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  1. Education

VAM, the new teacher evaluation system, stirs concern, confusion

Published Oct. 20, 2012

Geoffrey Robinson is a National Board certified teacher at Osceola High School in Pinellas County who says 60 percent of his upper-level calculus students last year tested so well they earned college credit.

But this week Robinson received his teacher evaluation, based on a controversial new formula being rolled out statewide.

He was shocked to see how poorly he scored in the "student achievement" portion: 10.63 out of 40.

He's not alone. Teachers all over Pinellas have received their scores, calculated by a new formula that confounds even math teachers. Hillsborough teachers also got their scores, though their situation is different due to participation in a grant program with its own evaluation rules. In Pasco, the scoring is on hold while the teachers union and the district figure out how to implement it.

In the past, school administrators evaluated their teachers. Even though Pinellas administrators spent months preparing brochures, handbooks, Web posts and workshops to explain the new system, some teachers are reacting with anguish.

"My percentage was a 57 out of 100, and that's being one of the top teachers in the state'' judged by student achievement scores, said Melanie Brock, an East Lake High School math teacher. "I know I'm good, I've been teaching for 19 years, I'm not stressing about that. But if I was new, I'd go home crying."

Florida is not yet using the VAM scores to determine raises, though it soon will. Schoolwide scores for teachers — though not individual grades — also will soon be available to parents.

But already, the demoralizing potential of the puzzling test is drawing ire from some in a profession that has seen much criticism and little in the way of pay increases in recent years. And many wonder if it will do anything to improve education.

"This is a system that wasn't ready for prime time, and we've said that time and time again,'' said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

• • •

The so-called "value-added model" of evaluating teachers is not only a statewide policy passed by the Florida Legislature, it's also part of a national movement.

Born of education "accountability" efforts, VAM is being used to quantify whether teachers are getting the best results from their students. It uses a complex statistical formula to predict students' future performance based on their past scores, disability, gifted status, movement from school to school and other factors. Additional testing of students will show if they rise above their expected performance.

It has caused a firestorm of controversy, with critics saying VAM has never been proven to help improve education. The Los Angeles Unified School District released its individual teacher VAM results publicly in 2010 to much criticism. A fight over whether to release similar information for New York City teachers ensued a year later. Chicago teachers went on strike this fall partly because of their opposition to value-added measurements being added to their evaluations.

In Pasco County, teachers have not yet received their value-added ratings, and they won't any time soon. United School Employees of Pasco officials said they have not reached agreement with the district as to how the model will be implemented, and until they do the system will not be put into full use.

Scores were released this week in Hillsborough County, along with a letter that estimated 95 percent of teachers will be rated effective or highly effective.

But the situation there is different because of Empowering Effective Teachers, a seven-year initiative funded with a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Hillsborough is exempt from the law that covers Pinellas and Pasco, but still uses value-added data to evaluate teachers. Teachers in Hillsborough receive scores of up to 60 points from principals and peer evaluators and up to 40 from student improvement, or value-added data. The district makes extensive use of end-of-course exams and other tests to supplement the FCAT.

Due to the Gates program, Hillsborough teachers have had more time to get used to this kind of evaluation.

"It gets a little nerve wracking," said Greta Woolley, a first-grade teacher at Essrig Elementary School in Carrollwood. But Woolley, who serves as Empowering Effective Teachers liaison at her school, said she has benefitted from professional development opportunities that are part of the Hillsborough system. "I feel I am positively 10 times the teacher I was three years ago," she said.

• • •

Others resent the system and are cynical about the methodology.

"It's hilarious," said Michael Rush, a math teacher at New Tampa's Wharton High School. "The first year my (student achievement) score was a 17-point-something and this year it was a 25-point-something."

That's a 50 percent increase, though his teaching methods are more or less the same. "You cannot deviate that much as a teacher," he said. "It's all voodoo math."

In Pinellas, math teacher Robinson called the new evaluation system "probably the most negative thing that's ever been put before teachers in Pinellas County."

"This is the buzz that's going on in virtually every school in Pinellas County," he added.

The district assigned 11 people to answer more than 1,000 calls this week from teachers and administrators about the new system, said Lisa Grant, professional development director.

What aggravates teachers most is that 40 to 50 percent of their evaluation is based on "student achievement" — but it's not always their own students who are being measured.

For example, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers are rated partly on their students' FCAT scores. But the FCAT is not given until third grade. So if you teach a lower grade, then your "student achievement" score is based on the scores of older students at your school. Similarly, teachers of subjects that don't even appear on the state's standardized test are being evaluated, at least in part, on FCAT scores. Eventually, the newer end-of-course exams will be counted into the equation.

Kim Musselman teaches kindergarten at Clearwater's Eisenhower Elementary, where children's families tend to move a lot, she said. So she likely will be evaluated on the scores of older children whom she never taught.

When the evaluations are used to determine raises, "my pay is going to be based on kids that I've never had before," Musselman said.

Grant, the professional development director, said she understands the concerns, but explained the system encourages a team approach.

"We know that if I'm helping my partner across the hall then we're both going to get better," she said.

She said new value-added data is designed to provide information that will "support the continued growth of our teachers and our leaders."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@tampabay.com.

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