Exactly how Florida got here, to 2014, is difficult to say. This is the year when its schools are supposed to finish their transition to a new system of teacher evaluations, yet politicians don't understand them and educators say they don't work.
The value-added model, or VAM, for rating a Florida teacher's contribution to a student's learning has confused everyone from House Speaker Will Weatherford to the Hillsborough Teacher of the Year, who received a negative VAM score along with his title.
Now, the state is quietly keeping an eye on a Pinellas County program that, if successful, could make VAM a thing of the past, according to the district's schools chief.
Unlike the current model, the system Pinellas is testing at five schools gives teachers feedback before the school year ends. It also clearly identifies where teachers are excelling and falling short, providing specific suggestions for improving their craft.
"I want to be bold and say we're looking at a potential model that would eliminate or improve upon the concept of VAM," Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego told the School Board last week at a workshop attended by Brian Dassler, the Florida Department of Education's deputy chancellor for educator quality.
The department is "learning with and from this," Dassler told Pinellas officials.
"You have in so many ways made an anchor here that it's not whether student achievement can drive teacher effectiveness (ratings) but how," he said. "It's one of the reasons we're so interested in what you're doing."
Teacher job evaluations have long been a focal point in the effort to bring more accountability to schools. But educators have struggled to measure a job of such complexity and nuance.
The value-added model is one attempt. It uses a complex formula purported to isolate a teacher's contribution to student achievement. It's separated from other factors, such as poverty, that affect students. State-hired analysts consider a student's FCAT score from the previous year, and how similar students across Florida performed. Based on that, they predict how many points a student should improve on the current year's FCAT.
All schools are supposed to have their own tests to replace FCAT by this fall, addressing current concerns that teachers are evaluated on students and subjects they don't teach.
But several concerns remain. One, teachers don't receive their VAM scores until months after the school year ends and their students move on. Two, the VAM score doesn't shed light on what a teacher is doing right or wrong; it's simply a long decimal that's either positive, negative or zero.
This school year, Pinellas received a waiver from the state to exempt Gulfport, Westgate and Seventy-Fourth Street elementaries, as well as Azalea Middle and Boca Ciega High, from VAM-based evaluations.
The schools are testing a model developed with Learning Sciences International that provides diagnostic feedback to teachers in the first semester, and identifies areas of strength and weakness.
In addition to classroom observations and test data, teachers completed self-assessments, and students in grade four and up were surveyed on their teachers' instructional practices. These extra measures did not count toward a teacher's rating.
The goal is to reveal strengths and give teachers more control over their development, according to a district presentation.
"The power of this pilot is what we're doing with that information, how we're growing and supporting teachers rather than using it as a punitive thing," Grego said.
It is "unfair and unjust that teachers were assigned a score when they didn't understand how to improve on that score," he continued.
In the fall, students at the five schools took pre-tests. Then teachers completed self-assessments, an administrator observed classrooms, the students completed surveys, then teachers gave a post-test.
They spent a lot of time reviewing content, practicing skills with their students, identifying critical information and previewing new content.
But Learning Sciences found that teachers could be spending more time on complex tasks, using homework as a learning tool and reflecting on "which students were learning, which student weren't learning for the targets for that day, and what might we do tomorrow," explained Michael Toth, the company's CEO and founder.
After receiving this feedback, teachers engaged in "deliberate practice" before the spring tests and classroom observations that would count toward their ratings. Essentially, they're given a chance to improve their craft with the same set of the students.
Grego and Bob Poth, an area superintendent leading the project, acknowledged there were challenges. "One size doesn't fit all," said Poth, explaining that some veteran teachers were resistant to changing methods.
The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association plans to survey its members at the five schools. Employees at these schools received a week of special training last summer.
Another challenge: Some schools have a lot of staff turnover, creating a need for training on the fly.
The five schools will continue with the pilot next year, and Grego said he hopes the state will allow Pinellas to expand it to more schools.
Laura Roach, a fourth-grade language arts teacher at Gulfport Elementary, says she's been able to improve her teaching over the course of the school year. "I have feedback, right away, where I am at that given time."
School Board members were receptive to the Pinellas model during last week's presentation. Terry Krassner called it "a shot in the arm."
Board chairwoman Carol Cook said, "I saw some things in there that I used back in the day when I was teaching that have gone by the wayside."
She said she never understood what VAM was measuring. "I kind of had my fingers crossed," Cook said, "and hoped things were going well."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).