Georgia’s new teacher evaluation system might be an improvement over the old one, but it’s not likely to work exactly as intended and critics warn it might even turn into be a magnet for lawsuits.
“It has the potential to do some good. Nobody really cared for the old drive-by, quickie kind of evaluations. It wasn’t providing useful information to teachers about how they might improve,” said Georgia Association of Professional Educators spokesman Tim Callahan. “The new system will provide more meaningful feedback to teachers, if it’s done right.”
Madison County school Superintendent Allen McCannon also called the new standards an improvement.
“They’re getting more at what’s important, and the state department has done an excellent job of rolling this out,” he said.
And evaluators will have to spend more time in the classroom watching what teachers are actually doing than in the past. That could help teachers improve, if done right, said Clarke County School Superintendent Philip Lanoue.
But McCannon, Callahan and others aren’t sure the new system is really going to work as planned when it goes into effect in the upcoming school year.
The new system is mandated by state law and has been heavily influenced by a federal push to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement.
Half a teacher’s score is tied to student academic growth, but just 30 percent of the state’s teachers are in areas such as math, English and sciences that have pre-existing standardized competency or end-of-course tests already in place, Callahan said.
For the other 70 percent of courses, school districts across the state are developing “Student Learning Objectives,” or SLOs.
Even though state reviewers will sign off on the new SLOs, inconsistent models across the state might give teachers legitimate grounds to say that everyone’s not being held to the same standards.
“That’s not the same thing as going through a validation process. That’s going to open up the door for future litigation. I think it’s going put school systems at risk and I think it’s going to advantage or disadvantage some teachers,” said Sally Zepeda, a University of Georgia education professor whose research specialty is teacher evaluation.
Zepeda helped Clarke County develop its own teacher evaluation system.
“Some teachers will have tests that are highly reliable and valid,” Zepeda said. “But another teacher whose subject area doesn’t have a highly reliable or valid test?
“Say they get a great evaluation score. Is it because the teacher is great, or because the test is not reliable or valid?”
Lanoue shares Zepeda’s concern.
“We’ll be evaluating teachers on systems that are different across the state and that is extremely problematic,” he said.
Even in areas that have valid, reliable tests, year-to-year variation in classes can obscure instead of illuminate how well a teacher is performing, according to Zepeda.
“There’s a whole lot of voodoo science in there,” she said. “Research tells us that in any given year, value-added measurements are going to be wrong half the time or more. For it to have any meaning, you have to average it out over three to five years, and then you can reduce error to 25 or 30 percent.”
Another thorny issue is the timing of test results.
Districts don’t get test results until after the date when teacher contracts are signed, so the most recent test scores won’t be included in a teacher’s evaluations, Lanoue explained.
Once the state adopts computerized achievement testing, districts will get the scores sooner, said state schools Superintendent John Barge.
But even without the most recent test data, supervisors should be able to accurately gauge performance, he said.
“You’re going to have that data after contract signing, but you’re going to have a good idea (before then),” he said.
Callahan raises another issue: Will all principals and assistant principals charged with spending hours watching what each teacher does in the classroom actually have time to do it?
And even if they do have time, Zepeda believes the criteria they’re being asked to use aren’t concrete enough to give consistent results from one evaluator or school to another.
“There’s a lot of room for interpretation. It’s very, very open-ended,” said Zepeda, who went through state training for evaluators in the new system.
The new system may take teachers by surprise.
“In conversations I’ve had with my colleagues, I don’t really think teachers have an awareness of the new teacher system mandated by House Bill 244,” said Clarke Central High School history teacher Ashley Goodrich.
“Most people don’t know that legislation and how it is going to directly impact us next year. My biggest concern is that it is all very fast.”
It’s going to be a big step backward from the teacher evaluation system Zepeda helped Clarke County design, she said.
Goodrich believes the heavy emphasis on test scores will simply drive more creative, talented teachers out of the profession.
One flaw of the system is that it tacitly assumes education is just about individual teachers or administrators when it is really a team effort, she said.
“I worry that we are going to penalize teachers with students who are having struggles we have no idea of,” she said.”
And like others, Goodrich noted that the test scores used to evaluate teachers will be a year out of date.
English teacher Ian Altman questions a fundamental assumption of the new model, that students test results can actually measure teacher quality.
“What do the tests measure and is it important? I don’t think so,” said Altman, who chairs Clarke Central’s English department.
“I as a teacher can’t be measured by these tests, even if they do measure something, which they don’t.”
Altman and Goodrich are well-respected teachers and their students get good test scores.
Students should be learning critical thinking skills, not how to pass multiple choice tests, Altman argued.
“I can train students to pass multiple choice tests all day and I won’t have done anything important,” he said.
And the tests don’t measure at all many of the things that make a good teacher, such as time spent outside class doing things like tutoring or advocating for students, he said.
In the end, the new state teacher assessment system’s flaws doom it to failure, Zepeda said.
“I think there’s a storm here,” she said. “What we’ve built is a system that will not be able to sustain itself long.”