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Pinellas School Board to approve controversial new teacher evaluations

Frustrated Pinellas County School Board members appear poised to approve a complicated and controversial new way of sorting out good teachers from bad — but to hold their noses while doing so.

"It's going to be hard for people to buy in, yet they don't have a choice," said board chair Carol Cook. "And neither do we."

At a workshop Tuesday, several board members indicated they would vote next week for new teacher evaluations set in motion by SB 736, the historic state law passed last spring that overhauls the teaching profession in Florida. The aggressive push dismayed many school district leaders, including those in Tampa Bay.

"It still ticks me off," board member Linda Lerner said.

Pinellas must submit revisions to its new evaluation model to the state by Sept. 30. The new law mandates that student performance be the primary factor in gauging whether a teacher is effective. And it says evaluations will dictate pay and job security.

The result is likely be a big change from past evaluations, which tended to find nearly every teacher satisfactory or better. But the new system has its own baggage.

The state is requiring the use of complex statistical models — commonly called "value added models" — to account for factors such as poverty and to tease out how much a teacher contributed to a student's gains. While some teacher quality experts find the models promising, many of them also worry that they're not yet accurate enough for high-stakes decisions about compensation and employment.

Another snag: Most teachers do not teach classes that are tied to standardized tests, such as the FCAT, which are necessary for the statistical comparisons. Until such tests are created, districts must find something to fill the vacuum.

For many teachers in Pinellas this year, the placeholder will be this: schoolwide reading scores, after the results have been crunched through the value added models.

In other words, many teachers who don't teach FCAT subjects will be judged not on how well their students do in the subject they're teaching, but on how well students throughout the school perform in reading.

(One likely exception, floated at Tuesday's workshop, is 11th and 12th grade math teachers. Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, proposed that those teachers be rated on schoolwide gains in math instead. Board members were receptive.)

"They're trying to do something that can't be done," said board member Janet Clark, who shook her head often during a presentation on the new evaluations.

"It's not real practical," said board member Terry Krassner.

Last week, the state teachers union filed suit against SB 736. Two Pinellas teachers are among the plaintiffs.

In Pinellas, the new evaluations were rolled out last year in a 15-school pilot project. Teachers in some schools weren't happy to find that for the student performance piece, their ratings would hinge on the school's grade.

District officials were considering a school grade component in the districtwide system but decided to drop it last week.

Newly installed interim superintendent John Stewart referenced the new evaluations last week, in his first public appearance outside the administration building.

Measuring teacher effectiveness is "probably the most difficult thing you could tackle in school board personnel relations," he told about 100 people at a Pinellas Education Foundation luncheon, in response to a question from the audience. He also said the notion of determining the "value added" by a teacher to student learning gains "sounds pretty reasonable."

"But it's now been turned over to a group of statisticians," he quickly added. "Anybody here good at statistics? If you are, I may be calling you. Because we'll need your help."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas School Board to approve controversial new teacher evaluations 09/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 12:33am]
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