A failing grade for the state’s new teacher-evaluation bill

Washington Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn

Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune recently reported that federal intervention in the education of Washington students has pushed state lawmakers and top education officials to pass “more reform.” Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says the intervention of the federal government has been “phenomenal.” “I take my hat off to them.”

My hat is staying on. The new teacher evaluation law, SB 5895, passed by lawmakers last session to exempt the state from No Child Left Behind rules, is not a real reform. The federal government wants a better bill, and is requiring Supt. Dorn and lawmakers to rewrite, or else the feds will not extend the one-year waiver from No Child Left Behind rules.  

The federal government has no business telling us how to evaluate our teachers, which, by the way, is what the U.S. Constitution provides, as I discuss here.  Also, put yourself in the shoes of the typical school principal. She will now be required to fill out burdensome federal checklists to evaluate her teachers, doubling the procedural hurdles that now prevent school administrators from removing weak teachers from Washington schools.  

There are specific objections to the teacher evaluation bill passed this year, SB 5895. Here's my list:

1) Sec 1 (2)(f) allows student growth data for teacher evaluations to be based upon "measures that can include classroom-based, school-based, district-based and state-based tools."  This definition is so loose that it would allow teachers to create tests upon which their evaluations are based. Student growth data should be based on either the state tests, the Measures of Student Progress (MSP), or High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), or other objective, standardized measures. 

This section also allows student growth data elements to include a teacher’s performance “as a member of a grade-level, subject-matter or instructional team within a school when the use of this data is relevant and appropriate.” This loophole is large enough to drive a truck through. A teacher who is unable to raise student achievement can easily hide behind the teachers in his or her school who can, and districts can claim student growth data is irrelevant and inappropriate. No definitions or limits are provided.

2) Sec 1 (2)(b) provides that student growth data must be a substantial factor in at least three of the eight evaluation criteria.  Assuming that “substantial factor” means 50 percent, this means that only 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be based upon student learning.  The figure 20 percent is derived by multiplying 50 percent by 3 by 8, which is actually 18 percent, but rounded up to 20 percent. The bill does not define the words “substantial factor,” so districts are allowed to come up with their own definition, and thereby reduce the proportion of a teacher’s evaluation based on student learning to even less than 20 percent. 

By contrast, fourteen states have required 50 percent of their teachers' evaluations to be based on student-achievement growth, as measured by the standardized state test. 

3) Sec. 1 (8), requires evaluation results be used in making layoff and assignment decisions,  but “nothing in this section limits the ability to collectively bargain how the multiple factors shall be used in making human resource or personnel decision, with the exception that evaluation results must be a factor.”  This provision protects seniority and “last-in-first-out” rules.

4) Sec. 1 (4)(c)requires the school district to implement discharge procedures for a teacher with five or more  years experience who receives a rating below level 2 for two consecutive years.  Implementing discharge procedures is not the same as firing a low-performing teacher.  The dismissal procedures under RCW 28A.405.300 are so onerous and costly that districts avoid them and will continue to do all they can to avoid them.  Districts say this process costs $200,000-$250,000 per teacher. 

5) In 2010 the legislature passed SB 6696, the Governor’s Race to the Top bill.  This bill, though it caused Washington state to lose the Race, did delay by one year, from two years to three, the automatic grant of tenure (lifetime job security) to young teachers.  SB 5895 reverses that step forward, by providing in Sec. 7 (1) (b) that a young teacher can get tenure if he gets one of the top two evaluation ratings in his second year of teaching. 

I would take my hat off to lawmakers who recognize that telling school principals how to evaluate their teachers will not work, no matter how you rewrite SB 5895. You can understand this point by looking at the results from federal intervention in the evaluation of Tennessee teachers.

This story originally appeared on the Washington Policy Center blog and is reprinted with permission.

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