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Questions abound as state releases teacher evaluation scores

Pasco County language arts teacher Valerie Smith learned early Monday that part of her 2013 job evaluation was being made public.

The information — a piece of data called a "value-added model" or VAM score — is so controversial and complicated that the Florida Department of Education fought in court to keep it secret, but ended up losing.

Now the state is emphasizing that the score was only one component used to evaluate public school teachers in Florida. "Looking at this information in isolation can lead to misunderstanding about an individual teacher's overall performance," said DOE chief of staff Kathy Hebda.

In an unusual alliance, the department joined the Florida Education Association in 2013 to fight the Florida Times-Union's public records request for the scores, which assign a numeric value to teachers' classroom effectiveness after taking into account external factors such as whether a student lives in poverty.

After losing in federal appeals court in November, the department decided to release the scores Monday for teachers throughout the state, including thousands in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Smith worried parents might make assumptions without understanding the complex — and frequently challenged — formula that generates the ratings.

"The intention may be for the good, to shed light on how our schools are really doing," she said. "But if the information is just put out there without really understanding the meaning, then what is the purpose of doing it other than to create chaos?"

The Times-Union, which published the numbers Monday, anticipated negative feedback, said Kurt Caywood, the paper's vice president of audience. Newspaper executives were well aware of similar efforts in New York and Los Angeles — and the reactions, which included the suicide of a teacher labeled one of L.A.'s worst.

But the public, Caywood said, had a right to see the details underlying Florida's teacher evaluations, which have been the subject of heated political debate and contested in court. "We felt like the best way to reach a conclusion as to whether it was valid and should be part of the evaluation process was to put it out in the open," he said.

The paper published several stories along with VAM databases as the DOE made the numbers available to other media outlets and school districts.

District and teacher union leaders were quick to render a verdict on the release.

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the data a "questionable snapshot of performance." He also mentioned a study by the American Institutes for Research that questioned the use of reading scores in the value-added model.

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning observed that the data did not include results for teachers in several grades, as well as in several subject areas.

The margin of error differs from school to school, and not all districts use the same definitions or place the same emphasis on VAM scores in their teacher evaluations, which also include factors such as classroom observations by administrators.

"The scores are meaningless," Hernando teachers union president Jo Ann Hartge said.

Maria Ferguson, executive director of the independent Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, predicted confusion would follow the release.

"Parents see these sorts of things and they freak out because they don't really understand what any of it means," Ferguson said. "When the data becomes public, the media and public don't have an opportunity to see or understand the nuance. … The interpretations can get out of hand."

Not all education advocacy groups are as concerned.

"Teachers are hired to help our kids learn," said StudentsFirst Florida spokesman Lane Wright. "It makes sense to hold them accountable to by using a student-growth measure to determine how much they grow."

State Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who sponsored the performance pay legislation in 2011, said it was premature to draw any conclusions from the data.

"We all need to sit back and let this play out," he said. "Once all of the data has been crunched, we can all sit down as stakeholders, and decide: Did it work? Was it good for students?"

Education commissioner Pam Stewart sent a letter to Florida teachers Monday morning attempting to reassure them. She said the release of the database was a chance to tell the public that it has little value by itself.

Smith, the Pasco teacher, said she understands why the news media would want to bring the numbers to light. "But to me, it doesn't serve a viable and useful use within the community if you're providing information that nobody can make sense of."

Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this story.

Questions abound as state releases teacher evaluation scores 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 11:26pm]
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