It was obvious to Florida public school teachers six weeks ago that the state's new system for evaluating them uses imperfect data that makes the evaluations of dubious value. Now a statewide snapshot of results should make that clear to everyone else. The state Board of Education and legislative leaders need to fix the evaluation system that is the foundation for moving to merit-based teacher pay or risk losing more credibility for their entire effort to hold public schools accountable.
If it could be trusted, it would have been good news this week when the Department of Education reported that 96.5 percent of all Florida educators are rated effective or highly effective in their job. But a flawed measurement scheme compounded by different implementation in each of the state's 67 counties makes it unreliable. How else to account for such disparate results in Tampa Bay when it comes to rating teachers highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory? For example, in Hillsborough County, 41.5 percent of teachers are deemed "highly effective" compared to just 3.6 percent in Pasco County.
On Thursday in Tallahassee, interim state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart downplayed discrepancies over the results, saying, "I think any time you implement something this large for the first time, there are growing pains." Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Nice-ville, has talked dismissively of teachers who realized six weeks ago, when they received their individual ratings privately, how flawed the results were.
But the results bear out what critics warned would happen ever since the Legislature, at Gov. Rick Scott's behest, rushed passage of SB 736 in 2011. For all the merit in trying to assess which teachers are the most effective so they could be paid more starting in 2014-15, lawmakers have not given school districts the time or resources needed to build fair assessment tools.
The law anticipated using student performance on end-of-course subject exams to inform 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. Such exams don't yet exist for the vast majority of classes students take. But rather than delay implementation until such measurement tools could be designed, the Legislature said school districts could substitute results from the FCAT, even for the teachers — be it art, Spanish or kindergarten — whose classes are never part of FCAT testing.
Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego, who was just a month into his job when teacher evaluations were distributed in late October, has already acknowledged the district will need to tweak its system. Others around the state say the same. But they can only do so much until Tallahassee owns up to its own role and provides the resources and time to get it right.