Teachers remain wary even as Florida eases its stance on evaluations

Uncertainty prevails even as the state eases its stance on evaluations.

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In their effort to tie teachers' job evaluations to student performance, Florida lawmakers acknowledge they initially went too far.

"We were trying to prove a point, and we became overprescriptive," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, who began pressing the issue five years ago.

This spring, comfortable that the idea of increased accountability for teachers had taken hold, the Legislature eased up.

It cut the amount that test scores would count toward evaluations, giving school systems the option to add other indicators to the mix. It also dropped the requirement that every course in every grade level have a written end-of-course exam, a mandate that was to take effect this spring.

But the law also left room for interpretation. And that has left teachers and school district leaders uncertain, and somewhat distrustful, as they try to figure out what the next steps should be.

The issue takes on heightened significance this summer, as the law, which has been phased in over four years, formally ties teachers' pay to their evaluations for the first time.

Citing the newly authorized flexibility, the Pinellas County School Board last week decreased student test scores as an evaluation factor from 50 percent to 33 1/3 percent — so long as the result does not hurt a teacher's final rating. A working group that includes teachers will review more changes for 2015-16.

Pasco County administrators left their current formula alone, but proposed reducing the weight of student performance for next year while also seeking to make it harder to get the top rating of "highly effective." Similarly, Hillsborough County officials planned no changes for this year, but are asking teachers whether they'd like to scale back the use of student data on evaluations for next year.

Polk County union and district leaders, meanwhile, issued a joint statement saying they would not use student test scores at all this year, a move many said might be illegal.

"The law, I think, is pretty clear. There needs to be student data," Legg said. "Those districts that thumb their nose put their districts' student funding in jeopardy."

One thing many superintendents have stressed is their desire to focus evaluations on identifying teachers' strengths and weaknesses, and providing support for them to improve.

"We want to take a look at that evaluation system and make sure it's more meaningful than it has been in the past," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Teacher and union leaders like the concept. They worry, though, that the state's "flawed" policy can't get them there.

"The law was a good step in the right direction, but I don't think it went far enough," said Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, who referred to testing problems this year that prompted the state to commission a validity study of the results.

"They obviously are going to have a hard time getting to the right place (with teacher evaluations) when using student data that hasn't been validated and isn't reliable even for use with students," Proud said.

Talk of using evaluations primarily as a tool for improvement falls flat for teachers who see their pay tied to test results.

"I'm all for doing what is right for our teachers and students," said Kenny Blankenship, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "Let's truly make it a growth model that doesn't penalize and doesn't bring the hammer down — something that's redemptive."

Legg acknowledged the Legislature enacted a "sea change" in 2011 when it ended continuing contracts for new teachers and first tied evaluations to test results. He suggested that school districts forced lawmakers' hands.

After all, he said, the law already required districts to use student performance on teacher evaluations before his Senate Bill 6 came along and was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010. Districts simply didn't comply.

After pressing the point the following year, lawmakers did begin to pull back to answer specific concerns. First, they dealt with complaints that teachers were being rated on the performance of students they never taught. Now, they've eliminated the local test requirement and cut back on how much student performance counts.

"The ground has been taken. Districts do see the value of having some student data as part of the student evaluation," Legg said. "I do think we can scale back."

But removing student performance from the equation completely is not on the table.

Whether district and teacher leaders ever will fully support the process remains the big question.

Proud, of the Pinellas teachers union, said there's a built-in tension between the state's ambition to hold schools and teachers accountable and school districts' goal to improve teaching and learning.

"We still attempt to collaborate. It's a struggle," he said. "A big part of that struggle is that aspect of the law" that places higher stakes on evaluations. "It ends up having a negative impact on employees."

Bill Corbett, Pinellas deputy superintendent, said he hoped teachers would feel less apprehensive once they see the new model in full swing. Already, close to half of teachers are on annual contracts, and few are getting sacked for performance.

"I really believe the anxiety is just because it's the unknown," Corbett said. "There's just no experience with it yet."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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