Pennsylvania considers revamping assessments of educators

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

School administrators gave 99.4 percent of all Pennsylvania teachers "satisfactory" ratings during the 2009-10 school year, the latest data available from the state Department of Education show.

But, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality: "That kind of teacher evaluation system tells you almost nothing."

The state's teacher evaluations "give no consideration to teacher effectiveness and include no objective measures of student performance," Jacobs said.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan council, partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recently gave Pennsylvania an overall grade of D+ for progress on policies to support and measure teacher effectiveness and an F for efforts to rid schools of ineffective teachers.

That could change. State education officials are trying to convince legislators to change the Pennsylvania school code to allow for more comprehensive teacher evaluations, a move teachers unions tentatively support.

Districts across the nation increasingly are weakening or dismantling tenure for teachers, partly because of the government's promotion of performance-based school and teacher evaluations and expanded merit pay. In Pennsylvania, teachers with satisfactory performance automatically earn tenure after three years.

"Teacher evaluation should not be based on a single test score," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Keever said many people incorrectly perceive tenure as job protection. "Tenure does not protect bad teachers. It protects good teachers from politically motivated firing," he said.

This school year in Pennsylvania, about 100 districts signed onto a pilot teacher evaluation program that considers student performance as part of a teacher's evaluation. The Gates Foundation is funding the $769,000 project. The foundation advocates evaluating teachers through test scores, classroom observations, teacher knowledge and student surveys.

The current system provides no useful feedback to help educators improve, Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis told the legislature in November. The new system would establish a four-tiered evaluation: distinguished, proficient, needs improvement and failing.

"Better evaluations are not something that is done to teachers but with teachers," said Jeannine French, chief of school performance for Pittsburgh Public Schools, which is participating in the pilot program. The district began changing its teacher evaluations in 2008; it received a $40 million Gates Foundation grant.

The state Education Department found that one in four students is not proficient in reading and one in three is not proficient in math.

Elizabeth Forward School District enrolled in the pilot program because "we want to be at the forefront, to keep up-to-date with the state and the rest of the country," said Superintendent Bart Rocco. But he wonders how a single statewide evaluation system could be made fair.

"If we are using one test only to evaluate teachers, that would be quite unfair because socio-economic equity is so varied across this state," said Rocco, a former English teacher and high school principal.

Jacobs said the evaluation system takes such variables into account.

Unlike Pennsylvania, about half of all states require including classroom effectiveness in teacher evaluations. Policies in Florida, Indiana and Michigan require teacher performance to be a factor in teachers' salaries.

The Urban Pathways Charter School, whose staff members are at-will employees, enrolled in the pilot evaluation program.

"Our teachers do not have tenure. Neither do I," said Lorraine Clemons, principal of the Downtown school. "If teachers are not helping students to grow, they should be doing something else."

Additional Information:

Pennsylvania teachers

The average teacher in Pennsylvania:

• Has been on the job 14 years

• Earns $60,000 annually

• Ranks among the 12th highest-paid teachers in the nation

Source: Pennsylvania State Education Association

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