On the same day U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the nation's teacher evaluation systems "largely broken and dysfunctional," Nebraska set about to draw up a new one for its teachers.
Members of the Nebraska Board of Education voted 8-0 this week to develop a teacher-evaluation model that will hold teachers accountable for student learning.
Nebraska and Iowa are among 26 states that do not explicitly require teachers to be evaluated on how well their students learn, according to a survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed said just how Nebraska will incorporate learning has yet to be determined. Breed said the way the state's teachers are evaluated is strong in some schools, not so strong in others, but not as bad as Duncan's characterization.
"I think you would not describe Nebraska's system, as a whole, in that category," he said.
Board members appear reluctant, at least at this point, to mandate that districts use the model once it's developed, adhering instead to the mantra of local control that so often governs education policy in the state.
Asked why the state would develop a system, one that reflects the best practices in education, but not require its use, board member Bob Evnen of Lincoln said, "We might, that's undecided."
Board member Molly O'Holleran of North Platte said mandating the model could foster resentment in the districts.
Districts would more likely embrace the model if it's voluntary, O'Holleran said.
Both Evnen and O'Holleran said that if the model's good, they would expect districts would want to adopt it or adapt it to their district. Evnen said what works for schools in Scottsbluff may not be right for the Omaha Public Schools.
Jim Sutfin, assistant superintendent of human resources in the Millard Public Schools, said it's important that Millard retain local control over its evaluations.
Millard has a "very refined" model, Sutfin said, that's updated periodically based on the district's research.
Millard's model does not explicitly give any weight to objective measures of student achievement, such as test scores or student academic growth. But the district looks at how well teachers use assessments and data to inform instruction and how well they diagnose students' learning problems and adjust their teaching. Teachers often set their own goals for raising student achievement, he said.
"Do I believe our teacher evaluation system supports student achievement? Absolutely," Sutfin said. "Does it identify strengths and weaknesses that teachers need to improve upon? Yes. And are there specific processes in place when a teacher's not meeting expectations? Yes."
The system pushes teachers to do better, but for struggling ones, it can lead to contract cancellation, he said.
While teachers often express reservations about tying evaluations to student outcomes, the Nebraska State Education Association has endorsed the effort to draw up a model.
Jay Sears, in charge of instructional advocacy for NSEA, the state teachers union, told the board his organization supports the development of one or more models that could improve instruction but also help to remove failing teachers so "at least they won't be hurting our children."
Across the nation, there is "unprecedented momentum" for states to include student learning in evaluations, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. The trend was spurred in part by the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, which made money awards contingent on states tying evaluations to student achievement. The administration has also tied evaluation reform to its offer to waive parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
It can be tricky to come up with a system that fairly evaluates teachers in core classes like English and math but also in electives such as art and physical education, where kids don't take standardized tests, the council acknowledged.
But it said those challenges, and the as-yet imperfect methods for measuring student growth, shouldn't stop states from moving ahead with new evaluation systems.
Nebraska law requires that school districts adopt an evaluation policy, and evaluations must consider instructional performance, classroom management and personal and professional conduct.
Breed said that although student learning is not specifically included in Nebraska requirements, when he was superintendent of the Elkhorn Public Schools, student learning was always a part of the discussion in evaluating teachers.
In Iowa, also steeped in a local control philosophy, districts develop their own evaluation systems within state guidelines.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed an education reform package calling for more frequent teacher evaluations — every year instead of every three years — and for using academic growth data to validate the observations that principals make of teachers in the classroom.
The bill calls for developing what's called a "value-added" system by Jan. 31, 2013, that would measure the actual academic growth of students against expected gains.
Duncan, speaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Tuesday, said many state evaluation systems don't indicate who the great teachers are, how teachers in the middle can improve, or which teachers should be dismissed if they fail to improve.
"California has 300,000 teachers," Duncan said. "Its top 10 percent of teachers — 30,000 teachers — are world-class teachers and some of the best in the world. Its bottom 10 percent of teachers should probably not be in the classroom. But today, no one knows who is in which category."
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