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After two years of disastrous and discredited results from Tallahassee's top-down plan for evaluating public school teachers, a small experiment at five Pinellas County schools is offering some hope there could be a better way to identify bad teachers and help the average ones improve. The state Department of Education has taken notice of Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego's effort to create an evaluation system that offers real-time feedback for teachers about their performance. That holds far more promise than the state's status quo.

Common sense says teacher performance cannot be easily boiled down to a number. But that is what the Legislature sought to do in 2012 when it created the "value-added model" evaluation system that tried to measure exactly what impact a teacher had on students' learning. The results were to inform a new teacher merit pay system starting this year. The scheme, however, never really had a chance. As critics warned Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature two years ago, the state lacked the tools - namely tests - that could accurately measure just how much a student learned in each class each year. So the Department of Education winged it, ordering districts to substitute overall FCAT scores for some teachers' evaluations even if those teachers taught grades or classes that did not relate to FCAT.

When the first round of results were finally released in 2013 - months after a new school year had already started - they were largely useless and quickly criticized. Just a handful of teachers across the entire Tampa Bay region scored poorly. Some excellent teachers, including past recipients of teacher of the year awards, racked up average results. The same thing happened in March when the 2012-13 scores were released, fueling calls for Florida to revamp its entire accountability system.

So far, lawmakers don't appear inclined to respond. But for the past several months at five Pinellas schools, Grego and his team, with the state education department's blessing, have been trying out a new approach that focuses on working more directly with teachers throughout the year to improve teaching methods and classroom management skills. At the start of the school year, teachers underwent classroom observations and students took pre-tests. Teachers also completed self-assessments, and students in grades four and up were surveyed about their teachers' practices. The extra measures do not count toward a teacher's rating, but they did inform individual strategies for helping the teacher improve. Another round of tests, observation and surveys will be done this spring.

That sounds like a far fairer and more workable model for improving teacher performance and evaluating it accurately. Hopefully, Pinellas is on to something, not just for creating a better evaluation system but also for improving teacher performance and raising student achievement in the classroom.