Schools chief suggests changes  

State Superintendent of Education John White said that, while he is a firm believer in teacher evaluations, he plans to recommend modest changes in how the reviews work.

However, leaders of the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s two largest teacher unions, are stepping up their criticism of the 3-year-old evaluations and especially their reliance on standardized test scores for half of a teacher’s rating.

LAE President Joyce Haynes said her group is prepared to carry the fight to the courtroom, as they have done to challenge a bill pushed by White and Gov. Bobby Jindal that expands the state’s voucher system.

“The LAE is prepared to do it lawsuit by lawsuit,” Haynes said.

The evaluations, which are being used in the current school year, stem from a 2010 state law pushed by Jindal.

They are touted as a way to improve student achievement through more rigorous teacher reviews. Virtually every teacher won satisfactory marks under the previous system.

Under the plan, half of a teacher’s review is based on the growth of student achievement, which for many teachers is linked to standardized tests such as LEAP and iLEAP.

The other half stems from classroom observations by principals and others.

Students who show gains under the state’s model, regardless where they started, generally mean their teachers will get satisfactory ratings.

Those rated as “ineffective” for two years in a row are subject to dismissal.

White said that approach is the right way to go.

“The purpose of teaching is for students to grow, and so it is important to measure the growth of students when we measure how effective a teacher is,” he said.

However, White said pilot projects in various school districts since 2010, and comments since the reviews were started during the current school, will lead him to recommend changes to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, likely in January.

One such adjustment, he said, is to let teachers have a detailed look at the student’s previous academic record at the start of the school year.

“Give teachers all of the data at the start of the year, so the teacher can see what progress looks like,” White said.

Educators also need video links and other options to see how top-flight teachers operate in the classroom, according to the superintendent.

“They (teachers) have been saying over the course of the year: Give me a clearer understanding of what excellence looks like,” he said.

In a third area, White said school principals need more discretion in rating teacher performance, especially in schools with lots of high-achieving students that, critics say, are harder to show year-to-year improvements.

“These are teachers who have done their jobs,” he said. “So people are saying why not give the principal greater discretion to use not just test scores, but other means of evaluating teachers.”

Leaders of some schools, including Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, have said teachers are liable to get poor ratings when high-scoring students fail to show improvements over the previous year.

Yet Haynes and other critics, who opposed the 2010 law, said the problems go deeper than any tweaks can address.

Linking teacher performance in part to tests like LEAP and iLEAP is a mistake, she said.

“I just want someone to make the case against standardized tests,” Haynes said.

Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the LAE, criticized the use of test results to gauge whether teachers helped students improve in the previous year.

“None of them was designed to judge the performance of the teacher,” Walker-Jones said of the exams.

Michael Deshotels, who was executive director of the LAE from 1995-98, said that, just as in state ratings of Louisiana’s roughly 1,300 public schools, poverty is often overlooked in analyzing student test scores.

He said data shows a clear link between low rates of students from poor families and high-scoring schools and high rates of poor students and schools rated D or F by the state.

“All the testing experts know that student scores vary greatly no matter what school they attend and that students from poor neighborhoods score worse than those from wealthy neighborhoods,” wrote Deshotels, who runs an education-related blog.