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Two Steps Back for Modernizing the Teaching Profession in Florida

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By Shafeza Moonab and Alice Johnson Cain

The growing national movement to elevate the teaching profession had the rug pulled out from under it this week when Florida released a portion of individual teachers' performance evaluations to the public as a result of a lawsuit filed by a newspaper. As an educator and an education advocate, we are appalled and find this to be degrading to teachers and the teaching profession.

First, publicizing a professional's on-the-job evaluation is simply not appropriate in any profession. Across sectors, individual performance evaluations are generally private between employer and employee—not in the public domain. Doctors and nurses, who are literally in the business of saving lives, do not have their successes or failures boiled down to one number purported to indicate their degree of effectiveness at complex challenges, much less have that number reported to the public. Nor do police officers or members of the military. Given that they also work for the public good, are they next?

Second, teachers and principals are currently facing perhaps the highest-stakes educational challenge in our nation's history as they transition to Common Core State Standards and assessments. Common Core presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize our schools and improve educational opportunity—and equality of opportunity—for children across the country. At the very time that teachers and principals need full support from parents, business leaders, and other community members, the publication of individual teachers' performance evaluation data could have the opposite effect and drive wedges into relationships where collaboration, communication and support are more important than ever.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is that the information that has been published about many teachers may be inaccurate. Until last June, the Florida teachers' individual performance evaluations could be based in part on the test scores of students they have never taught. Astonishingly, the "value-added" component of a teacher's score could even be based on the performance of students from a different school! In some cases, drawing a random number out of a hat and assigning it to a teacher would yield the same amount of credible information about a teacher's performance. It is deeply disturbing that this "value-added" component is the very portion of the evaluation that the state has now released.

The "value-added" score for individual teachers makes up less than half of most teachers' evaluations, depending on what grade and subject they teach. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of "value-added" data, even in cases where it is connected to the students in a given teacher's classroom, this portion of the evaluation paints an incomplete picture of a teacher's work.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has tried to frame this as the glass half full, and wrote a letter to teachers stating that this action will show the public that this data has little value. We fear this will not be the case. When it comes to student achievement, parents are a part of the equation. Florida teachers are waiting for the parental backlash of their scores being made public. Will parents understand that the data is incomplete and in many cases inaccurate? Will they use this data to support teachers and principals or to demand changes that may or may not be in the best interests of students?

Considering the challenges Florida school districts are facing in recruiting new talent, Florida just put up yet another roadblock to attracting talented teachers. Who would want to teach in Florida now?

Florida's move has repercussions far beyond schools in the state. This move threatens to undermine the enormous efforts underway to improve teacher evaluations in dozens of states over the past several years. There are early signs of progress—most notably, the majority of teachers in one of the first districts to revamp its evaluation system are positive about its impact on teaching and learning, with 58 percent seeing a direct link between the teaching practices exemplified in the new system and increased student achievement, according to the 2013 Teach Plus report, Lessons from the Leading Edge.

The national movement to dramatically improve the teacher evaluation process grew, ironically, out of concern that teachers were not being treated as the professionals they are. Publication of the landmark report The Widget Effect demonstrated that as recently as 2009 many school districts treated teachers like interchangeable parts, or widgets, and that excellence went unrecognized, poor performance went unaddressed, and most teachers—unlike other professionals—got no meaningful feedback whatsoever from their evaluations.

Across the country, state departments of education, with input from researchers, educators and other experts, developed complex new teacher evaluation systems that are based in part on student growth on standardized tests. These tests, including Florida's FCAT, do not reflect intangibles that teachers provide, such as a sense of caring and support, that can matter enormously to the kids they teach. Standardized tests are only one piece of a much broader puzzle and can be misleading when looked at in isolation. Recognition of this fact led to stringent requirements for multiple data points for teacher evaluations in Florida and across the country. It defies logic that Florida decided to release only one component of only marginally accurate data with parents and the public. It is bound to lead to inaccurate perceptions and, quite possibly, to misguided actions.

Florida's state department of education should remove this data from the public domain immediately and appeal the court decision. Further, it should take steps to support teachers in each step of their careers—from dramatically improving teacher preparation programs so that teachers are equipped with the skills they need from their first day in the classroom, to building strong mentoring and induction programs that reach early career teachers across the state, to establishing career ladders that provide teachers with multiple paths to grow in the profession throughout their careers.

The teachers we work with go above and beyond for their students every day. To have their efforts boiled down to one number that may or may not be reflective of one component of their work does them a huge disservice. Teachers, students and parents deserve better.

Shafeza Moonab, a Teach Plus/NEA Future of the Profession Fellow, teaches history, law, and algebra at Ramblewood Middle School in Coral Springs, Florida and is on leave until August in order to serve as a Common Core trainer for the district. Alice Johnson Cain is Vice President for Policy at Teach Plus.

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