CLEARWATER — Teacher evaluations are here to stay. But that may not mean Pinellas County teachers’ performance will be measured by a complicated and controversial state formula.
Brian Dassler, deputy chancellor for educator quality for the Florida Department of Education, sat in on a recent Pinellas School Board workshop about the school district’s own evaluation initiative.
The pilot program at five schools uses student, teacher and administrator surveys to give teachers feedback on their strengths and shortcomings before evaluation time. It’s an idea Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego hopes could “eliminate or improve the concept of VAM” — the state’s “value-added model” that bases evaluations largely on students’ scores and improvement on the FCAT, as well as statewide comparisons with students from similar demographics.
The pilot schools will continue using the “Pinellas Project” teacher evaluations next school year, and the state education department will ultimately decide whether it can be used at other schools.
“This is really pioneering kind of work that shows teachers the respect they deserve,” Dassler said at the school board’s workshop April 1. “You have in so many ways made an anchor here that it’s not ‘if’ student achievement can drive teacher effectiveness, but ‘how.’ It’s one of the reasons we’re so interested in what you’re doing and how we can be a part of it.”
It’s also why the state granted a waiver to exempt the five schools from using the VAM model. Teachers at Westgate Elementary, 74th Street Elementary and Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg, along with Gulfport Elementary and Boca Ciega High, are being evaluated with the system created by the district and Learning Sciences International, an educational research and performance development company. Surveys are given to the teachers for self-evaluation, to administrators and to students in fourth grade and up after the first semester. The teachers receive results in time to make improvements for the second semester and the end-of-course tests that measure what student’s learned. Those tests and administrator observations create evaluation scores, which are tied to teacher pay.
If the score is lower than what a teacher would have scored with the VAM, the Department of Education gave permission to use the higher score.
Test data still plays a role in the evaluation process. But instead of standardized tests, such as the FCAT, it’s classroom observations and pre- and post-semester tests that provide specific feedback on what students learned from an individual instructor and a “student growth score.” The results also will be available quickly instead of months after the school year is finished.
“We’re inventing something that, to my knowledge, never existed before,” Learning Sciences International founder and CEO Michael Toth said. “This provides a clarity teachers haven’t had before, and the self-assessments mirrored the administrators’ observations, which means they really mirrored what was actually happening in the classroom. ... It’s not an autopsy we get afterward to see why our instruction didn’t work.”
There are still bugs to be worked out, but over time the process can shed light on how schools operate as a whole, Toth said.
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County school district is entering the third year of its own teacher evaluation and merit pay system, created with the help of a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said schools spokesman Steve Hegarty. Hillsborough teachers are evaluated with a mix of VAM scores calculated with end-of-course evaluations, principal observations and peer evaluations from a teacher in the same field. Mentors also help new teachers adjust to their roles and boost their evaluations. Several school districts adopted plans that mirror Hillsborough’s model, Hegarty said.
Training teachers continually will be key to the pilot program’s success, said Westgate Principal Donita Moody, especially as schools deal with staff turnover and teachers try to amend their practices before they are appraised at the end of the year. Teachers received seven days of training in anticipation of the new evaluation system last summer that also ties in with the rigorous new Florida Academic Standards. Online resources and monthly workshops will be continually available for teachers, said Lisa Grant, director of exceptional student education. That’s an important component of the training, Toth said, especially because student performance in New York schools dropped anywhere from 30 to 50 percent when it adopted similar standards.
“This has had a really positive impact at Westgate,” Moody said. “It was so important and helpful to talk about data right then and there, and not have to wait until the summer, and we can definitely see a difference in the rigor and the students.”