Gulf High School principal Kim Davis was "shocked."
On the day she observed a teacher's lesson for an evaluation, Davis got a letter from a student who didn't mince words.
"You were in my class today and we had a fun activity on the overhead and on the white boards. People actually participated and accomplished work," the student wrote. "Why can't every day be like this? Why is it only when you come in?"
It wasn't a singular sentiment.
Davis said she heard similar complaints this spring from a senior, who said he didn't feel like his teacher was doing anything anymore. Some River Ridge High students told assistant principal Erik Hermansen that their teacher spent two class days rehearsing a lesson for a scheduled observation.
Some Mitchell High parents contacted the superintendent's office criticizing a teacher for not teaching. A teen approached superintendent Kurt Browning to relate how his teacher taught differently with an administrator in the classroom.
"He said something to the effect of, he didn't know who that teacher was," Browning related. "I'm dumbfounded."
Teachers on the superintendent's advisory committee say the concerns are real. They attribute the problem to the high stakes tied to teacher evaluations.
In 2011, the state attached teachers' pay and employment to evaluation results. Those evaluations are based on student test scores and administrator observations.
The formal observations occur once a year.
"That's your shot to make it count," Watergrass Elementary teacher Lisa Harden said.
Harden and others said most teachers don't make drastic changes from their daily instruction to the lesson that principals watch. They admitted, though, that the official visit creates a stir, and the stress might be too much for some educators.
A new Brookings Institute report states "nearly all the opportunities for improvement to teacher evaluation systems are in the area of classroom observations rather than in test score gains."
Yet observations carry more potential biases than student outcomes, such as the assignment of students or the preconceived notions of principals, the report says. These concerns have captured district leaders' attention.
"It's a piece that is so high stakes, we can never take it for granted," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said about classroom observations.
Browning said he wants to change the model while sticking to the state mandates, with a goal of making evaluations "about professional growth, as opposed to the professional gotcha."
A year ago, he proposed increasing the number of informal observations for every teacher each year, with the information collected going to teachers to help them improve instruction before the formal review. That idea did not make it through contract negotiations, and Browning said he has not decided how to move on the concept this round.
Members of Browning's advisory committee said they expected extra administrator visits could reduce the problems that students reported, because teachers would not feel as pressured to perform the single time their principal comes to watch.
United School Employees of Pasco president-elect Kenny Blankenship agreed that principals should make their presence felt more often in classrooms, although he did not commit to any contract changes. He said more teacher orientation and training about the evaluation and growth models could help.
"It's not supposed to be punitive," Blankenship said. "I don't believe teachers think they are getting the support they need."
Some principals are attempting to deal with the known problems as they can.
Davis said she has counseled the teacher whom the student complained about, and offered mentors to teachers who are less successful. The student's letter was a wakeup call, she added.
"I am going to use that as food for thought to spur us on," Davis said. "It's my ace in the hold for pre-planning next year. When kids say these kinds of things, what's really going on in the classroom?"
Hermansen, like Davis, stressed that complaints about teachers doing things like telling kids what to say during observed lessons are few and far between. In those instances it's often clear what's happening, he added.
But when it does occur, he said, the schools take the situation seriously. The students deserve better, he added.
"They want to be engaged," Hermansen said. "They don't want to just sit there and get told things."
Larson called the Gulf student's letter "crushing," and insisted the district must rise to the challenge. "I ask, why can't teachers do that every day?" she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]