Maine teachers don’t want student achievement to play big part in their evaluations

Posted Jan. 28, 2013, at 5:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2013, at 7:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Representatives of public school teachers and administrators told the Maine Department of Education on Monday that they don’t want standardized tests to play too great a role in determining whether they’re doing a good job.

Some argued that standardized tests fail to measure student progress adequately so they would be even worse as a test of teachers’ skills.

“It would be like playing baseball with football rules,” said Leo Todd, who teaches music to more than 500 students at Waterboro Elementary School.

Todd and more than 20 other educators shared their concerns during a hearing Monday on the Department of Education’s proposed rules for implementing an educator evaluation process that will be required by law as of the 2015-16 school year. The law, LD 1858, was proposed by Gov. Paul LePage and enacted with unanimous support of the Legislature in 2012. It requires school districts to develop and implement systems for evaluating teachers and principals based on professional practice, student achievement growth and other measures.

The major bone of contention for educators, including representatives of the Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals Association and the Maine School Management Association, is the degree to which student achievement is included in an educator’s evaluation. Driving that concern are questions about how to measure student learning and growth.

The Maine Department of Education, in rules proposed for public schools, wants 25 percent of a teacher’s overall rating to derive from student achievement. That’s more than double the 10 percent favored by some members of the Maine Educator Effectiveness Council, a 16-member panel created by the Legislature to develop the program. Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the council never reached consensus on the issue.

“Every teacher and principal deserves clear expectations and a fair evaluation process that rewards effectiveness and supports teachers in constantly improving,” LePage said previously in a news release. “In private business, we call that professional development. Teachers deserve that as much as workers in private industry.”

But teachers who testified at Monday’s hearing on the Department of Education’s proposed rules questioned their clarity and effectiveness. Few disagreed with the concept of professional evaluations, but speaker after speaker pointed out to Deborah Friedman, director of policy and programs for the Maine Department of Education, what they see as flaws in the proposed rules and how they would be implemented.

In seven pages of comments on the proposed rules, Kilby-Chesley argued Monday that any evaluation system should emphasize “professional reflection and growth,” while expressing concerns that failing to do so would create “carte blanche for nonrenewal of teachers.”

Kevin O’Shaughnessy, a social studies teacher at Wells High School, elaborated on that concern during testimony Monday. He told Friedman that educators dismissed because of poor evaluations would “not just be out of a job, they will be out of a career.” Among his suggestions, which built upon Kilby-Chesley’s, were to include more teachers on evaluation steering committees to ensure that they fairly reflect developmental and subject-area expertise.

O’Shaughnessy drew attention to the “political context of the law.” He listed a number of LePage’s criticisms of Maine’s public schools, then accused the governor of “waging a war on logic.” He also argued that greater reliance on standardized testing would open Maine to private testing companies that would “repeat the mistakes of No Child Left Behind.”

At least one other teacher questioned whether the educator evaluation rules represent part of an effort by LePage to privatize education in Maine.

Other speakers argued that the department’s proposed performance evaluation rules would not fairly measure the work of special education, art and music teachers, as well as media specialists, guidance counselors, occupational therapists and others whose work takes place outside regular classrooms.

Groups representing administrators also voiced concerns. Sandra MacArthur, deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, suggested lowering the portion of an educator’s evaluation based on student learning or growth measures to 15 percent, which could be adjusted “after we get several years of experience with the new system.”

Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, asked if the state would provide money, time and logistical support to help school systems implement performance evaluations. He also noted that his organization has not found any research to demonstrate that educator evaluations improve student achievement.

At least 37 states are developing teacher evaluation systems, many of them to meet requirements under a waiver process introduced by the Obama administration to refocus the No Child Left Behind Act and a grant program called Race to the Top.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Department of Education, previously told the Bangor Daily News that the department’s review of other states’ evaluation systems showed them using student performance for at least 25 percent of educator evaluations.

“This could work if it was well-funded, people were trained and given enough time to implement it,” Paul Hambleton, deputy executive director of the MEA, said after the hearing. He suggested that instead of standardized tests, individual student growth be used to measure educators’ effectiveness.

“Standardized tests compare students over a fairly narrow domain of learning,” he said. “If you take that to measure teacher performance, you’re using something that wasn’t meant to do that.”

Friedman kept the four-hour hearing open until 6 p.m. to allow teachers arriving after school to testify. The last person to testify, John Soifer, a special education teacher at Skowhegan Area High School and member of the Maine Educator Effectiveness Council, urged a delay in implementing the evaluation rules, arguing that the rules proposed by the Department of Education do not reflect a consensus of the council.

“The appropriate recommendation to DOE would have been to request a delay in implementation rather than pushing ahead with an incomplete and faulty evaluation system,” Soifer said, after listing concerns about costs that would put poorer districts at a disadvantage, the proposed rules’ emphasis on punitive measures, and mandates to create local systems that he said would undermine the goal of statewide reform.

Jaci Holmes of the Maine Department of Education said the department will respond to comments and recommendations from Monday’s hearing and to submitted written comments. They will be reviewed by the attorney general’s office and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. The proposed rules, reflecting any revisions, will go to the Legislature’s Education Committee for work sessions and hearings.

As co-chairmen of the Maine Educator Effectiveness Council, Bowen and Grace Leavitt, vice president of the MEA, will present an interim report on the council’s recommendations to the Education Committee on Wednesday.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story listed the wrong number for the law passed for teacher evaluations. The measure was LD 1858, not LD 1585.

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