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Teacher Evaluations: Making the Grade?

Maine teachers wait to testify on teacher evaluation legislation changes.

Educators listen to testimony during a recent hearing with representatives from the DOE concerning teacher evaluations.

Facing a massive change in how teachers are evaluated in Maine, nearly two dozen educators testified before representatives from the Department of Education in Augusta. The hearing took place at the end of January to allow for educators to voice their concerns surrounding the teacher evaluation process set to be implemented in every district by the 2015-16 school year.

Kate Sheldon, a teacher in Kittery set the tone telling the DOE: “For some reason, it has become fashionable to put down, micromanage, and insult teachers. In fact, our own Governor is leading the charge in this respect, calling our students “not smart” and rating them at the bottom of the scale in the U.S.  At our school, Mr. Lepage’s behavior would be classified as bullying and he would be sent to the principal’s office.”

Sheldon, and nearly every other person who testified went on to express concerns with the evaluation process as proposed, with much of the discussion surrounding the piece which requires 25% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student test scores. The Maine Education Association recommends standardized test scores count for no more than 10% of the summative evaluation.

"As teachers, we are asking to be evaluated on our performance, not our students,” said Sheldon. "There are so many factors that affect student achievement that are outside our control. There is also no fair way to gauge which specific teacher deserves the credit for gains, or the punishment for falling behind."

Dick Durost, the Executive Director of the Maine Principals’ Association told the DOE representatives, which included Deborah Friedman who helped draft the rules, “we cannot find a single study where student achievement has been increased by evaluation systems that include student test data as a large percentage of the rating. Rather, research is showing that it is the changing of instructional practices that make the difference.”  Durost also participates in the discussions of the Maine Educator Effectiveness Council (MEEC), created to recommend standards for implementing a system of evaluation and support of teachers and principals.  As part of MEEC, Durost told the DOE that “several members of MEEC as well as those of us who have observed their numerous meetings still feel ill-prepared and in need of much more research, professional development and piloting before full implementation.”

In addition to the question of how the evaluation will measure teachers’ success, teacher and President of the Maine Education Association Lois Kilby-Chesley questioned who will pay for the evaluation process. MEA estimates the start-up costs to run $20 million in the first-year and $10 million a year to cover training, time and paperwork to evaluate teachers statewide every year.  The Governor’s biennial budget only allots $2.5 million in funding to pay for the evaluation process making it in essence, an unfunded mandate.

Among those who testified were specialty teachers…those who teach things like art, physical education and special education.  Jill Watson who is a special education teacher at Maranacook Community High School told the DOE staffers the ‘one size fits all’ evaluation model doesn’t work.  Watson says the evaluation rules need to be further explored because “with having special education kids, my test scores are very low and I do worry about that in my evaluation.”

While Deborah Friedman didn’t ask many questions of the educators during the hearing, she did speak with the media before it started.  Several reporters asked about the 25% mandate in the rules.  While Friedman refused to answer reporters when asked if 25% was a good number to work from, she acknowledged it will be an issue when the rules are reviewed saying "this rule has to go before the legislative committee for approval before we can finally adopt it…so we expect some additional conversation in the legislative process."

If the rules don’t change after input from educators, the MEA will work with lawmakers to educate them on the process and the reality of what the rules mean for teachers in the classroom.

The "likelihood of creating a system that only paves the way for carte blanche nonrenewal of teachers is a very real possibility," said Kilby-Chesley.  "The system should be designed to primarily offer opportunities for improvement and, secondarily, provide a mechanism for removal of ineffective teachers and principals and that is what we will work toward."

Any changes to the rules are expected by the end of the month.  Again, the Legislature must review and approve the rules before the DOE can adopt them as a whole.

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