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MANATEE, Fla.—About 70 percent of Principal Doug DuPouy’s teachers at Orange Ridge/Bullock Elementary School spent an entire year in the classroom without being formally observed by an administrator.

Now, that’s changed.

Starting this year, DuPouy or Assistant Principal Greg Sanders, will formally observe each teacher in his or her classroom at least once a year, all as part of Manatee County School District’s revamped teacher-evaluation system.

Teacher evaluations

This story is part of a series by The Hechinger Report and newspapers in Florida. Stories have appeared in both the Miami Herald and Bradenton Herald. You can read the entire package on our site.

You can also read our award-winning series from 2010 in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that took an in-depth look at teacher quality and effectiveness.

As they watch, the administrators will fill out worksheets, scoring teachers on things like classroom management and teaching strategies. They’ll also rate instructors on how well they accomplish two goals set at the beginning of the year, such as working to make sure students have a better understanding of a specific math standard.

In the first three years of their careers, teachers will be observed twice a year. Those with more experience will be observed once annually in formal, pre-announced classroom visits. Administrators also will perform two 7- to 10-minute walk-throughs of each classroom, where they drop by without warning.

By 2014, the evaluation scores will influence district personnel decisions, from how much teachers earn to who gets let go.

District and union officials are lauding the new system as a huge step forward, but it hasn’t been universally embraced by teachers.

“Almost everyone is concerned about the process itself,” Roz Steward, a first grade teacher at Bradenton’s Miller Elementary School, said referring to the evaluation process.

As a result of recent legislation, all Florida school districts will have to redo their evaluation systems by 2014, basing 50 percent of each teacher’s evaluation on a complex value-added formula that looks at students’ standardized test scores. Districts will decide individually on the components for the other 50 percent of their evaluation scores. For now, Manatee County will keep its current evaluation system, which allows district officials to tweak the program as they go along.

Teacher-evaluation systems are being refined throughout the country and the stakes attached to them are rising. In Tennessee — the first state to roll out a new evaluation system paid for in part by Race to the Top funds — changes have been criticized by teachers. Many there have opted for early retirement rather than be evaluated under the new system.

Principal DuPouy, who served on the district committee to overhaul the evaluation system, sees the changes as largely positive. “It’s a chance for us to give (teachers) feedback,” he said. “That’s very valuable for teachers. Better teaching is going to lead to better student achievement.”

Teacher-evaluation systems have come under scrutiny across the nation, in part because of “The Widget Effect,” a 2009 report by The New Teacher Project that found less than 1 percent of teachers received “unsatisfactory” ratings in the 12 districts studied.

The report’s authors concluded that in most U.S. school districts, “excellent teachers cannot be recognized or rewarded, chronically low-performing teachers languish, and the wide majority of teachers performing at moderate levels do not get the differentiated support and development they need to improve as professionals.”

At the same time, there’s a growing consensus that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor in student achievement. Unions and reformers also now generally agree that new evaluation systems should be based on multiple measures of a teacher’s performances — not just student test scores or “drive-by” observation of his or her classroom.

In the past, Manatee County teachers were evaluated once a year up to their third year and only on two professional development goals. The district has opted each year not to renew the contracts of 50 teachers, or just about 1 percent of its teacher force, based on performance, estimated Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

That may change going forward. Under the new state-mandated system any teacher rated as unsatisfactory for two consecutive years — or in need of improvement for three years in a row — will be fired. Teachers who land in the other two categories, effective and highly effective, will get salary bumps.

Steward, who also served on the district committee to create the new system, said teachers are mostly coming to her seeking clarity about the process involved in the new evaluation system.

“Teachers are just working their way into getting comfortable with the observations,” Steward said. “Seasoned teachers have not had that experience for a while.”

Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, recommends several observations throughout the school year as a way to lessen anxiety and build a more reliable picture of a teacher’s performance.

“If you only do one observation, you’re putting an awful lot of pressure on that interaction to be done well,” he said. “I think very few districts will go in that direction because to see a teacher perform one lesson out of 180 days of school … is a small snapshot. You’re extrapolating quite a lot from that.”

Kathy Hebda, deputy chancellor in the Florida Department of Education, echoed that sentiment. Although she said she recognized that in some cases it could take years to change current evaluation systems, one classroom observation “is not enough ultimately.”

Patricia Dillman, assistant principal at Haile Middle School who also serves on the district committee that overhauled the evaluation system, stressed that the new requirements were just minimums. At her school, the administration hopes to be able to do multiple observations of all teachers each year.

Still, it comes down to issues of time and money. With the help of a grant, Manatee’s neighbor to the north, Hillsborough County, is reworking its evaluation system to include multiple observations by different educators, including principals and other teachers.

“We would love to be able to do something like that,” McGonegal said. “But the district doesn’t have the money to fund more evaluators.”

A version of this story appeared in the Bradenton Herald on October 23, 2011.

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