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Tweaks to State Teacher Evals Planned

Music teachers, gym instructors and other educators whose subjects aren’t tested should be able to opt for evaluations more closely tied to their classroom observations, an influential education group says. The state’s listening.

Tennessee education officials are revising the freshly implemented teacher evaluation system following criticism that it fails to adequately grade teachers who instruct in subjects not tested at the state level.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says he expects to reveal by mid-July how the department wants to assess teachers of subjects like art or younger age groups not subject to standardized testing. He declined Wednesday to comment on the changes, saying it was still subject to “internal discussion.”

The Department of Education is expected to announce that revision before it releases its own study of the evaluation system next month, said Huffman. He said he expects several of their proposed changes to kick in for the upcoming school year.

“We’re trying,” Huffman said, “to improve a system that has not generated the kind of student results we all wish it would. So it’s incumbent on everyone in the system every year to get a little bit better.”

Teachers now have half their evaluations based on student test scores. Of that, 35 percent is based on student improvement as measured by the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System — which relies on standardized state tests — and 15 percent is based on test scores from the course.

The other 50 percent of the evaluation is based on teacher observations.

The evaluations are used to determine whether to grant teachers tenure, and successive poor evaluations can lead to dismissal. They were first used in the 2011-12 school year.

Teachers and their advocates have complained that the evaluations give an inaccurate assessment of teachers in classes not subject to standardized testing.

The criticism emerged last year and was pointed out again in a recent report from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a non-profit advocacy group that spent the spring surveying teachers across the state and talking to educators nationwide about how to most accurately grade teachers.

Teachers in subjects not tested can opt to have that portion of their evaluation rely on school-wide test scores or other big-picture measures, which they argue they can’t directly control.

“This whole idea of using school-wide data to evaluate teachers is just ludicrous,” said Jerry Winters, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. “I think that’s a huge weakness in this system. It puts the whole evaluation process, in my opinion, in jeopardy.”

Winters says the evaluation system could make it easy for school leaders to remove teachers in subjects like music and history when their low evaluations are based in part on test scores they had little to do with.

The SCORE report suggests that school districts give those teachers the option to be graded more heavily on their classroom observations than test scores.

“I don’t really see any other way of doing that,” said Lt. Gov Ramsey, who said he could go along with that plan. “The observer has a lot of power, or flexibility… but I do think that observation on teaching methods is about the only way to evaluate that.”

Huffman declined to comment on the merit of SCORE’s suggestions, saying only that those issues were being discussed and recommendations would be made public before the agency submits its report to the Legislature July 15.

With “room for improvement” in today’s evaluation system, House Speaker Beth Harwell expects to see some level of testing required for each subject in order to give all teachers exams to base a portion of their evaluations on.

“You can’t hold teachers accountable for a subject outside of their own. That’s first and foremost,” she said.

Harwell predicted some changes would call for legislative action next year, but doubts lawmakers will reach beyond what the Haslam administration ultimately recommends.

“The whole point of the evaluation system was not to punish anyone, but to look for ways to make our educational system better,” the governor said last week.

“The intent was to make certain that the evaluation process next year is better than this year,” Haslam told reporters. “The alternative is just saying, ‘Everything’s not perfect. We’re going to throw it away.’ I reject that idea. So the idea is, we’re going to work to make it better.”

Winters says anything short of substantive changes this year will mean “we’re going to have a lot of folks throw up their hands in frustration.”

SCORE handed the Haslam administration seven recommendations. The other six include:

  • Train future teachers and school leaders on the evaluation system.
  • Pair teacher evaluations with “meaningful” professional development training.
  • Keep accountable the school leaders charged with assessing teachers and developing effective teaching.
  • “Re-engage educators” in districts where teacher evaluation faltered in first year.
  • Link implementation of teacher evaluations and Common Core standards, which have been adopted by the great majority of the states to set educational benchmarks in English, reading, math and science.
  • Drive continued improvements at state, district and school levels.

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