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Florida teachers
School teacher Lynn Bryan teaches language arts at Ponce de Leon Middle School.

At an annual training over the summer, Hialeah Senior High School writing teacher Kathy Pham and her colleagues heard what seemed like basic advice from the United Teachers of Dade: Make sure your principal observes you in the classroom this year. And if you have questions, schedule an appointment.

The stakes for teacher evaluations in Miami-Dade are rising, with questions about how evaluations can impact teachers’ pay and decisions about who could be fired.

Under a new Florida law, a data-driven formula—which calculates “value-added” scores for teachers based on their students’ standardized test results—will count for 50 percent of their ratings. Districts will decide individually what counts for the other 50 percent.

Miami-Dade will keep roughly the same structure it previously had, basing a teacher’s grade on one classroom observation by a principal or assistant principal who looks at criteria that include instructional planning and communication.

Critics question how meaningful feedback can be if it is based on a single observation.

Joshua Williams, a science teacher at Somerset Academy described the comments he has received on principal evaluations as “extremely vague.” They might include things like “teacher redirects student behavior,” without expanding on how or whether it was done effectively, he said.

“There has to be something else and some ways to evaluate excellent teachers from ineffective teachers,” he said. “There seems to be no differentiation for what best practices are versus being a warm body in the room.”

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.

Unions and reformers now generally agree that new evaluation systems should be based on multiple measures of a teacher’s performance—not just student test-scores or one “drive-by” observation of his or her classroom.

Enid Weisman, Miami-Dade’s assistant superintendent for human resources and performance management, said probationary teachers receive two classroom visits each year and noted the current rule doesn’t limit the number of observations that a principal can conduct.

“You can observe a teacher as many times as you want. There’s nothing that prohibits it, if you go in and you don’t like what you see—or if you like what you see, you can go and observe many more times,” she said.

Yet despite district requirements that all teachers be observed once a year as part of their annual evaluation, that doesn’t always happen. “In the past, often times teachers don’t get observed,” Pham said, speaking generally. It’s a complaint that has been heard around the country, and in the past, it wasn’t unheard of for overworked principals to fill out evaluations without having visited every teacher’s classroom.

Miami-Dade eliminated the goal-setting component of its evaluation—in which teachers work with principals to establish professional goals—this year to make room for test scores, a move that some teachers criticized as a step backward.

“To me, [goal setting] is a way you can do things in a more accurate manner,” Pham said. “It shows some respect for the teacher. At least it is somewhat based on your own professionalism.”

Pham, a National Board certified teacher, favors an evaluation system that includes peer review—for instance, having a colleague review her students’ writing portfolios—and documenting one’s practice throughout the year.

“I love the concept of peer assistance and review … to help teachers along the way,” she said. “Sometimes you help them [leave] the profession because they’re not helping kids.”

This story also appeared in the Miami Herald on Nov. 6, 2011.

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  1. The second worse thing about the law is that the value-added model dies not account for poverty and it virtually guarantees that the best teachers will leave the poorest schools. The worst thing is that it is collective punishment. How can the government take the property right of a calculus teacher based on the actions of reading teachers while claiming that this is evidence regarding the calculus teachers contribution to learning? How can this be legal? How could courts possibly see Florida’s claims as credible? I don’t care what your educational position is. Every person should condemn this travesty.

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