BROOKSVILLE — Before the furor over Senate Bill 6 put the issue of teacher performance in the spotlight, Hernando school officials already had begun working on a revolutionary new way to evaluate educators.
Now the union and the district are close to agreement on an evaluation system that uses test scores as part of a holistic approach that the union leader and principals say will be easier for teachers to stomach.
As part of the plan, student scores and schoolwide performance could account for as much as half of a teacher's evaluation. Teachers would still be evaluated, as they are now, by an administrator based on best classroom practices, but they also would get credit for other work, such as tutoring students and helping with school events.
"We believe this is better than anything else that's out there," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "It's not a cure-all, but it's definitely not watered down. It starts with that overall view of, 'What makes a good teacher?' "
SB 6 would have linked teacher pay to student test scores and eliminated multi-year contracts. Gov. Charlie Crist, under intense pressure from teachers on one side and GOP lawmakers on the other, vetoed the bill on April 15.
Crist acknowledged in his veto message one of the biggest criticisms about the bill: The Republican-controlled Legislature rammed the measure through without getting input from teachers.
The collaboration lacking in that process was already under way in Hernando. In March, a committee of union members, school administrators and district officials met for the first time to hash out the new districtwide evaluation system.
Much of the groundwork had already been done by then. The district decided late last year to apply for federal grant funding to help struggling Central and Hernando high schools. That grant application also requires a data-driven teacher assessment for schools to qualify, and a system for evaluating teachers already had started to take shape.
The progress has been encouraging, those involved say, and officials hope to have the plan before the School Board by next month and in place for the 2010-11 school year.
"I'll be honest, I wasn't really looking forward to this, but the process has been amenable," said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services. "This truly has been a joint effort."
The district has plenty of motivators beyond the federal grant for the two high schools.
Florida's new accountability system for struggling schools already requires that teacher evaluations be based on student data, though there has been an unofficial grace period for districts to get the system in place. Now state officials have indicated they are going to be watching closely to make sure districts come into compliance, Martin said.
The language in Florida's Race to the Top grant application has a similar requirement. The Hernando School Board decided last month to join the state's second-round application to garner $700 million from the federal government.
"We've been struggling with this for most of the year," said Hernando High principal Ken Pritz. "Our teachers know something is coming. The biggest issue for them is that it's fair across the board. I think teachers are in a mode where they know data drives everything anymore."
Currently, teachers are evaluated by a principal who gauges performance according to the state's "accomplished practices." The administrators work from a rubric ticking off a teacher's demonstrated abilities in areas such as communication, planning and use of test scores and technology. But it's still a largely subjective and outdated method in a data-driven age of school accountability.
"There are administrators out there who evaluate on a really tough basis and others that don't take it quite so seriously," Pritz said. "I remember as a teacher going through that."
The accomplished practices will still count for a significant portion of an evaluation, but will be one of several components.
Vitalo said that segment should account for about a quarter of the overall evaluation, but the district and the union still have to come to terms on how much weight each piece will carry. Officials on both sides say they are close.
Here's a rundown of the other components in the proposed system:
The FCAT scores of students that an educator teaches every day could account for about a third of the evaluation.
Given the variables that can come into play, many teachers worry about their livelihoods resting on test scores. Some students simply don't test well, and educators who work with the lowest-performing students fear their job security may be on the line.
"But I think you'll have a better chance to show gains with the lowest-performing kids," said Central High principal Joe Clifford. "If you're providing quality instruction, you're going to be able to do really well."
Relying on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores gets complicated for physical education instructors, art teachers and band directors, and for educators of earlier grades whose students don't take the FCAT. The same goes for instructional staffers who don't have direct, daily contact with students.
In those cases, schoolwide FCAT score averages or other kinds of student assessment may be used. In other cases, tests will have to be developed.
"Those are the things we as a committee spend most of our time on because those are hard questions," Martin said.
Regardless, the system will have to evolve as the FCAT is phased out for high school students to make way for end-of-course exams, she said.
Few teachers simply show up when the first bell rings and leave at dismissal time. There are open houses to attend, students to tutor and fellow staffers to mentor and train, among myriad other tasks, to make a school successful.
Teachers would get credit for those extra tasks in a category called professional progression — and it could count for as a much as a quarter of the evaluation.
"Well-rounded is what we're looking for, and there's a correlation between that and effective teachers," Vitalo said.
Added Martin: "We wanted to have a component that helps teachers take as much control as they possibly can over their evaluation."
School grades, benchmarks
The federal accountability system uses test scores to determine whether a school has made adequate progress among subgroups such as low-income or minority students. Teachers would get credit if a school meets benchmarks. There would also be a point system based on the grade a school earns in the state's A-Plus plan.
Supporters of Senate Bill 6 trumpeted the need to make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. This new evaluation system will still work under existing statute that gives teachers deemed ineffective 90 days to show improvement.
But the evaluation will offer a range of criteria, from the subjective observation of a principal to the cold data of test scores, to identify the areas where that improvement needs to occur, and firmer ground for districts to stand on to oust a teacher who clearly is not cut out for the profession, Vitalo said.
"If teachers are doing their job, they should have nothing to worry about," he said.
Although the new evaluation system will probably be in place for the coming school year, it's unlikely to be used immediately to determine performance-based pay raises. The system needs to be tested and free of major bugs before bonus dollars are on the line, and the cash-strapped district has no money for such pay, Vitalo said.
That day will come eventually, though.
"This is not an experiment, folks," Clifford said. "This is the new reality."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.