Back to drawing board with teacher evaluations

Published Oct. 27, 2012

Nineteen months after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law overhauling how Florida public school teachers would be evaluated, its flaws are more obvious than ever. School districts' good-faith efforts to adhere to the law have forced them to rely on out-of-context data and dubious methodology that is further demoralizing the very employees whose motivation is needed to improve public schools. The Legislature needs to go back to the drawing board and fix this scheme not only in fairness to hardworking teachers, but also for students and their families. Accountability works only if the measurement tools are valid.

The goal of the state's new teacher evaluation process — passed as part of Senate Bill 736 by the 2011 Legislature — is to try to assess a teacher's impact on students' learning versus other factors. In theory, it would be a more sophisticated and fair measurement than just scoring students' performance on a standardized test, and it would illuminate which faculty are superior at helping students learn.

But from the start, critics have warned that attaining such measurements of teacher effectiveness weren't possible in the short time frame Florida lawmakers demanded. The law anticipated using students' performance on end-of-course subject exams to inform 50 percent of each teacher's evaluation. But such exams don't exist yet for the vast majority of classes students take. And the Legislature's backup plan, to rely on FCAT results, is just one more misappropriation of that test.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month, the result of such shortsightedness is now obvious after several counties, including Pinellas, used the plan for 2011-12 evaluations. Teachers who taught in grades or subjects that do not have FCAT tests ended up with evaluations based on their students' FCAT reading tests. That means kindergarten teachers' evaluations were based on how students performed years later on the FCAT reading test. It means students' scores on a reading test impacted the evaluations of physical education, Spanish and art teachers, and so on.

In other words, in the rush to deliver accountability, lawmakers created a farce. Many teachers, already fatigued from a half-decade of stagnant pay and increasing criticism from Tallahassee, are receiving scores that are all but meaningless. The only upside, for now, is that the scores don't impact teacher pay — yet. Starting in 2014-15, the Legislature has mandated that this new evaluation process dictate teacher raises and which new teachers are retained. But it is far from certain whether districts, by then, will have had the resources and time to collect the battery of valid, end-of-course exams they will need to improve this process.

The state Board of Education — which has been ordered by an administrative judge to rewrite the rules implementing the new evaluation process due to a technicality — should take this opportunity to push lawmakers to reconsider and devise a better plan. At the very least, the Legislature needs to reset the clock and dedicate the resources to develop meaningful measurements, not arbitrary ones.

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The broad goal of Senate Bill 736 remains valid: Florida should be evaluating and rewarding teachers more on their students' performance than on their seniority. But school districts can only do that fairly with accurate and transparent measurement tools. Until then, this exercise is little more than political posturing that undermines teacher morale and, even more importantly, the education of Florida's children.