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Teacher rating systems lagging

All but a few Massachusetts districts will probably miss a quickly approaching state deadline to implement a new teacher evaluation system that would put a significant emphasis on student achievement, according to state education officials.

School districts are required to meet the Sept. 1 deadline as a condition of receiving thousands of dollars in funding under the federal Race to the Top program, aimed at overhauling public education.

Roughly a third of the state’s school districts are at odds with their unions in negotiating changes to teacher evaluations, said Mitchell Chester , the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Most of the other districts are making progress in their talks, but will probably miss the deadline, while only a small percentage have finalized a plan, he said.

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“I’m disappointed that we are not further along than anecdotal evidence suggests,” Chester said. “This system relies on local implementation. Where people are dragging their feet, that is not a healthy scenario and that is a lost opportunity for students and teachers in those districts.”

Urban, suburban, and rural districts alike are running into problems. Sticking points include whether evaluators can make unannounced visits to a classroom and how often, and the amount of time ineffective teachers should have to complete their improvement plans before facing termination, according to an ongoing survey by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents .

The problems swirling around the implementation of the evaluation systems first came to light last Thursday in Boston, where a stalemate over the issue caused a major breakdown in talks over a new teacher contract. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has asked the state Department of Labor Relations to recommend a resolution to the evaluation issue, as well as other stumbling blocks in hope of wrapping up more than two years of contract negotiations.

Massachusetts is among dozens of states nationwide that are racheting up the evaluation procedures for teachers, administrators, and other educators, as part the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. The administration has been rewarding states that sign onto its comprehensive plan to overhaul public education, which includes making student achievement a central part of judging a teacher’s or administrator’s effectiveness.

Massachusetts secured $250 million from that program in 2010, pledging it would make the changes to educator evaluations and enacting other parts of Obama’s plan, such as overhauling its worst schools and expanding charter schools.

Last year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made good on that promise, approving new regulations to evaluate teachers. Aside from the inclusion of student achievement data, the regulations also speed up the timeline for dismissing ineffective teachers and grant permanent status to teachers only if they perform well in all areas within three years of being hired.

But unlike some states, such as Colorado and Tennessee, which mandated that at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on student performance, Massachusetts decided that setting a specific percentage would be too arbitrary. Instead it simply said student performance should be a significant factor. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents the vast majority of local teachers unions, strongly supported making student performance a factor in evaluations.

The 235 school districts, about two-thirds of those statewide that have signed onto Race to the Top, must negotiate the changes with their unions by Sept. 1 or they could lose out on the money. The other districts have until fall 2013 to adopt the changes. But talks have taken longer than many anticipated.

So far, 34 of the nearly 50 superintendents who have responded to the survey indicated they do not expect to meet the deadline, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“I don’t read in the responses I have that ‘we are deadlocked,’ ” Scott said, noting that scheduling negotiations in the summer has proved difficult for some districts. “I see people saying that we are, for a variety of reasons, not making the progress we would like to by Sept. 1.”

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said many local unions have been negotiating with their superintendents through the summer and expected that a wave of ratifications could take place this fall.

“The Massachusetts Teachers Association districts are working over time with their school systems to put forward thoughtful evaluation systems,” Toner said. “There are a couple of places at odds on one or two points, but they are working on it. . . . I think we will be in good shape mid-September or early October.”

In Boston, the School Department and the union have clashed over six key areas, such as whether teachers should be able to grieve and arbitrate each element of their improvement plan, whether specific deadlines for evaluating teachers should be in the contract, and whether an evaluator would need to show just cause for downgrading a teacher’s rating. “The union is trying to take away some of the authority of our evaluators” granted to them under the state regulations, said Ross Wilson, Boston’s assistant superintendent for educator effectiveness. “It’s unfortunate.”

But Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the union is trying to protect the rights of teachers and that unions and districts statewide are both presented with the challenge of trying to decipher regulations that are little more than a year old.

The Boston union is part of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which has been more apprehensive about use of student achievement to measure teacher performance.

“It’s new uncharted territory,” Stutman said. “Everyone is working on it diligently.”

The rift has already cost Boston a $9 million federal grant this spring that was aimed at providing teachers with performance bonuses, but was contingent on early adoption of evaluation regulations.

Chester, the state education commissioner, said he is reluctant to take financial sanctions against districts that fail to comply with the revised regulations.

“Financial sanctions — I view those as a last resort,” he said. “My expectation is we will get there without those sanctions.”

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