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Pinellas prepares to change its teacher evaluation system

In all the confusion over a controversial new method for evaluating public school teachers, one thing seems certain: Pinellas County's system needs to change.

Superintendent Mike Grego and six of seven School Board members say improvements are needed in the way the county rates its teachers.

Among the most pressing issues is that too many teachers' evaluations are based on students they don't even teach.

"Whenever you have an evaluation system that sways away from the measure of the students that the teachers are actually responsible for, then you have inaccuracies," he said.

Grego would not discuss any of the possible solutions he had in mind, but he is scheduled to talk about them at a School Board workshop at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The discussion comes as teachers, school board members and administrators are taking their first look at figures from the ambitious but controversial new effort to transform how Florida teachers are rated.

The numbers showed that 78.5 percent of Pinellas classroom teachers were rated as "effective" or "highly effective," compared to 96.5 percent statewide. Nearly 18 percent of Pinellas teachers were rated as "needs improvement," compared to 2.1 percent statewide.

Only 22 Pinellas teachers were rated "unsatisfactory." That's 0.3 percent, the same percentage as statewide.

Pinellas school administrators also were evaluated under the new system, and many did not fare well. A total of 138 Pinellas administrators — 45.7 percent — were rated as "needs improvement," a higher percentage than any other district in the state.

Exact comparisons to other counties can't really be made because individual districts created their own guidelines for what scores count as "effective," "needs improvement," or other categories.

These preliminary numbers might suggest that Pinellas grades on a tougher scale, but so far the district has not explained if this was by accident or design.

The numbers also produced other results that are likely to get close scrutiny from Pinellas School Board members.

•At some highly regarded schools, teachers scored lower than one might expect. For example, at Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater, an "A" school, 67.8 percent of teachers were either "needs improvement" or "developing."

•Some schools that have struggled still had a lot of teachers who scored well. At Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, which received a school grade of "F," 70.6 percent of teachers were "effective."

Previously, teachers were rated mostly by principals who visited classrooms for evaluations — and only a tiny fraction got failing marks. Principals' evaluations are still used in the new system, but so is a measure called the "value added model," or VAM.

The VAM score seeks to rate teachers based on how much their students learn, compared to expectations for similar students statewide.

To understand the concept, consider an analogy to college football.

If college coaches got VAM scores, Alabama's coach would not get a good one right now. Alabama was No. 2 in the preseason AP poll and is No. 2 now. So basically the team has merely met expectations — and VAM wants teachers to do better than that.

The University of Florida won't play in the title game, but its coach would get a good VAM score. That's because Florida was ranked No. 23 in the preseason and is No. 4 now, a big jump. On the other hand, even though LSU is a Top 10 team, its coach would get a miserable VAM score. The team was ranked No. 3 in the preseason and has slipped to No. 9.

Of course, there are no preseason and postseason polls for fourth-graders. Instead, there is an FCAT. That standardized test is used to measure students' performance and by extension, how well teachers are educating students.

But students in some grades and subjects don't take the FCAT, which makes their performance harder to assess. For many of those teachers, Pinellas has given teachers a general VAM score that is assigned to their school. But the practice has created a lot of criticism because it means those teachers are not being graded on what's happening in their own classrooms.

Several School Board members agree this is a key item that needs work. "At least if you're evaluated on something where your students are measured it's better than being evaluated on students you don't have," said board member Linda Lerner.

Board chairwoman Carol Cook said evaluating teachers based on students they don't teach is "kind of an invalid measure." Board member Peggy O'Shea said accountability and tough evaluations are fine, "but we need to make sure that what we're doing is the right evaluation that is measuring the right things."

Board member Robin Wikle said there's another important aspect of the system, which is how principals are handling their portion of the evaluations. They need to be well-trained on how to apply standards consistently, she said.

Pinellas prepares to change its teacher evaluation system 12/08/12 [Last modified: Sunday, December 9, 2012 1:18am]
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