacher's value-added score will be based on how much the school's students on average gained on the FCAT and other assessments compared to similar schools in the state, and how much the teacher's students gained compared to similar students in the school.

That's the theory. But how will it work in practice?

No one knows.

"But at least people are starting to think about these things instead of just rolling out mandates," said Griffith.

Fifty-one percent of a teacher's overall evaluation will be based on the student data, 44 percent on the Danielson framework and 5 percent on the progress teachers make toward goals outlined in their professional development plans. A teacher can be fired for receiving two unsatisfactory evaluations in three years, or three unsatisfactory or needs-improvement evaluations in five years.

Starting in the 2014-15 school year, teachers who are rated "highly effective" will receive a bump in salary.

While there's a lot to like about the new evaluation system, there is plenty to be concerned about, said Hernando teachers union president Joe Vitalo.

For now, schoolwide FCAT reading scores will be used to evaluate teachers who don't teach FCAT subjects or work with a defined group of students. That's not a fair way to judge the performance of those teachers, Vitalo said.

One of the glaring omissions in the value-added model is socioeconomic status, Vitalo said. Many districts wanted to use free and reduced-price lunch rates as a variable, but state officials said no.

Above all, the value-added system is a flawed premise, impossibly complicated and unable to fairly and accurately account for each student's uniqueness, Vitalo said.

"When you're throwing that much statistics into a person's personality, it doesn't work," Vitalo said. "It's pretty much the mismeasurement of students. Who will suffer? In the end, the students, and we may be dismissing very good teachers."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County rolls out new teacher evaluation system 10/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]

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