Conflicts with Unions Delaying New Teacher Eval System in MA

Massachusetts set this fall as a deadline for all school districts to adopt a new teacher evaluation system that depends heavily on student achievement data. Now, there’s a concern that only a few districts in the state will be able to meet it. According to the state mandate, the system should be fully in place by September 1st of this year or districts will miss out on their chunk of federal Race to the Top grant money.

The conflict with local teachers union is the issue in at least one-third of the districts, with the negotiations process over the new systems not progressing or progressing very slowly. According to Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, nearly every district is experiencing some issues with the unions’ response to the new ratings, but two-thirds of them are on track to successfully conclude talks in the near future.

“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.”

The problem seems to be afflicting all types of districts from urban to rural, and the issues that remain to be ironed out range from guidelines for unscheduled visits by inspectors to how much time underperforming teachers will be allowed to turn around their performance before they are terminated or asked to resign. The inability to compromise over evaluations led to the breakdown in talks over a new teacher contract in Boston just last week.

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 isn’t the only state revising upwards the impact of student achievement data in its teacher assessment systems. President Obama has encouraged this change by making such a system not only a prerequisite for receiving Race to the Top grants, but also a requirement for being approved for a waiver from the 2014 achievement benchmarks set out by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Unlike other states which mandated how big a part the achievement data should play in the overall teacher rating, the Massachusetts legislature decided to leave the final number to each district. Lawmakers indicated that student performance must be a “significant factor” without specifying what “significant” is supposed to mean.

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.

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