House proposal strengthens teacher evaluation policy

In the waning days of 2013, I highlighted five big issues to keep an eye on in 2014. Ohio’s new teacher-evaluation system was number two on the list. In terms of predictions mine was anything but bold; after all, this is the first school year that the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) has been implemented. Any new system, especially one as important and controversial as OTES, is going to make headlines.

Last fall, Senator Randy Gardner introduced legislation (Senate Bill 229) to make minor modifications to the evaluation system. Most notably, he proposed reducing from 50 to 35 percent the amount of a teacher’s performance evaluation that is based on student achievement and lengthening the time between evaluations to three years for many teachers. The bill sailed through the Senate in less than a month, but it stalled in the House Education Committee until recently.

The House last week unveiled a substitute bill (legislative comparison document) that clarifies some ambiguities in the law and offers helpful tweaks. Other modifications are more substantive and could help school leaders to more accurately determine a teacher’s performance level. The most substantial among the House’s proposed changes include the following:

  • Incorporate student surveys into teacher ratings. Borrowing from the recent Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study sponsored by the Gates Foundation, it would allow (not require) school districts to use student surveys as 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and would reduce the emphasis on the teacher-observation rating and student-growth measures from 50 percent to 40 percent each.
  • Create a fifth teacher-performance level of “effective.” This rating would fall between “skilled” (second highest rating) and “developing” (second lowest) in the current system and would allow greater differentiation between teacher-performance levels.
  • Require that at least one of the two formal observations of the teacher be unannounced. Current law does not require an unannounced observation, which leaves open the possibility that in some situations a principal (or other evaluator) might not get an accurate indication of the quality of the day-to-day teaching occurring in the classroom.
  • Allow effective and skilled teachers to be observed less frequently than annually. While affording flexibility, it tightens a potential loophole by allowing this flexibility only if the teacher’s student-academic-growth measure is “average” or higher.
  • Provide a safe-harbor provision for value-added measures (VAM) during the 2014–15 school year. The provision allows school districts, charter schools, and STEM schools to enter into an agreement with their teachers to ensure that VAM is not used for decisions regarding teacher dismissal, retention, tenure, or compensation for next school year. This is an incredibly important provision that gives schools time to implement OTES and the state’s more rigorous state assessments aligned to its new learning standards.

The proposed changes in the House substitute for Senate Bill 229 appear to be a thoughtful and more complete review of Ohio’s teacher-evaluation law and deserve careful deliberation. Recent public comments from House Education Committee Chairman Stebelton suggest that he recognizes the importance of the changes and expects to allow significant time for the committee to gather public testimony. This is precisely the right course of action and bodes well for the long-term success of Ohio’s new teacher-evaluation system.

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