Hillsborough teachers wrestle with rating system

One union leader says teachers are now fearful and anxious.
Published January 12 2015

TAMPA — As a union leader, Jean Clements went against convention four years ago with her enthusiastic endorsement of Hillsborough County's teacher evaluation system.

She told anyone who asked that the system was the best in the state and Hillsborough was fortunate to be a place where labor and management could work amicably in the best interest of teachers and students.

But her remarks at a School Board workshop last week took a different tone. Although she later said she's grateful for the flexibility Hillsborough has, due in part to funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clements said many teachers find Empowering Effective Teachers demeaning and unfair.

How many?

If 1,000 out of a total of 15,000 shared that view, it would be too many, said the longtime president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "And I'm quite sure there's more teachers who feel that way."

Clements said teachers are fearful and anxious, having to contend not only with the new system, but also the new Florida Standards and uncertainty about the tests that go with them.

She does not know why, but said, "the district has not been seeking input from the teachers and the unions nearly as much as in the early stages of the project."

Teacher ratings under EET consist of three components: student performance on various tests, which are considered far more relevant than the state tests used elsewhere in Florida; a principal's observation; and peer observations.

That third component is the most controversial.

In letters to the Tampa Bay Times and the School Board, teachers said they don't consider the evaluators true peers. Early plans called for them to be on the job two years, then it became three. Some stay four years and longer, and they don't always go back to teaching.

Sally Limberg, a teacher at Dale Mabry Elementary School, said her evaluator told her she "became a peer because she was burnt out on teaching."

Jeff Northington, who teaches math at Brandon High School, said, "I even know of a teacher evaluator who will not return to teaching because she doesn't want to be evaluated the way she must evaluate others."

Rebecca Anzevino of Chamberlain High said she got an observer who was hired out of retirement. Years later, after evaluating her, he was arrested. "I felt then, and now am certain in light of recent events, that he was a very poor judge of my professional development and performance."

Noel Patti, a Madison Middle School teacher who faces termination because of two "unsuccessful" ratings, came to the workshop with a list of what she sees as flaws and misrepresentations. Among them: Evaluators "will do as asked" to help their careers. One low rating can have a snowball effect.

She took issue with reports that only a few teachers are fired each year under the system. Hundreds more resign or retire, and it's impossible to say how many did so to avoid being fired.

Stephanie Woodford, the district's chief human resources officer, said the system has evolved and will continue to do so.

Teachers are given windows of time to prepare for peers' informal visits, which used to come as a surprise. There is a meet-and-greet at the beginning of the school year for teachers and peers. "I assure you that the peers, they are open to change and improvement," she said.

Changes also have been made to the process of rehabilitating teachers who get low ratings. Each gets an improvement plan, and the district checks with principals to make sure the plans are appropriate. Teachers design them and choose their teams, Woodford said. "That's the teacher's plan, and the principal's an active participant."

Once, district officials found out a teacher had no plan. "We worked with the teacher. We moved her," she said.

"And that principal is no longer with us," superintendent MaryEllen Elia added.

The selling point of EET since its inception is that it is more accurate than both the old method and the state's new system, which judges many teachers based on test scores of students they've never met.

Union leadership isn't asking that EET be dismantled. Rather, executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said, the two sides need to work to correct flaws and avoid unfair firings.

At the workshop, administrators allowed a teacher to describe how she was helped by the process. Baxter-Jenkins said she's been in meetings with that kind of tone. "I have also sat in ones where it was a foregone conclusion," she said. " 'We don't want you at this school … I'm going to make sure that you're not really getting the help you need.' "

Not all schools have enough coaches and specialists to give teachers the help they need, Baxter-Jenkins said. And while new teachers get mentors, longtime teachers often struggle.

"If people go into the process thinking it is a foregone conclusion, then that is a miserable circumstance for the teacher, the students around them and the other employees," she said.

The union hopes its representatives can meet with Elia on Jan. 26, then report back to the board.

Clements said she has some of her own ideas, including "no harm, no foul" lessons that teachers can try out in front of peers without worrying they might be marked down. She's concerned because, although the state gives Hillsborough flexibility, the Gates grant will expire in two years and no one knows how much leeway the district will get after that.

Though Elia insisted that not all people should be teachers and it's inevitable some must be fired, she promised to address the union's concerns. "The continued communication between the union and human resources is huge on this, so I would encourage everybody to make sure we do that," she said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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