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Louisiana launches controversial new teacher evaluations to praise, fear

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Teachers in Louisiana have all but lost the tenure rules that once protected their jobs. Beginning this year, all 50,000 of them will be evaluated and ranked on an annual basis, often with test scores factoring in heavily. Soon, consistently “ineffective” teachers will no longer be welcome in the classroom.

With a grading sheet in hand, Dr. Scott Steckler watches intently during teacher observation of Lora Johnson and takes careful notes, Tuesday October 23, 2012, as state schools began complying with new Teacher Evaluation Reform policies being rolled out this year. Steckler and a handful of other schools around the state participated in a pilot program last year. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune)

This, depending on one’s point of view, is either the latest assault on Louisiana’s educators or an urgent step toward modernizing the teaching profession and lifting the state out of academic mediocrity.

Either way, the new evaluation system and its consequences are redefining the roles of teacher and principal in school buildings across Louisiana this year, as have similar efforts in school systems across the country.

The shift has drawn a mix of tentative enthusiasm, fierce anxiety and reams of questions from educators. Will the ever-tightening focus on test scores snuff out creativity? What about those who teach in subjects that aren’t tested, which in fact make up a majority?

Complicating matters, Louisiana made significant changes to its new evaluation system between testing it in a few districts and pushing it statewide this year. And the heated debate over these changes in Louisiana’s capital has often done more to obscure what’s in store for teachers than clarify it.

Louisiana series

A new teacher evaluation system in Louisiana requires frequent classroom observations and the use of test score data in teacher ratings. The Hechinger Report has partnered with The Times-Picayune on a series of in-depth stories examining the possible benefits and pitfalls of the new policies.

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Still, the push to change how schools manage their teachers is long in coming. What’s now breaking across the state is the latest ripple of a reform tide sparked decades ago by anxiety over the prospect of losing America’s educational edge.

President George W. Bush codified a system of test-based accountability for schools with the No Child Left Behind Act. And President Obama continued with his Race to the Top competition, dangling billions of dollars in front of states that agreed to develop more stringent teacher evaluation methods, among other steps.

The focus on evaluations in particular stems from research suggesting that teacher quality is among the most important factors in a child’s education — and that teacher quality varies widely.

An influential report titled “The Widget Effect,” published in 2009 by a group called The New Teacher Project, warned that in most school districts, “a teacher’s effectiveness … is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way.”

Louisiana, along with dozens of other states, is trying to change that.

The state never got much funding from Race to the Top. Of the roughly $4 billion handed out, Louisiana won only $17.4 million. But the process left the state with the outlines of a new evaluation system, sketched in a law known as Act 54.

It has a clunky title, the “Clear, Overall Measure of Performance to Analyze and Support Success,” or Compass.

Scott Steckler Principal at George Cox Elementary School in Gretna gets high fives from students headed for their busses, Thursday October 18, 2012. Steckler works hard to maintain good relationships with the students, engaging and encouraging them in their studies. “Reasonable people will be reasonable,” said Steckler. “Nobody’s out to try to get rid of any teacher that everyone knows is an outstanding teacher. If I go in and I say this is really a rotten class. This is terrible, and the children all grow two years that year, well I’ll just shut up and let the teacher proceed, because, never mind.” (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune)

And as in other states, 32 of which have passed teacher evaluation laws in the past four years, the new system is built around a controversial provision requiring that half of a teacher’s ranking be based on “value-added modeling.” That means using test scores to measure how far students have come in the course of a year.

The other half is based on classroom observations by principals and other administrators.

Raising the stakes considerably, Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed through a set of measures this spring forcing local school districts to rewrite policy with these new evaluations in mind.

Districts, for instance, aren’t allowed to use seniority any more when considering whom to cut during layoffs. Instead, the decisions have to be made based on how teachers score on their evaluations. The same goes for pay increases.

Beginning after the next academic year, teachers ranked “ineffective” for two years in a row will lose their jobs.

This all represents a broader shift in philosophy, placing a greater focus on measurable results and less on the number of years or advanced degrees a teacher has accumulated.

The union officials who represent teachers in contract negotiations and in debates at the state Legislature have reacted to the new system with dismay, but acknowledge having only succeeded so far in slowing its implementation rather than significantly altering its approach.

Steve Monaghan, head of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, describes the system as flawed beyond hope. The main theme of the group’s annual convention, scheduled for this weekend, is the ongoing effort to get the various statutes involved repealed.

Broadly speaking, Monaghan and his counterparts in other states view these new evaluation methods as part of a destructive campaign to vilify unions and blame teachers for all that ails public education. “I’m the union boss; I’m evil,” Monaghan said.

But the details of the new system trouble Monaghan as well. He pointed out, for example, that under Act 54, value-added data is only supposed to account for 50 percent of a teachers’ overall rating. But an “ineffective” rating on either the value-added side or the classroom observations will automatically lead to an overall rating of ineffective as well, meaning that in some cases either test results or observations will determine the entire outcome.

Monaghan also faults the state for deliberately calibrating the system so that 10 percent of the state’s teachers — or at least the third that teach value-added subjects — fall into the ineffective category. “You have an evaluation plan with a predetermined outcome,” he said.

Kindergarten teacher Greer Palmisano goes over workbook questions with students at George Cox Elementary School in Gretna, La., Thursday October 18, 2012. “If you have a kid that comes to school hungry,” said Palmisano, “or…we had a little girl come in this week and tell us that daddy’s in jail, which is not an uncommon occurrence, it’s really hard…If this is the day I’m being observed, and her dad’s in jail, maybe she’s not totally engaged in what I’m teaching her and maybe it’s not totally my fault. There’s a lot in their little lives that we don’t have control over.” “…This was a hard job that I chose to do because I loved it, but I felt like I had the support and respect of the community, the school board. And now it just feels like everybody wants to blame us for everything. Like the only thing wrong with education is ‘those teachers.’” (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune)

The new model’s proponents insist that their goal is not simply to fire more teachers but to provide them with meaningful feedback about their classroom methods, something they argue has been lacking in many schools.

“The way districts handle professional development with teachers — to me it’s a crime,” said Rayne Martin, a former state official who authored Louisiana’s Race to the Top application and now heads the local branch of a national advocacy group called Stand for Children. “You show up three days a year in a gym with some random topic that probably has nothing to do with what you teach, and you never hear about it again.”

Martin and other supporters say the punitive aspects of the evaluation system are overemphasized by opponents. The idea is to move teachers along the bell curve, she said, and it takes two consecutive years of ineffective ratings before anyone’s job is threatened.

“The bar is so low it’s kind of embarrassing,” she said.

Even so, no one argues that communication with teachers has been perfect, or that implementing the new evaluations has gone off without missteps.

After last year’s pilot program, state Superintendent John White, who is in charge of implementing all this as head of the state Department of Education, announced a major course correction.

First, he decided that administrators aside from principals would be able to conduct classroom observations in order to spread out the work. One sometimes-overlooked aspect of the new system is the way it redefines a school leader’s responsibilities; in the new paradigm, principals become the instructional coach rather than the disciplinarian and building manager. And in that sense, White’s decision was a nod to the extra work that principals are being asked to tackle.

Second, White scrapped the rubric the state was using to guide observations in favor of a simpler and more widely known model called the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching. So the observation guide used in classroom this year is essentially untested in Louisiana.

One obstacle that any state faces in using the value-added method is deciding how to measure progress among teachers whose subjects don’t have standardized exams. In other words, where does the other half of a gym teacher’s evaluation come from?

In large part, Louisiana is leaving this up to local educators. Teachers and their supervisors are supposed to work out goals for their students in the beginning of each school year that they can use to measure progress.

Dr. Scott Steckler talks with students in the hallway, Tuesday October 23, 2012, as state schools began complying with new Teacher Evaluation Reform policies being rolled out this year. Steckler and a handful of other schools around the state participated in a pilot program last year. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune)

A panel formed by Act 54 called the Advisory Committee on Educator Evaluation, or ACEE, made recommendations along these lines in its final report last November. For instance, “Average student performance in my vocal music class is unsatisfactory based on my initial assessment of individual performance; by the end of the year, 90 percent of students attending at least 85 percent of classes will demonstrate satisfactory achievement.”

How this is supposed to actually play out in schools hasn’t always been entirely clear, however.

In Jefferson, for instance, some principals and teachers had begun developing these types of goals on their own only to have the district impose uniform targets across the entire parish for the sake of consistency.

In an interview this week, White argued for moving ahead despite the hiccups, even as he acknowledged that the new system is still a work in progress.

“It’s going to force the managers in our schools to make hard decisions about how to retain our best teachers, and in that rare case, when someone cannot get their job done, whether to let them go,” White said. “We’re on the start of a long journey. We’re changing our standards. We’re changing our teacher development tool. And we’re going to be making adjustments as we go.”

This story also appeared in The Times-Picayune on November 17, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction is not allowed.

Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Post a Comment

Elaine Adeneaux

Can you find out about the compensation involved in the eval system? Will top teachers get more money? How?

Georgie Harris

Will retired teachers returning to work as long term subs be required to under go the evaluation?

[…] value-added models into their teacher evaluation systems. In Louisiana and Florida, two states that have made sweeping changes, the state legislatures eliminated teacher tenure and instituted systems that rely to a substantial […]

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