Educators at top schools fear new reviews will cost their jobs
by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
October 16, 2012
An increasing number of educators say Louisiana’s new evaluations make it more likely that teachers at high-achieving public schools will get poor reviews, which would threaten their job security.
“You are looking at trouble,” said Norma Church, principal of Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, one of the top-rated schools in the state.
But state Superintendent of Education John White said data show the concerns are mostly misplaced and that teachers in the state’s best schools are better positioned to get good reviews than most of their colleagues.
“And I have the statistics that show that,” White said.
The issue surfaced initially earlier this month when a state lawmaker said that South Highlands Elementary Magnet School, the highest-rated elementary school in the state, was seeing teachers rated as “ineffective” even though students scored among the highest in Louisiana.
The problem, they said, is that even high-scoring students whose results drop from the previous year can result in a teacher being rated as ineffective, which they said showed up in trial runs for the new job evaluations.
Under the new review system, teachers rated as ineffective for two years in a row can be fired.
White contends South Highlands is an isolated case.
However, teachers and leaders at Westdale, the LSU Laboratory School and two others in Shreveport said they are seeing problems similar to those at South Highlands.
The change, which stems from a 2010 law, is supposed to improve student achievement through more rigorous teacher reviews.
Critics call the new system unreliable.
Under the change, half of a teacher’s evaluation starting this school year will be linked to the growth of student achievement, which insiders call value added, rather than by relying largely on classroom observations.
Students who show gains based on state models, regardless of where they started, generally mean their teachers will get satisfactory ratings.
But Church said it is hard for teachers at high-performing schools to produce that growth, especially when students have scored well in previous school years.
She said she is especially concerned about her fifth-grade teachers, which is one year after students take the all-important LEAP test where passage is required for promotion.
Fifth-graders are not required to pass a standardized test to move to the next grade.
“It is harder for them to get that momentum going,” Church said of fifth-graders, which can mean lower test scores and lower ratings for the teachers.
“That is the one I worry the most about,” she said.
White said that, based on three years of test data for teachers who have been at Westdale for three or more years, all were put at various levels of effectiveness.
Wade Smith, director of the LSU Lab School, said educators there started looking at test scores and evaluations after they heard about the concerns at South Highlands since both schools are highly ranked.
“We are seeing that trend as well,” Smith said.
Based on pilot projects, he said, three teachers out of 10 or 12 included were rated as ineffective.
White said that, based on a review of three school years, only 30 teachers statewide out of about 55,000 were rated as ineffective even though a majority of their students scored at the top two levels on standardized exams.
He said teachers at magnet schools have only a 5 percent chance of being rated as ineffective while 10 percent statewide are expected to fall into that category.
However, White repeated his view that, while the concerns represent rare cases, state officials might need to make “adjustments” on the annual evaluations to ensure safeguards.
Erin Darwin Pizarro, who taught at highly ranked Caddo Middle Magnet School in Shreveport last school year, said that while 37 of her 38 gifted students scored in the two highest levels on their sixth-grade iLEAP exam, one dropped a notch and some fell slightly within the top two levels.
The result, Pizarro said, was that she received a 40 percent rating on a 100 percent scale.
In a two-page letter to The Advocate, she said that while she loves teaching, evaluation worries have “made me consider quitting forever because of an assessment which could eventually label me ineffective and cost me my job.”
Leisa Hurst, who teaches gifted fourth- and fifth-graders at Claiborne Fundamental Elementary School in Shreveport, said she was rated as ineffective in trial runs even though her students generally fared well.