Teacher and public school evaluations face renewed scrutiny

A Tulane professor asked to review key parts of Louisiana’s public school accountability system said that, in some ways, the state is one of the national leaders.

“Overall, Louisiana is probably above average in a lot of respects,” said Douglas N. Harris, an associate professor of economics.

But Harris said there are areas that need attention, such as why some F-rated public schools have top-rated teachers and others that earn As have teachers rated as ineffective.

“All states are struggling with this issue,” he said.

Harris made his comments last week to a key advisory panel that is wading into the thorny topic of how public school teachers and schools are rated.

The group is the Accountability Commission, an influential panel that advises Louisiana’s top school board.

It includes teachers, superintendents, business and other advocacy groups involved in education issues.

Recommendations of the commission are often adopted by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and then show up as policies in public school classrooms statewide.

However, a push to take another look at how public school teachers are evaluated — a topic of ferocious debate in the Legislature and the subject of a pending lawsuit — and how public schools are rated is already sparking controversy.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and a member of the commission, said the twin reviews make sense.

“There are things that are not right,” said Monaghan, a longtime critic of how the state ranks teachers and public schools.

On the other side, Stephanie Desselle, a veteran panel member who tracks public school issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, questions the reasons for the review and what the results will be.

“My concern is that we are going to water down or completely render meaningless what has been a very strong school accountability system based on school performance scores and letter grades,” Desselle said.

“The consequence of these kinds of changes we are talking about could be huge,” she said.

The system the state uses to rate public school teachers and schools has taken effect only in recent years, and only after bitter debate at the Legislature and BESE and in ongoing lawsuits.

Teachers are subject to annual reviews, with half of the checks based on the growth of student achievement and half on traditional observations by principals.

Public schools get annual performance scores, which are linked mostly to how students do on key exams. Those scores then translate into a letter grade aimed at giving parents and other taxpayers an easy way to get a snapshot of a school’s quality.

Harris said schools are judged based on student performance, regardless of where they started the school year, while teachers are more fairly evaluated for how much students improve during the school year.

“Those two things should line up,” he said.

In addition, roughly one in three public school teachers is reviewed based on objective data — Value Added — while the other two-thirds are graded on whether they met more goals set by teachers and principals at the start of the school year — Student Learning Targets.

Debbie Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Principals, said the new system for reviewing teacher performance is flawed.

She said that, in meetings with principals, some teachers may be expected to improve student performance by 10 percent and others by 30 percent.

“Right now, there is not a lot of confidence in the right target to reach,” she said.

“People want something that is fair and something that is consistent. But right now, what we have is something that is not fair and not consistent.”

On public school ratings, Ascension Parish School District Superintendent Patrice Pujol said the state has never defined a good school.

“We have never built a system on how much value we add,” Pujol said of educators.

As a result, she said, there are top-rated schools where students show little growth during the year and others with low marks where students may grow academically by two years or more, not one.

Desselle, the lone dissenter on the commission on a vote to move forward, downplayed Harris’ concerns that school and teacher rating systems are not aligned.

“Because the two things are very different, they measure different things,” she said. “They have a different purpose.”

The commission is not the only group reviewing teacher evaluation methods.

Under a state law approved earlier this year — it is House Bill 415 — an eight-member subcommittee of the commission, including six teachers, will recommend possible changes to the Legislature. The suggestions are due 60 days before the start of the 2015 legislative session.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/