Saturday, January 20, 2018
Education

Pinellas school officials discuss alternatives to controversial teacher rating system

LARGO — Stung by Pinellas County teachers' relatively poor marks on a new evaluation measure, school officials said Tuesday they want to tweak the system to boost their teachers' grades.

And superintendent Mike Grego said the county ought to look for an alternative to the state's controversial new method of evaluating teachers.

Last week, the state reported that 78.5 percent of Pinellas classroom teachers were rated as "effective" or "highly effective," compared to 96.5 percent of teachers statewide. Nearly 18 percent of Pinellas teachers were rated as "needs improvement," compared to 2.1 percent statewide.

During a workshop meeting of the School Board on Tuesday, officials outlined changes that would mean 90 percent of Pinellas teachers this year would fall into the top two categories.

Officials said their proposed changes — which were under way even before the statewide results were announced — are designed to make the system fairer to teachers. The state allows each county to set its own achievement scale for teachers, accounting for at least some of the variation in scores.

Grego has a bigger idea: dropping the "value added model," a complicated formula that aims to rate teachers based on student performance.

The new system sparked much outcry, because in many cases it evaluates teachers partly based on students who aren't in their classrooms. But in spite of the furor, most teachers fared well.

Grego said he agrees the state needs sophisticated evaluations of teachers with regular assessments of students' academic progress. But he said it might be better to decentralize the process rather than relying heavily on statewide student tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, which he said is "not a measure designed to evaluate teachers."

Any change in the use of the VAM would require legislative approval, since it was put in place by a vote of the Legislature. His efforts might not go anywhere, but Grego said it's worth trying.

"Can Pinellas and other districts take the lead and create a model for appraisals … not based on testing of students?" Grego said to board members.

Pinellas School Board members did not take a formal vote on the suggestions during their meeting Tuesday. The scoring adjustments they discussed are expected to come before the board for a formal vote in January.

Most of the scoring fixes are highly technical, generally designed to rate teachers more on the learning gains of students they actually have taught, and not their school's overall VAM score. One of the changes is simply to round the evaluation scores to the nearest whole number. Professional development director Lisa Grant said she spoke to some teachers who were tenths of a percentage point away from a rating of "effective."

Grego's larger idea will take longer. He said he already has had a few talks with legislators, and may reach out to other school districts as well. Teachers would still be held accountable, he said, just through a better system.

"I'm saying we may define VAM in a different way," he said.

Assessing student learning could be a key portion of this new review, but it wouldn't have to rely only on one big test like the FCAT or the end-of-course exams which are going to become the new standard for testing public school students.

Board member Robin Wikle said she sees some positives in the VAM system, as long as it is used to evaluate teachers based on the students in their own classrooms. But at the same time, she said she liked the fact that Grego was exploring alternatives. "If it doesn't work, you're no worse off," she said.

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