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Monday, August 22, 2011

Big changes in Florida to how teachers are evaluated

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Jeff Solochek

Tabatha Whaley is ready for it.

"I encourage feedback," said the Pasco teacher.

Katie Sessa, who spent the summer waiting for a call that would put her back in the classroom, is cautious about it.

"I do say bring it on," Sessa said. "But I just don't want to put too much emphasis on that."

And it has veteran teacher Pat Connolly considering an early exit from teaching. "We do not trust it," he said.

As the new school year gets under way this week, Florida teachers are bracing for one of the most significant and sweeping changes to hit their profession: tougher performance evaluations.

The state's new law governing teacher evaluations, contracts and pay also ends seniority protections for teachers during times of layoffs, eliminates continuing contracts (often called tenure) and establishes performance-based pay linked in part to student test scores.

The old satisfactory-unsatisfactory system that Florida school districts are dumping did little to improve teaching or education, many others including lawmakers have contended.

Many districts were moving away from that system anyway.

Districts have adopted several evaluation models — approved by the state — that include new ratings for teachers: unsatisfactory, needs improvement, effective and highly effective ratings.

As districts begin evaluating teachers in earnest, the increased scrutiny may rattle some teachers.

"People will be unhappy," predicted Connolly.

Whaley, though, welcomes the new, more detailed review of her strengths and weaknesses, especially if it can help her reach her students more effectively.

"I want to be a better teacher every year, said Whaley, a 13-year veteran who teaches fifth grade at Sand Pine Elementary in Pasco.

That doesn't mean Whaley, 39, doesn't have concerns. For example, the timing of the implementation bothers her. The state did not provide adequate time to create the new evaluations or the assessments upon which student growth will be based, she said.

The state also pushed through the package of changes at dicey economic times, forcing schools to spend scarce resources on putting it into place rather than on avoiding layoffs of good educators, she added.

"I know we have to do it because the state is mandating it," Whaley said. "I just wish the state would have given us more time to fill in the gaps."

Other teachers share her views.

Sessa is a third-year teacher at Chocachatti Elementary School in Hernando County. Told in May that she might not have a job this fall, Sessa spent much of the summer waiting for a call letting her know she would be employed.

The Legislature cemented that type of uncertainty into law for any Florida teachers who do not already have a continuing contract. That's an unnerving proposition, Sessa said, particularly as so many questions about the evaluations remain unanswered.

"I'm a supporter of accountability if you can prove the data is there and it's able to improve our schools statewide," said Sessa, 25, who will teach a fourth-grade class this year. "I think it's the right idea, but I'm not sure if it's the right or wrong way."

She worried about having her pay and employment tied to students who might not show growth despite all her best efforts. An overemphasis on those results might lead teachers to give up creativity and instead focus on testing.

A complex statistical formula would aim to account for some external factors that might affect student academic growth.

Connolly, who teaches Advanced Placement calculus among other high level courses, said he has many concerns about how student data would be used. Since he doesn't teach FCAT courses, he's squeamish about being judged on FCAT results of students he has never instructed.

Better evaluations are one thing, he said. But he questioned whether the data that the state will rely upon will be accurate, and noted further that statisticians can use complicated formulas to prove just about anything.

"It's too easily manipulatable. It's not transparent," said the Land O'Lakes High School teacher.

Now, he's contemplating leaving the classroom earlier than he had planned on

"Before this whole assault on education started, my attitude was always that I didn't care about retirement. I was going to teach until I died … and I hoped it wouldn't be too traumatic for the children," said Connolly, 56, who's in his 35th year of teaching. "Now, realistically I'm looking at three years."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

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