Ohio House makes excellent changes to teacher personnel provisions

Late last week the Ohio House released its amendments to the governor's biennial budget bill (HB 153). While the changes related to charter schools are atrocious ? as Terry pointed out in courageous fashion (winning the support of Democratic bloggers and organizations who would never typically string ?Fordham? and ?agree? in the same sentence together) ? changes related to teacher personnel provisions are a huge improvement.

In the original version, teacher personnel reforms were headed in the right direction but the details were off. While the bill eliminated LIFO, streamlined teacher dismissal procedures, and tried to establish meaningful performance evaluations and merit pay, it also retained antiquated variables like level of license (heavily correlated with having a master's degree) and highly qualified status as measures of ?performance? that would have allowed districts to continue making personnel decisions using these proxies for seniority. Teacher reforms are much clearer in the House version.

The timeline for the state superintendent (yet to be selected) to determine a model framework for teacher evaluations creates a sense of urgency (December 31, 2011); districts would have until July 2012 to submit their own frameworks. ?Teacher evaluations will incorporate student growth (50 percent); use three year's worth of data when measuring a students' gains; and rate teachers according to four tiers ? highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.

More importantly, these new teacher evaluation ratings (which will be published in the aggregate by the state department of education) will inform all other teacher personnel policies. This includes layoffs -- LIFO is replaced not with vague ?performance? language but a direct requirement that districts suspend teachers in order of their evaluation ratings, starting with unsatisfactory teachers; dismissal -- two consecutive years of unsatisfactory ratings would place a teacher on a limited contract and possibly lead to dismissal; and hiring/transfers -- a teacher rated unsatisfactory or in need of improvement cannot automatically be placed at another school unless there is mutual consent from the teacher and hiring principal. Those teachers can be placed on unpaid leave and eventually may be dismissed.??

Further, principals will be subject to similar evaluations, with 50 percent of the evaluation incorporating student growth data.

Of course, there are still pieces of the bill related to teachers that don't make much sense. The House version retains the statewide merit pay program that would award teachers $50 for each student making more than a year's worth of gains. Is $50 a large enough amount to matter? Shouldn't that money be better targeted to the most highly effective teachers (arguably those reaching a higher bar than 1.1 years of growth)? How will the state pay for this?

It also upholds one of the more alarming sanctions from the original budget ? testing teachers' content knowledge. In the House version, core subject teachers teaching in the lowest 10 percent of buildings (not districts, as before) statewide will be required to take a content-area exam. Further, the House extended this provision to all schools statewide, including charter schools. While we understand the sentiment behind it, we're skeptical of this provision. For starters, it assumes that lack of content knowledge or expertise is the primary reason for ineffective instruction. Second, teacher effectiveness varies widely within buildings and this disincentivizes higher performing teachers from teaching in troubled schools, not to mention the fact that it would cost approximately $1.5 million annually. A better requirement would be to test those teachers who consistently receive ratings of unsatisfactory or in need of improvement rather than large swaths of teachers in poorly performing schools.

Still, most of the language as it relates to teachers is a huge step forward, and creates a meaningful foundation for Ohio to hire, retain, reward, evaluate, develop, and dismiss teachers in a way that finally values effectiveness over credentials and seniority.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute