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Devil in the details of judging teachers

    Janet Lock is a third-grade teacher at Palolo Elementary. This is Lock's second career: She used to be in the banking industry. Lock supports "value-added" evaluations for teachers.

Today, the Star-Advertiser kicks off an occasional series examining efforts to reform public education in Hawaii. We will look at the numerous plans, proposals and problems as the state seeks to use federal "Race to the Top" funds and fix its struggling schools.


A key element of the state’s ambitious education reforms, an overhaul of how teachers are evaluated, requires the sign-on of a teachers union with big questions about how students’ academic progress would be measured and how that information would be used to judge its members.

Negotiations on the proposed changes have just begun, and both sides stress they agree in principle that a more robust system for rating the teachers’ effectiveness is needed. But concerns from the Hawaii State Teachers Association signal an early divide on an issue that Department of Education officials have long said will be a tough sell to the union.

Meanwhile, a national teacher quality group is expressing skepticism that the HSTA and DOE can agree to widespread changes to teacher evaluations, without a law or regulation mandating the change.

Ronn Nozoe, DOE deputy superintendent, said there is no doubt that negotiations with the HSTA on the evaluations will be difficult, and characterized the collective bargaining talks as a "bumpy road." Of the reforms that the DOE is planning, Nozoe said, "’I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Holy smokes, this is a lot of work.’"

But working in the DOE’s favor, Nozoe said, is that everyone agrees change is needed. "If we don’t raise the standard of expectations and achievement, our kids aren’t going to have a shot at life," Nozoe said. "The times themselves dictate this need. Everyone is aware of that."

Over the next four years, the state has pledged to roll out a sweeping overhaul of how it evaluates public school teachers, redesigning a system that currently uses observations only.

Under the existing system, just 1 percent of teachers are rated "unsatisfactory" annually.

Pending a deal with the HSTA, the big changes would start in the upcoming school year with pilot programs in 14 struggling schools on Oahu and the Big Island, and at first would be used to identify teachers’ weaknesses and get them appropriate training. But in 2015, a year after the new evaluation system would be taken to all 13,000 Hawaii public school teachers, the DOE envisions making the rating high-stakes.


Starting next school year, pending an agreement with the teachers union, about 1,500 teachers in two "zones for school innovation" — Oahu’s Leeward Coast and the Kau-Pahoa area on the Big Island — will be evaluated based on how much their students progress, along with how well they manage classrooms.

The following year, the pilot program will expand to an additional 40 schools.

The zones include five schools that are the state’s persistently lowest achievers, plus the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind.


» Kamaile Academy Public Charter School
» Leihoku Elementary
» Maili Elementary
» Makaha Elementary
» Nanakuli Elementary
» Nanakuli High and Intermediate
» Nanikapono Elementary
» Waianae Elementary
» Waianae Intermediate
» Waianae High


» Kau High/Pahala Elementary
» Keonepoko Elementary
» Naalehu Elementary

Special school
» Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind

How effective a teacher is would be used for big decisions, like certification, tenure and bonuses. Teachers who are persistently ineffective could face reprimands or be fired.

DOE and HSTA officials have acknowledged that despite a sometimes-rocky past, both sides have come together to help struggling schools.

And they said that unlike recent disputes over issues like random drug testing, which the union opposed in court, there is a national movement to improve public education — and help teachers become more effective.

(Because of strong opposition from the HSTA, drug testing for teachers never got off the ground, though it was included in the last contract that the union signed. Money was never appropriated for testing, and the program is postponed indefinitely.)

Wil Okabe, HSTA president, said the teacher evaluations issue isn’t like drug testing. This time, he said, "we are all focused on the same goals."

What’s left for collective bargaining, then, is not whether changes will be made, but what changes will be made.

Last week Okabe expressed unease about the DOE’s proposal to use standardized tests along with other assessments to measure the effectiveness of a teacher.

"If we’re just going to go by the test, some students are good test takers, some are not," he said.

The DOE acknowledges it’s still not certain how student growth would be calculated — or how much weight would be placed on standardized tests.

DOE officials have said, however, that up to half of a teacher’s rating should rely on student growth data, while the other half would use observations of teachers in the classroom.

Okabe said he’s wary of relying too heavily on annual test scores because there are so many variables in addition to the teacher that can affect student performance. When asked what other measures could be used, Okabe said, "That is the big question, how do we measure student growth?" He added, "I cannot tell you what that is."

HAWAII’S PLAN TO redesign the teacher evaluation system comes as many other states are progressing with similar proposals to reward effective teachers, help ineffective ones and hold schools and teachers more accountable for student achievement.

A few states are well ahead of the curve, but most are in the early stages like Hawaii.

And many are facing tough negotiations with unions that are concerned teachers will be penalized — or even fired — based on emerging systems that have not been proven by research.

The current evaluation system for Hawaii teachers rates them on five "duties": designing and implementing effective teaching strategies, creating a positive and safe learning environment, using assessment data, demonstrating professionalism and reflecting on their practices.

In the 2008-09 school year, 97 percent of evaluated teachers were "satisfactory," the highest possible rating. About 2 percent were rated as "marginal," and 1 percent were "unsatisfactory."

That’s in line with evaluation systems in other states, experts said. A recent national report found that less than 1 percent of public school teachers nationwide get unsatisfactory ratings.

Several Hawaii teachers said they support a revamped process based on the academic growth of their students. But they said the new system has to take into account on-the-ground realities, from poverty to different kinds of learners. They also said teachers need to be given the right support and training to meet rising targets.

Janet Lock, a third-grade teacher at Palolo Elementary School, said she likes the idea of performance-based evaluations, as long as teachers are "given the tools to meet the goals."

Teaching is Lock’s second profession. Banking was her first. So, Lock said, she’s comfortable with evaluations based on data. In banking, "it was purely performance. If you did well, you got rewarded for it."

Jennifer Torrie Hoffman, an English teacher at Ilima Intermediate School, isn’t so sure the Hawaii State Assessment (the annual test used to determine student proficiency in reading and math) should be used for evaluations. She worries teachers will be penalized for students who just don’t take tests well or who make progress that is not measured by standardized tests.

Hoffman also said that, overall, she likes the idea of effectiveness ratings being used in employment decisions, like tenure. Some teachers "stall" after getting tenure or working in the profession too long, she said.

"You want to encourage growth in teachers," she said.

THE TEACHER EVALUATION overhaul was a key pledge — and one of several major reforms — included in the state’s application for the highly competitive federal Race to the Top grant. In August, Hawaii was one of 10 winners — nine states and the District of Columbia — of a second round of grants, and the only winner west of the Mississippi. The state’s payout is $75 million over four years, and the DOE says that money will go toward a total redesign of the system.

DOE officials say strengthening the evaluation system will give schools reliable information to identify teacher weaknesses and ultimately improve instruction. The push locally and nationally comes as mounting research shows teachers have a greater impact on student performance than any other factor, including class size.

Also as part of Race to the Top, Hawaii pledged to turn around low-performing schools, toughen standards for students and close the gap in achievement for disadvantaged children.

Some national voices have raised doubts about whether Hawaii can make good on its big promises for Race to the Top, and questioned whether the application was overly ambitious.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the DOE’s evaluation proposal "said a lot of the right things, but also made us nervous in some respects." Chiefly, she said, there is no law requiring the changes.

That means, she said, "there’s nothing underpinning it."

There are also a slew of details — too many, in the council’s opinion — that need to be hammered out in collective bargaining. "The lack of an underlying framework concerned us especially since so much of it had to be hashed out in this agreement with the union," Jacobs said, adding that Hawaii does have the advantage of a single, statewide school district.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents principals, has also committed to negotiating a performance-based contract, which would rate school leaders based on the overall improvements — or lack of gains — their campuses are making.

In documents submitted to the federal government, the DOE has said the performance-based standards it will attempt to implement are based on those mandated by the Legislature in 2004, but never put in place. HGEA officials declined further comment because negotiations are ongoing.


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