POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 18, 2011
When the U.S. Education Department offered stimulus dollars to school systems for plans to raise student learning, some states backed away because teachers unions objected to a component calling for reform of teacher evaluations. Commendably, the Hawaii State Teachers Association backed the state school system's package in the Race to the Top competition, and the state last August was awarded a $75 million federal grant over four years. Now it's time for the union to move beyond talk and do its part in helping achieve the intended, needed reform.
The federal rules in the competition called for "comprehensive, coherent, statewide education reform" in four areas. One of those was "recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most." The implicit down side was firing teachers who fail to meet that standard.
The centerpiece for reform of teacher evaluations in most aggressive states has been standardized student tests over a period of years. Hawaii teachers currently are evaluated by observation, but state Department of Education officials have said that up to half a teacher's evaluation should rely on student growth data, based on tests reflecting students' performance.
Wil Okabe, the HSTA president, is concerned that reliance on test scores would fail to accurately reflect a teacher's effectiveness.
"That is the big question: How do we measure student growth?" he told the Star-Advertiser's Mary Vorsino. "I cannot tell you what that is."
There must be recognition, though, that student learning via test scores is one important, valid benchmark of a teacher's effectiveness. It needs to be an integral, quantitative part of better evaluations of teachers and principals.
The present evaluation system is based entirely on observation of a teacher's design and implementation of effective teaching strategies, resulting in a positive and safe learning environment. Yearly results have assessed only 1 percent of the state's teachers as "unsatisfactory."
Most teachers unions around the country agree with Okabe. However, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) announced its support last month of an evaluation method that includes both observation and student scores over a period of several years. Scores would take into account classrooms with similar mixes of students.
Under that union's concept, teachers would be judged on several factors, including those obtained by classroom observation. If student test results don't match those evaluations, the teacher would be reassessed. Failed teachers with three years or more in seniority would be put on a one-year improvement plan and be dismissed only if they fail to improve.
"I think it's the most progressive proposal you'll see out of organized labor," Kathleen J. Skinner, the Massachusetts union's top policy official, told The Boston Globe.
The MTA, like the HSTA, is an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Instead of merely reacting to the Hawaii DOE's proposals for change, the HSTA should engage in putting together a system that would reward the best teachers, and improve or remove those who are unable to meet required standards. There is much at stake at this crucial juncture: Teachers must see this as an important opportunity to shore up their ranks, with the improved evaluation system benefiting both their profession and their students. Ongoing negotiations should involve changes from perspectives that achieve the reforms described in the Race to the Top.