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Governor’s bid for major changes in teacher evaluations sparking pushback

April 23, 2017
By Will Sentell
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Louisiana's 2010 overhaul of annual teacher evaluations was touted as a way to provide a meaningful snapshot of teacher effectiveness and improve student performance in the classroom.

But Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to make sweeping changes in the yearly reviews, leading to charges that his office is breaking a deal brokered last year when the annual checks were tweaked.

The governor's proposal, House Bill 532, would undo the rule that at least 35 percent of the evaluation has to be linked to the growth of student achievement.

Edwards' bill would allow local school officials to use students' academic growth however they wish in deciding how teachers should be rated.

Doing so, the governor said in a statement, will give local educators discretion to weigh student gains along with other data "so that it more accurately reflects what's happening in our schools."

The proposal has sparked heavy criticism from groups that favor major changes in public schools and have clashed with Edwards and his education allies for years.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said a wide range of parties agreed last year, after the 2016 changes, the issue would not be revisited for three years.

"This is a deal brokered by the Governor's Office," Nieland said.

She said under the governor's plan, local educators would be tempted to ignore data on annual student academic gains and rely on classroom observations for much of the teacher reviews, an approach that prompted the overhaul seven years ago.

"I find that the bill is totally unworkable," Nieland said.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who sponsored some of the original legislation on the issue, said linking student gains to how teachers are performing is a key part of Louisiana's education accountability system.

"Without that, we don't know, parents don't know, legislators don't know, no one knows if the teachers, if the school districts, if the structural governance is performing or not performing," Appel said.

The revamped teacher reviews were a forerunner of former Gov. Bobby Jindal's sweeping overhaul of public schools in 2012, including tougher tenure rules for teachers and statewide expansion of vouchers.

The change stemmed from complaints that under the old system of using classroom observations to rate teachers, all but a handful of teachers statewide routinely won satisfactory marks while Louisiana's public school system regularly placed near the bottom nationally.

Backers of the changes said the state could craft a reliable system that would show what affect teachers actually had on improving student performance, all the while accounting for poverty and other factors.

That formula, called the Value Added Model, applies to about 20,000 of the state's roughly 50,000 public school teachers.

Teacher unions and other traditional public school groups always opposed the new rules, saying there are too many variables affecting how students fare to make that a part of a teacher's job review.

"We look at getting rid of VAM on a statewide level as a good thing," said Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of several groups that have criticized the review system for years.

However, both the LAE and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers have concerns about the governor's plan.

"It means every single district would have a different evaluation model," LFT President Larry Carter said, adding that the measure could be improved with amendments.

Last year, a heavily negotiated bill tweaked the evaluations.

Under the 2016 changes, growth in student achievement would account for 35 percent of the review, down from 50 percent previously.

Other signs of academic achievement would count for 15 percent of the score, and traditional classroom observations by superintendents for 50 percent.

The new rules were hammered out by teacher unions, superintendents, the Louisiana School Boards Association, LABI, Stand for Children and the Council for a Better Louisiana.

The deal also extended for another year — three and counting — a controversial moratorium on using VAM data in rating teachers during the state's move to tougher academic standards.

Stephanie Desselle, who tracks public school issues for CABL, said all the parties appeared satisfied after last year's agreement.

"It is the only objective measure in an evaluation," Desselle said of using classroom performance to rate teachers. 

Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, sponsor of the bill and of the original 2010 measure, noted that he has said all along that if problems arise, he would lead efforts to change the reviews.

"This bill doesn't do away with it," Hoffmann said. "It does affect the way we use it and how it can be used."

The legislation says state data will be provided to local school districts to "assist" in measuring student improvements in the classroom.

Hoffmann said he is not convinced the current system is reliable but he is mindful of concerns raised by the governor's bill.

"It is still in the works," he said. "We are still seeing what we can do with it."

Under current plans, linking student gains to teacher reviews is supposed to resume for the 2017-18 school year.

The changes have been in place in earnest for only one year.

In 2013, one in three teachers got the top rating, and only 4 percent were labeled ineffective.

Riddle said while his group appreciates Edwards pushing the issue, allowing principals to decide how to use the data in 69 school districts could trigger other problems.

"It could cause a huge disparity on how VAM is used," he said.

In his statement, the governor said he has spoken with many educators statewide about using figures on student growth to help rate teachers.

"Teacher evaluations are important, and the principals know better than anyone what progress is and isn't being made," he said.