Friday, November 27, 2015         


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Raising bar for teachers welcome


The state Department of Education is right to tighten quality control for the public-school asset most crucial to academic improvement: the teachers.

Hawaii's Race to the Top application won a $75 million federal grant for its proposals to reform the statewide school system in various ways. If there's a common theme running through the initiatives, it's that the DOE is pledging greater accountability — through higher standards, a core curriculum, better data systems tracking student performance over time, a goal of turning around its least successful schools.

Accountability of the faculty is another important component of the Race, so DOE officials have committed to an overhaul of policies governing tenure and teacher evaluations. Here are some of the reforms to be phased in over the next several years:

» Make tenure a performance-based system: Evaluations will include student test data as well as classroom management reviews required now.

» Add a year to the service required for tenure, for a total of three years.

» Require probationary teachers to earn "effective" ratings for at least three years during the first five years of teaching. Dismiss teachers who don't earn tenure.

» Evaluate tenured teachers annually rather than every five years.

» Terminate ineffective tenured teachers after giving ample opportunity for improvement.

Raising the bar is the correct move, and some measure should be taken of student achievement in a teacher evaluation. Although the reforms appear to be clear improvements, care must be taken to invest the energy where it would be most effective.

One area of concern is that the plan is to drastically increase the frequency of evaluations for tenured teachers. The evaluation protocols are a long way from being worked out — they're subject to union negotiation — but if they're as intensive as the current Professional Evaluation Program for Teachers, or PEP-T, it's hard to see how current administrators will manage the workload. What nobody wants is a process that's so onerous that it becomes a budgetary burden or is rushed to meet deadlines.

In crafting the final process, the department might want to consider reducing the frequency somewhat or — better — breaking up the evaluation, so that in an annual review, different parts of the evaluation are handled in alternating years.

DOE officials themselves are concerned not to overload the principals, who serve as school CEOs. Although some of these administrators worry how they can be both supportive of teacher improvement while directing their evaluation, that is precisely their duty. It's not one that should be delegated to an outside evaluator, who couldn't possibly know a teacher as well as a principal who interacts on an almost daily basis. In fact, Race to the Top also will involve a reform of principal evaluations and, according to the grant application, that will assess a principal on aspects such as "management of the full scope of administrator responsibilities."

The majority of Hawaii teachers are dedicated professionals who have earned the measure of job security that tenure brings. But ensuring the benefit's high standards is critical, too. Good teachers deserve rewards and newly trained teachers should have mentors and support, but those ill-suited to the profession should not ride along on their coattails.

The DOE can do a better job at holding the line on teacher performance, and it's encouraging that Race to the Top has prompted a vigorous effort toward that end.

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