Some call for changes in job evaluation system for Hillsborough teachers

Some instructors and board members want changes in Hillsborough.
Published December 14 2014
Updated December 14 2014

TAMPA — Four years into a teacher evaluation system touted as one of the best in the state, some Hillsborough County teachers and School Board members are calling for change.

Three teachers who were told over a year ago they'd be fired for subpar ratings have not yet had termination hearings. Two more were on the list, but one retired and one resigned. And some board members are frustrated because lawyers say the firing decisions cannot be reversed.

A sixth fired teacher has a lawsuit working its way through the courts. A seventh, facing a similar fate, spoke publicly last week, prompting one board member to suggest rethinking the whole process.

"I am here because people are afraid to speak," said Noel Patti, 46, who spent the last 11 years teaching civics at Madison Middle School in South Tampa.

She's up for termination because of two unsatisfactory ratings, grounds for firing according to the district and the state. "I am, by far, not perfect. None of us are. I did not go into this to climb the ladder into a better job. I went into this to teach."

Since 2010, Hillsborough has made the transition from using principals' evaluations of teachers — which critics said were subjective and largely pro forma — to a far more elaborate system under the Empowering Effective Teachers program.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, EET assesses teachers using structured observations by peer evaluators and administrators, and scores based on student test performance. The program made its debut a year before the state evaluation system, and allowed Hillsborough to avoid some state mandates.

In the earliest days, EET proposed to fire 5 percent of low-performing teachers each year. But by the time implementation began, mass firings had fallen out of favor with the nation's education reformers and Hillsborough abandoned that goal.

Instead, the system results in a tiny number of firings — typically three to five a year. Some struggling teachers leave voluntarily. Of those who stay, 73 percent are rated in a higher category the following year, said school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

The evaluations are designed to be as objective as possible, given the reality that a human being decides if a teacher has met his or her objectives. A teacher who disagrees can express that opinion in an online journal.

The teacher's union argued successfully to add a step to correct errors, or resolve large disparities between the principal and peer reports. "Half of the time the issues that are raised are valid mistakes," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

But it is not a full-fledged grievance process. And while a small number of scores are corrected, the district can always stand by its peers and principals.

District officials point out that there also was no grievance process in the years before the Gates program.

But some board members are frustrated because teachers who have tenure are entitled to board hearings. Yet, according to attorneys for the district, state law compels the board to uphold the firings if they resulted from two "unsatisfactory" or three "needs-improvement" ratings.

"There needs to be a safety net," Griffin said after hearing Patti speak at Tuesday's board meeting. She suggested the district might suspend the whole evaluation system until the board can hold a workshop. "There's absolutely no recourse for the teachers."

Patti said her problems began two years ago. Returning from a leave of absence, she was given a "floater" position in which she rotated through five classrooms. It was hard to organize the room on days when she was observed. "I did the best I could, given that situation," she said.

She contends EET, like other evaluation systems, is hard on teachers who serve disadvantaged children, including those with learning disabilities and limited English skills. "Those are the students that are 60 to 80 percent of my roster," she said.

While the component based on student test scores adjusts for those variables — it counts for only 40 percent of the score in Hillsborough — some teachers find the process too complex to understand.

And lower-performing students sometimes misbehave when observers are in the classroom, Patti said. Hegarty argues that the numerical score and the principal's evaluation should have made up for that problem.

Originally from New York, Patti appreciated the teacher training she got in Hillsborough. "I don't think everything is bad," she said. "We all want to be an excellent teacher. But the system needs to be fair."

Griffin's call for action comes as evaluation systems — and the tests that provide much of the data — are being challenged throughout the state.

With nearly 98 percent of Florida's teachers rated "effective" or better, critics say the system isn't weeding out bad teachers. What's more, they say, the data portion in most of the state judges teachers on students they never taught.

Hillsborough takes pride in having a large assortment of end-of-course exams that provide more relevant data on a teacher's impact than standardized tests.

Still, Baxter-Jenkins said she welcomes a board workshop and wants the teachers represented. She isn't convinced the board must uphold the firings. But if that's what members are told, she said, "we have to be sure that we have a fair system going forward."

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