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Teachers fret as Pinellas project links their performance to school grades

Amid Florida's high-stakes campaign to revamp teacher evaluations, a pilot program in Pinellas County is linking some high school teachers' performance to their schools' grades.

School made an A? All of its teachers will get the most points allowed under the student performance section.

School made an F? All of its teachers will get zip.

"It's horrible," said Kathy Drouin, who teaches psychology and sociology at D-rated Boca Ciega High. "I don't think it's an accurate measure of my accountability to my students. Isn't that what this is all about?"

Teachers aren't the only ones groaning about the system, which is on tap for all Pinellas schools next year. "There isn't an easy answer for what you do with teachers who don't have direct student performance data for their students," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "But something so far removed from the individual classroom doesn't seem a very viable proxy."

At issue is a profession-changing movement to revamp teacher evaluations not only in Pinellas but throughout Florida and the country.

With research showing teacher quality is the biggest in-school factor in student achievement, the race is on to develop better evaluations that can drive who gets rewarded with more money, who gets targeted with more training and who gets the boot. In Florida, the pressure on districts to come up with something new, now, is immense. "The heat is on," said Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark.

But many teachers say there's a big piece missing: a fair, credible way of measuring how much they helped their students learn (or not).

In Pinellas, teachers from 15 schools are in the pilot project, including four high schools: Gibbs, Boca Ciega, Lakewood and Dixie Hollins. The new evaluation has four components: an administrator's observations; the learning gains of students; a review by fellow teachers; and how well the teacher followed up on training he or she needs to shore up shortcomings.

For the student performance portion (which counts for 30 percent) the district will use learning gains on the FCAT math and reading tests for individual teachers who teach those subjects. That in itself is controversial.

But for many high school teachers, it's even dicier.

For those teaching non-FCAT subjects, the district originally planned to use schoolwide learning gains in reading. But this week, district officials announced they will use high school grades instead.

As of last year, high school grades now include many components beyond the FCAT, including graduation rates and other standardized tests. Under that new system, most Pinellas high schools improved their grades even though some saw little movement in FCAT results.

Tying teacher evaluations to schools' grades is "better, but we still have concerns," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union.

The union is working with the district on shaping the new evaluations. At least this way, Black said, more teachers will be able to reach the highly effective category.

Superintendent Julie Janssen, who suggested the use of school grades for the pilot, didn't exactly embrace the idea, either. "It's not the best," she said. But "it's a start."

It's also in limbo. As they did last year, state lawmakers are expected to consider major legislation that may change the way Florida teachers are evaluated. It's unclear whether those changes will dovetail with what Pinellas and other districts are trying to do, or send a wrecking ball through them.

In the meantime, those shaping the Pinellas pilot say using school grades is just a placeholder until more sophisticated tools evolve, especially the development of standardized tests called end-of-course exams.

The state is in the process of developing a handful of such tests for major subjects like Biology 1 and geometry. But there are hundreds of other courses that may need tests of some kind so teachers can be measured — and it's not clear how quickly they can be created.

"That whole piece is going to be fluid over the next few years," said Lisa Grant, the professional development director in Pinellas who's overseeing the pilot. "It's uncomfortable in many respects. I know there's anxiety out there."

At a recent focus group meeting, Grant said a Gibbs High teacher offered a positive take on the school grades link.

"She was saying, 'I have to be working with other teachers, helping them get better, for me to be considered highly effective,' " Grant said.

It remains to be seen what other teachers think. Beginning Monday, district officials are holding a series of meetings at the pilot schools.

William White, another teacher at Boca Ciega, said in an e-mail that the switch to school grades and other tweaks make the evaluation a tad better, and he thanked the principal for working "very hard to get these concessions for us."

But it's still not fair, said White, who teaches social studies. He likened it to buying a car with a jacked-up price tag.

"When they say they will sell it to you cheaper, it's still more than you should have paid," he said.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com.

Teachers fret as Pinellas project links their performance to school grades 02/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 10:52pm]
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