When the federal Department of Education set up its "Race to the Top" program in 2009, it envisioned states creating unique models for reform in data, assessments, teacher recruiting and school improvements. This year, at least 37 states are actively working out such programs, and some have already instituted them.
But along the way, creating these models means allowing heated arguments among all of the stakeholders: states, administrators, unions, and individual teachers and parents. As Maine debates possibilities, Louisiana teachers protest the plan that's already in place for this school year.
Louisiana's planned evaluation, called the Compass, will take into account not only standardized test scores but also classroom observation. In areas where standardized testing doesn't apply easily, such as music, schools will evaluate teachers for completion of academic targets. When teachers do not score high enough, they will lose their tenure. Continued poor performance will lead to the teacher being fired. The system is set to begin at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.
In Maine, by contrast, there is no plan yet laid out for the school year. As the state considers options, the hottest topic at Monday's hearing on the state's current plans was just how much student standardized test scores should influence teacher ratings. The Bangor Daily News reports that Maine's Department of Education wants student scores to be at least 25% of a teacher's evaluation.
But teachers and some administrators argue that making the scores such a large part of the state's eventual mandatory program will not be good for anyone. Administrators will be tasked with carrying out the plan, and some, like Richard Durost of the Maine Principals Association, worried that it will be more burdensome than it's worth.
Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, asked if the state would provide money, time and logistical support to help school systems implement performance evaluations. He also noted that his organization has not found any research to demonstrate that educator evaluations improve student achievement.
Another administrator suggested capping the role of student scores at 15% until schools have more experience and data from the process.
Teachers were concerned that the new program would not put enough emphasis on professional growth, and that it would be too quick to end a teacher's career without chances for improvement. Some asked that more teachers should be included in the state's process, and one special education teacher, the last to speak at the hearing, asked for a delay in implementation.
"The appropriate recommendation to DOE would have been to request a delay in implementation rather than pushing ahead with an incomplete and faulty evaluation system," Soifer said, after listing concerns about costs that would put poorer districts at a disadvantage, the proposed rules' emphasis on punitive measures, and mandates to create local systems that he said would undermine the goal of statewide reform.
In 2012, the Maine legislature enacted a law that mandates the creation of a federally-compliant evaluation system by the school year 2015-2016.
Pressures like this sometimes block agreements from being made at all, reports New York Newsday in an Associated Press story. In the state of New York, school districts were left to create evaluation programs by January 17, in order to qualify for state aid. While 99% of the state's districts qualified, the biggest one, the New York City system, could not reach an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers.
In a hearing in Albany on Monday, New York Mayor Bloomberg demanded that the state should give the city's schools their $250 million share of aid anyway, saying that most of the upstate districts created sham agreements.
Bloomberg said most school districts outside New York City adopted faulty local evaluations to extract school aid, not improve teachers. He said the evaluations fail students and protect bad teachers during his testimony at a daylong state budget hearing in which upstate mayors pushed for ways to save some of America's iconic cities from insolvency.
As Bloomberg complained that other districts had cut corners to defraud the state, UFT President Mike Mulgrew said that they couldn't even agree on their points of disagreement, and it wasn't clear if they would continue to talk. In an AP interview, Mulgrew said:
"It's embarrassing for the mayor of New York to go to Albany to testify at a budget hearing and not know what he's talking about."
But at Monday's hearing, Bloomberg's evaluation of the union's role was just as scathing.
In a sometimes heated testimony over three hours, the mayor told legislators that it was irresponsible for them and Cuomo to pass the 2010 law because he said it ties school aid to union approval of local teacher evaluations. He said unions have no incentive to approve effective evaluations.
Louisiana's teachers aren't complaining about negotiations, since their state has already determined an evaluation system. Their concern is the effect on teachers themselves. As Danielle Dreilinger reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers has called the Compass system "fundamentally flawed." It is encouraging teachers to retire faster, they say. And the teachers who are leaving are the best, most experienced teachers.
John White, Louisiana's Education Supervisor, discounts this claim. His department released a report on Monday that showed retirement has remained stable since 2009 at about 11% of the workforce. White said that the new system is not pushing out the best veteran teachers, and also pointed out that some of them leave teaching when they're promoted to administrative positions.
The state's report used about 25% of teachers, whose students test in core subjects, to estimate how many teachers who have left are among the top or bottom brackets. While 16% of retiring teachers were in the top "most effective" bracket, so were 19% of the teachers who stayed on. The number of retiring teachers rated "ineffective" was as high as 12%, while remaining teachers in this category were only 8%. In the state's eyes, the sifting process is heading in the right direction, leaving a higher percent of effective remaining teachers.
Louisiana Federation of Teachers isn't buying the state's argument.
"A stable attrition rate only means that enough teachers are entering our classrooms to replace those who leave," said LFT President Steve Monaghan. "Attrition does not address the absolute fact that we are losing experienced veteran teachers at a much faster rate than before. More importantly, it completely ignores that teacher morale in Louisiana and nationally is at an all-time low."
It's a tough time to be a teacher, but it's also clearly a time of much creative arguing and rethinking, and that can only be good for education in the end.