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Alaska teacher evaluation plan draws hundreds of critical comments

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Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012 10:48 pm | Updated: 2:02 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

Teachers and school district representatives from across Alaska have called for changes, some major and others minor, in proposed regulations dealing with the evaluation of teachers.

The state Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the issue Friday, but many educators say the proposed system has serious weaknesses and should be put off for more revision. The board was taking testimony on the topic today, hearing comments on revisions released this week.

It's clear to me that the board should extend the public comment period and explain the plan to Alaskans.

The board had been considering a plan to base 20 percent of  a teacher evaluation on the performance of students. But after Gov. Sean Parnell wrote a letter Nov. 21 to the education commissioner and the state board advocating an increase to 50 percent, the proposal was changed to reflect the higher figure.

"The board is best suited to figure out how to get to 50 percent of teacher evaluations focused on student academic growth," the governor said in his letter.

The governor and the state education department are too hasty with this proposed increase. 

The chief problem is the enormous difficulty of determining to what extent student test scores are an accurate measure of a teacher's work and just how much importance should be given to those scores.

If the teacher is dealing with high-performing students in Advanced Placement classes, for instance, the student scores will be higher than those if the teacher has students on the other end of the academic scale, regardless of the teacher's effort and skill.

A child with the drive and talent to improve will do so with a good teacher or a bad teacher. A student without the drive or talent to improve will fall behind with a good teacher or a bad teacher.

Education Commissioner Mike Hanley said the state does not have a standardized test that directly measures how much a student learns in a class.

The state would create a "comparison of measurement of the student's knowledge, understanding or skill in a  subject before being taught by the teacher with a comparable measure made after the student has been taught the subject by the teacher."

This is based on the assumption that 50 percent of student learning is determined by the quality of the teacher, which is obviously not true.

Tammy Smith, president of the Fairbanks Education Association, asked where the research is to justify the 50 percent proposal.

She and others asked that the board delay action on the proposal and  seek more public comment.

Tim Parker, a Lathrop English teacher and spokesman for the National Education Association, said the changes made this week are significant and have not been examined or explained to the public.

In many ways, the political fervor to make student test scores a major part of the teacher evaluation process reminds me of the testing regimen set up by the No Child Left Behind Law.

From the start of that law more than a decade ago, it was clear that the goal of 100 percent proficiency was unrealistic.

However, it was adopted and embraced early on because of its superficial political appeal. It took many years before the politicians from both parties admitted that there were flaws in the approach they championed.

When the governor says he wants Alaska to "lead in this, not bring up the rear with 20 percent of an evaluation focused on student improvement," I can't help but think of the No Child Left Behind hysteria.

The education commissioner said that school districts would be able to take such things as how often students are absent into consideration when judging the performance of a teacher. 

This is perhaps the easiest thing to do in all of education. But even more important than attendance is the variable of how much the child's parents care about academic performance. That may be impossible to plug into a teacher evaluation formula.

It's also impossible to put a number on the other factors that reflect a student's effort. How will districts, in addition to the number of absences, devise a plan that would take into account, for example, the number of students have no interest in school? Or those who might be interested in school, but one or both of their parents is drunk every night? Or those who play video games or watch TV for hours every day? Or those who don't get enough to eat at home?

One local teacher, in comments to the state said that some of her students are more concerned about whether their moms are going to get out of jail or whether their dads are going to be drunk this weekend than they are with their schoolwork.

We need a better system to evaluate teacher performance than what we have now. There are teachers who put in a minimum of effort and no more.

I think that most teachers are not in that category, but some are. To refuse to acknowledge that there are some slackers in education,  just as in other walks of life, is a mistake, which is why an improved evaluation system is necessary.

Most teachers that I've encountered are hard workers who are committed to doing the best they can and are successful in working with kids. An improved evaluation system should also be able to identify the best teachers and show what they are doing right.

Before teachers can be evaluated, the proposal needs to be evaluated.

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