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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Florida's school districts bracing for new evaluation tools.


by Kelly Tyko

Treasure Coast school districts are bracing for a new evaluation system that will determine how teachers will be paid in the coming years.

But critics across the state are taking aim at the new system saying it's far too complex and doesn't fairly grade teachers.

The pay changes are the result of a new law passed by state lawmakers this spring. It was the first bill Gov. Rick Scott signed and the state's revamped teacher-evaluation system is part of the education reform agenda pushed by the Obama Administration, which is giving states $4.3 billion in the Race to the Top grant program to come up with new ways to grade teachers and tie educator paychecks to student performance.

Starting this year, the legislation requires that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student growth on tests including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

By 2014, the pay provision will become mandatory under the new law. The model will initially use results on the FCAT, which has gotten tougher, and will expand to include other tests that are being developed in every subject at every grade level.

Each district had to develop a plan for the evaluation process. All three Treasure Coast school districts have reached agreements over the evaluation systems with their teachers unions, but are continuing to negotiate the details.

In the new evaluations, half a teacher's "grade" will be based on the state's new value-added formula, and half on the principal's observations. Teachers who don't teach FCAT subjects will get grades based on the school's FCAT reading performance.

In the past, teachers were evaluated by their principals alone.

"There's still some heartaches, there are some hiccups and there's a real level of frustration," said Vanessa Tillman, president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association and Classified Unit. "But we're trying to support each other because this shouldn't be a gotcha situation."

The state's teachers union is challenging the constitutionality of the law that also does away with tenure for new teachers. In September, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of six teachers, including Beth Weatherstone, president of the Indian River County Education Association and an algebra teacher at Gifford Middle School.

"I personally do not believe this evaluation law is in the best interest of students," Weatherstone said at the Indian River County School Board's Sept. 27 meeting before the board approved sending the district's plan to the state. "As an individual I will continue in my efforts to fight this law in court and will also work diligently to vote those legislators who support such a tax on public education out of office."

Mary Slavin, vice president of the Martin County Education Association union, said not all of the district's 1,200 teachers fit into a certain standard of evaluation.

"We have to be ready for the 2013-2014 school year and there's still a lot to confirm and work out," Slavin said. "Teachers are always going to strive to provide the best education for the kids in their classrooms, but it's hard when you have an unknown about evaluations."

Slavin is a mainstream consultant at Jensen Beach Elementary and works outside the classroom to support exceptional student education. She doesn't have her own class of students, so half of her evaluation will be based on the school's test results.

"I have no control over that, it's not my classroom," Slavin said. "I'm relying on the scores and work of other teachers in the school and that's not fair to put that pressure on those teachers and that's not fair to me because that doesn't truly judge my body of work."

While St. Lucie County Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon has heard some concerns over the new evaluation model, he said he's also heard of positive changes.

"Teachers plan more together with other teachers than ever before," Lannon said. "The fact that they're with their administrators in real professional conferencing and the observation process and feedback, more than ever before are professional things that are really helping them to improve."

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