Education Committee Hears from Supporters, Critics of New Teacher Evaluation System

Teachers are being put into numerical categories ranging from 1 to 5 in the formal grading system under the state’s new teacher evaluation program.

A 5 is the best and hard to achieve, and there’s considerable disagreement over whether a rating of 3 should be considered a “rock solid” teacher or not.

But on a scale of 1 to 5, if 5 is the highest, the level of debate over the new evaluation system has been a rock solid 5.

The House Education Committee listened to several witnesses about teacher evaluations on Wednesday, as well as opinions from educators expressed through legislators. The presence of some support for the new system overall was clear, but the meeting was also a venue for venting frustrations about the evaluations.

Some opinions seemed consistent: Teachers generally don’t mind being evaluated, but the first-year system has proved overly time-consuming to many of them, and there is especially concern about teachers being evaluated when measurable data doesn’t exist for their specific jobs.

The issue now is that what some see as a flawed evaluation process is tied to a teacher tenure system that was revamped in the last legislative session.

While lawmakers heard a lot about coping with a difficult system, there was little to suggest actual legislation might result from the hearing.

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the committee, said after the meeting that one streamlining step in the observation of teachers that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman proposed this week is a step in the right direction.

“As someone said in here today, that took about 30 percent of the work away from them,” Montgomery said. “So that’s an example of him listening and him changing what’s out there.

“We’ve got to use this as a learning year.”

The application of numbers in evaluating teachers gained attention in the hearing.

Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, a teacher at Bolton High School, noted early in the proceedings that there has been “a lot of controversy about what a 3 is, what a 4 is, what a 5 is. We keep hearing the term ‘rock solid 3’ as a teacher, 4 is exceptional and we’ve had a 5 when we need to give you a million dollars and invite you back every year to teach our children.”

That set the stage for exchanges throughout the day that dealt with numbers 1-5 and several uses of the term “rock solid.”

Under the new evaluation system, which includes subjective observations of teachers, the teachers receive final scores that put them into one of five grades: significantly below expectations; below expectations; at expectations; above expectations; or significantly above expectations.

Under the new law on tenure, teachers can attain tenure when they have taught for five years under the same local education agency and have rated in the top two categories — above expectations or significantly above expectations — for two straight years. Teachers who have tenure now will not be affected.

But the scoring system has added up to controversy.

Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, read from various educators’ comments including one he said was from a Knox County teacher. He quoted that teacher as saying, “Being told you are a rock solid teacher with a score of 3 on a 5-point scale doesn’t make sense. That’s like saying the children in my classroom are rock solid with C’s on their report card.”

Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre was one of the most vocal advocates of the new evaluation system. McIntyre acknowledged that it’s possible for a teacher to spend a career as an effective teacher, with consistent scores of 3, who would not attain tenure, although he said they would be teachers you would want in the classroom and kept employed. McIntyre also said there may be inconsistency in the evaluation system across the state.

Montgomery said maybe everyone should get away from equating five-level scoring in the evaluations to A-F letter grades.

The evaluation system is the product of the state’s First To The Top initiative, begun in 2010. The Legislature approved the parameters that call for evaluations, but the system itself comes from administrative work this year. Naifeh wanted to make it clear that the Legislature did not vote on the final evaluation system, which was approved by the state Board of Education.

Coley had a slightly different take.

“I have no problem with the model itself,” Coley said. “I have a problem with the implementation of the model and whether or not our goals are realistic in having four observations a year and the amount of time we have to take as teachers in preparing for it.”

The administration of Gov. Bill Haslam has steadfastly said the state should ride it out on an imperfect evaluation system in this first year. Huffman this week announced a proposal to conduct two required teacher observations in succession, leaving only one pre- and post-conference meeting in the evaluation process, an effort he hopes will streamline the system. The state Board of Education must approve that move. Huffman appeared before the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

The committee also heard Wednesday from Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the teachers’ union that was the focus of changes in tenure and the collective bargaining system this year.

Summerford noted legislative efforts in January of 2010 that developed the state’s Race to the Top application. That effort resulted in $500 million for Tennessee from the federal government. The application included yearly evaluations and a call for student performance to be included in the evaluations. Summerford said the TEA agreed to those components.

“But much has happened since January 2010,” she said. “As the Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee worked to develop its recommendations for this new system, TEA and the educator members of that committee repeatedly raised concerns about some of the aspects of the plan that was being developed.”

She said the feasibility of the number of observations and how effective they could be, the use of school data for teachers without value-added assessment scores and the potential for unnecessary paperwork were among teachers’ concerns early on.

“For teachers without value-added (scores), the use of school-wide data that has not yet been clarified to us how it will be calculated is just not an appropriate measure for individual evaluations,” Summerford said.

Byron Booker, an English language learner teacher at Knox Central High School, who was recently named Teacher of the Year in Tennessee, also appeared in support of the evaluation system. Booker has been a lead teacher who is participating in the evaluations at his school. He told the committee that the system is “worth the growing pains.”