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Friday, February 10, 2012

Will teachers make the grade?

SALISBURY -- With no model from the state or federal government, local school systems are continuing to develop a new system for evaluating teachers' effectiveness on their own.
The new accountability system is expected to be piloted next year for some staff members and fully in place for all 24 Maryland school districts by the 2013-14 school year. The change comes as part of the broad school reforms associated with Race to the Top and the Education Reform Act of 2010.
One requirement of the new evaluations calls for 50 percent of teacher evaluations to be based on "student learning and growth" and is considered one of the most challenging parts of the new policy.
"Everyone is aware of it," President of the Wicomico County Education Association Dave White said referring to teachers. "We are all very concerned. Anytime you have something new of this size out there, everyone is concerned."
While seven districts (none on the Lower Shore) are piloting the new evaluation system this year, school officials said the pilots were only being used with a limited number of teachers in each pilot district. And, White said, it was his understanding that the pilot systems haven't been incorporating the student growth portion of the evaluation.
One of the things that makes that portion so difficult to figure out is determining how to fairly measure student growth in subjects like art and music which don't have the type of standardized tests that already exist for reading and math.
"Right now, we are gathering info from teachers in music, art, physical education, science, special ed -- all of those. We've asked them what they were doing right now to measure student growth, and compiled those things" White said.
When the central office begins developing the student growth evaluation tools, White said they will present that compiled information to help develop a consistent method for evaluating growth.
"Our committee will consider several options for teachers in nontested areas, such as portfolios," Gaddis said of Worcester's work in that area. "This issue, however, weighs heavy on the committee members' minds because we are determined to develop a system that is equitable for all educators. We want to create an evaluation system that assures continued excellence."
While no clear alternative has been presented, officials have expressed worries that using teacher-generated and -graded material could present a conflict of interest.
Within the student growth portion, a certain percentage would have to come from some sort of testing.
"Thirty percent of student growth must be determined by student performance on state-mandated (or state-approved) testing, while 20 percent will be based on other quantitative measures, such as county-administered benchmarks," said John Gaddis, assistant superintendent for instruction with Worcester County public schools. "Currently, our advisory committee is determining appropriate quantitative indicators."
While the teacher evaluation framework is technically based on 50 percent student growth and 50 percent "teacher skills and knowledge," officials said that balance won't really exist when the new system is rolled out.
School officials said the "skills and knowledge" half of the teacher evaluations will remain very similar to current evaluation methods -- such as observations and conferences -- though they noted the way observations would be conducted would have to change to conform with new regulations.
"Both halves, however, are not equal," Gaddis said. "We have been told by the state that student performance will carry more weight, trumping the qualitative measures category. How much more weight student performance will have on a teacher's evaluation is not yet clear."
Ahead of Maryland in their schedule for development of similar evaluations, Delaware is also struggling to develop the new systems in time.
With lower funding levels in many districts, officials said it is no wonder there is so much uncertainty surrounding the new evaluations.
Coinciding with an economic downturn and the move toward a new set of curriculum standards and student evaluations, White said the last two years have seen an unprecedented number of changes.
"My biggest concern is that we go into it too quickly and do things not right for students teachers and school system," White said.
With a May 1 deadline to develop the necessary frameworks for the evaluation, Lower Shore school officials said they would need to begin professional development on the new systems by this summer. While districts have received Race to the Top grants to help cover training, Gaddis said that won't likely cover the costs.
"We're doing our very best to sort out the information we've been given and are trying to utilize every resource we can," White said. "The good thing is that the Board of Education understands the difficulties. The only way we're going to get through this is by working together to develop the best evaluation tool. And that is what we're trying to do."

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