Arkansas’ Teacher Excellence and Support System, set to be implemented starting in 2014-15, is off to a good start because it was created deliberately and has support from different parts of the education community, according to Dr. Andy Baxter, vice president for teacher effectiveness for the Southern Regional Education Board.
However, the head of the Arkansas Education Association said teachers have problems with the system’s student testing piece.
Baxter, who testified before the House Education Committee Tuesday, said in an interview that virtually every state in the country, including in the South, is in some stage of making their teacher evaluation systems more effective and uniform.
Baxter said common features across the country include more frequent evaluations and multiple measure of teacher effectiveness.
This is happening in part because teachers are being held more accountable for their performance through laws such as No Child Left Behind. In the future, the evaluations could be used to help determine tenure and compensation, he said.
The SREB works with 16 states to improve education from pre-kindergarten through the Ph.D. levels. Baxter said some Southern states have run into problems because of opposition from teachers’ unions or because they are basing important personnel decisions on new policies that have not gained popular support.
“Arkansas is taking a more, I would say, more deliberate approach,” he said. “And as long as you keep your resolve and try to learn from what’s happening and make adjustments as you go, I think that will be the key.”
Arkansas’ system defines how teachers are expected to perform through a set of 22 frameworks developed by teaching expert Charlotte Danielson. Teachers are evaluated through classroom observation, student growth as measured through test scores, and the requirement that they present evidence of performance.
Evaluations will be used to rate teachers and create a professional growth plan focusing on areas needing improvement. The lowest rated teachers will be considered to be in “intensive support” and must show progress in order to stay employed.
“Ninety-nine percent of our teachers want to do the best job that they can,” Dr. Karen Cushman, the Department of Education’s assistant commissioner for human resources and licensure, said in an interview. “Some of them just need some help and guidance. And that’s been the problem with the system that we had. Some schools, the principal went in and did a checklist one time a year, and those teachers have not been given any feedback.”
Donna Morey, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said teachers have “been at the table” and are supportive of the Danielson method. However, her organization does have problems with the new system. Most teachers cover untested subjects. Most of the teachers she has talked to don’t believe that student test scores should be part of the evaluations at all.
“They think it’s awful. … We all want to improve our skills and practices of teaching, so being evaluated is not the problem, but (it needs to be) fair and objective, not subjective,” she said.
Morey said that the student testing piece probably will remain in part because it’s being driven by the federal Department of Education.
“I don’t think we can take it out. It’s just figuring out how to do it fairly for everyone,” she said.
Cushman, the former superintendent of the Hector School District, said the state now will have a common evaluation system and a common definition of what is expected of good teachers.
The system is being pilot-tested in 11 schools this year. One area of interest is how many classroom observances are needed for evaluations, which is not specified in the law.
Other challenges remain moving forward. Problems will arise once the system is off the drawing board and actually impacting teachers’ lives. One year after implementing its system, Tennessee ran into so much opposition that it had to commission an outside review, Baxter told legislators. Tensions will arise as test scores dip when the state switches to the Common Core State Standards.
For now, he said in an interview, “You’re in the first quarter, right? And time will tell. But I think that you’ve done everything right so far.”
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