By Jenny Neyman
A controversial move by the Alaska State Board of Education on Friday to incorporate student performance into teachers’ job evaluations has educators bristling at what feels to them to be an attempt to fit unstandardizable qualities into a standardized system of evaluation.
There are many influences on how a student performs that are out of a teacher’s control — home life, health, whether they got a good night’s sleep, whether they ate a good breakfast, etc. Evaluating a teacher’s performance in part based on how students perform on standardized testing is unfair, said Wayne Floyd, a 30-plus-year teacher at Nikiski North Star Elementary, and one of more than 900 people who submitted comments on the state school board proposal.
“The student population is a moving target that’s never the same from year to year. It’s not something that can be predicted, just based on the dynamics of each year’s class. One year you can have a huge overload of kids with learning issues and need for support shadows, or kids with abuse at home, and all that comes to school with them. And the problem is noneducators are treating the education system like it’s a factory where you put standardized products into the factory and out the other end pops a high-quality product,” he said.
“In teaching you only have them for six hours out of a 24-hour day. You’re supposed to be making the biggest impact on them, when actually the biggest impact is outside of your environment. Let’s say you’re a dentist and the amount of money you can collect from the dental process is based on the success of clients not having cavities. This is like grading a dentist on how much candy a kid eats and cavities they have,” Floyd said.
The new rule stipulates that by the 2015-16 school year, 20 percent of a teacher’s assessment will be based on student performance, increasing to 50 percent of the evaluation by 2018-19. Districts can use four ways to measure student performance in evaluating its teachers, but one must be a statewide standardized test.
The standardized test piece is particularly worrisome, given debate over the accuracy of gauging student performance through that approach.
“Research has shown that written tests only measure a certain percentage. Maybe about 40 percent of the student population can be measured accurately that way. There are other things that need to come into play addressing the other areas of learning. Now you’re running into huge variability and opinions. That’s the problem with humanities — they’ve tried to make it scientific for years and there’s always that human element that throws science out of the window at times,” Floyd said.
Floyd is not opposed to the idea of holding teachers accountable for the achievement of their students, but wants to see it done in a way that is reasonable and takes into account the reality that student performance hinges on more than just teacher effectiveness.
“It’s fine that we’re pushing for improvements but it needs to be fair. I think the biggest problem we have here is people on both sides agree that student achievement needs to be included, but there’s a disagreement on how to handle it. If it’s going to be a fair system it needs to be based on factors that are predictable and measurable, and in most cases that’s not going to happen year after year,” Floyd said.
LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, testified in opposition of the proposal to the state board of education in Anchorage.
“It will be very frustrating to people because of that whole conversation that there are so many things outside of a teacher’s control that influence their student’s performance ability, and we all know that. And yet, somehow, we’re going to have to figure out how to control for that at some point,” she said.
Beyond that, Druce also is concerned that new teachers will be unfairly evaluated in the new state system. The state model calls for ranking teachers as either unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or exemplary in eight areas of performance, with student learning now being a new, ninth standard.
“Their regs say if you have a basic rating on any of the standards — any nine now — your overall evaluation will not be deemed as proficient. Their terms makes unsatisfactory synonymous with basic,” she said.
New teachers shouldn’t be expected to rate above basic until they’ve had a few years under their feet, Druce said. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District revamped its teacher evaluation system about three years ago to incorporate Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching” model, whereby teachers are rated unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or exemplary in four areas — planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities.
The research backing the Danielson model indicates that a teacher shouldn’t be expected to hit the proficient level until about five years in, Druce said.
“(Five years) is more or less when most of us felt like we got it,” Druce said. “When you look at the work of Charlotte Danielson, basic is OK for new-to-the-profession teachers. You have to learn. It’s a growth model. You have to learn to be a good teacher. You work at it. You don’t just arrive there in your first year.”
Floyd also endorsed the KPBSD model, saying it has already demonstrated an impact on the quality of teaching in the district. Druce said that, as a 30-year teacher, Floyd should be expected to perform at a higher level than a first-year educator, but the state standard doesn’t seem to allow for that growth in new teachers.
“We do recognize teachers have to be more than basic, but they don’t have to be more than basic if they’re just starting out and learning. The state is basically saying, ‘No, everyone has to be proficient right off the bat.’ That’s not a growth model,” she said.
Druce said she is frustrated with how the decision came about. The proposal went out to public comment first with the figure that 20 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on student performance data. A newly revised proposal came out at the beginning of last week which incorporated Gov. Sean Parnell’s request that the percentage be raised to 50. The proposal with that revision didn’t go back through the public comment period and the change wasn’t well noticed, Druce said.
“It’s just very frustrating to know that they had that many people comment and to know that they changed it again at the last minute without giving public notice of it. I think that’s a big concern for a lot of people that they’re not going to let people weigh in on it after it changed from 20 percent up to 50 percent. The process of that was discouraging,” she said.
KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater also testified to the state board of education but had a more moderate take on the change. KPBSD has already been heading in the direction the new state regs are going, so it’s more a matter of aligning the district’s progress to the state’s direction, rather than inventing a whole new wheel.
With the Danielson model, KPBSD already uses a four-tier rating system to evaluate teachers in the four areas — planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities. With the change at the state level, KPBSD will now need to add student performance as an additional area of evaluation, but the district has already been working toward doing that, Atwater said.
“We’re actually in really good shape that way, and the state looks to us as being the leader,” Atwater said. “Inside of the regs are the criteria that a teacher is either unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or exemplary, and those already exist for us. We’ve got that piece in place. What we don’t have in place is the student learning component and we have started working on that. There’s a committee of teachers and administrators who have started to explore how to do that.”
The state regulation stipulates that a district can choose among four ways to measure student achievement. One must be standardized statewide, but each district can determine the other three.
“The big thing is three out of the four can be internal, so there is some leeway there as far as what we can use to demonstrate student learning, and the challenge for us is getting up to speed so that we are internally standardized to be able to use internal measurement for that purpose,” Atwater said.
As part of its curriculum development process the district is building quarterly assessments into each subject area. For instance, in writing, students will write on a prompt at the beginning of a quarter, and again at the end of a quarter. The amount of progress shown on those assessments could be used in teacher evaluations.
And the assessments don’t have to be paper-and-pencil tests, in the traditional sense. It could be that students give a presentation to show proficiency of what they’ve been learning, or successfully conduct a science experiment, or be able to run a certain distance in a certain time frame. The goal is that the assessments fit in with the curriculum as it’s being taught. At the same time, the curriculum is being designed to meet standards outside of just the district.
“We want to make it local because and then it’s more palatable if you can really tailor it to what you’re doing. Obviously it’s driven by the state standards, but we want it to be seen as part of what you’re doing in curriculum, rather than a separate event where the kids walk down the hall to take a test,” Atwater said.
This is the first time the district has built quarterly assessments into the curriculum and that process takes time. The committee leading the effort started out last year tackling one content area a year.
“But now you have to have these in place for 2015-16, which means we will have to devote a lot of time and energy to every content area,” he said.
Atwater asked the state board that the student performance piece of teacher evaluations be held at 20 percent for three years before moving to 50 percent. Instead, the board held at 20 percent for only two years. Atwater also requested that the state provide financial support to districts in order to make this change. So far, there is no fiscal note attached to the regulation revision.
“When I testified to the state board I said that there has to be financial support for districts to do this, because we’re going to have to hire teachers during the summer and outside of their contracts to do committee work to make this all come together,” he said.
Druce also requests state support to come up with assessments that will be incorporated into curriculum on which student progress can be measured, and teachers then evaluated.
“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, to do it right,” Druce said.
Atwater was less bothered by the mechanism linking teacher evaluations to student performance via a standardized test, since each district can determine the other three assessment methods on which to evaluate teachers.
“The initial fear that this move to student learning data would be based on a standardized test is very real, but it’s also not nearly what people might think it is. It will be part of it, but if at the very end it’s 50 percent of their evaluation, the (standardized test piece) will only be 12.5 percent (of the entire evaluation) and the three internal pieces will be the other 37.5 percent,” Atwater said.
He said he didn’t want to diminish the understanding that there are variables that affect student learning over which teachers don’t have control, but he is generally in agreement with the idea of linking student performance with teacher performance.
“Philosophically, as far as how do we feel about incorporating student learning data, I’ve always felt that it’s important that the district is accountable for its use of public funds, and certainly the inclusion of student learning is a part of that. With that said, it has to be based on growth,” Atwater said.