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VOL. 126 | NO. 163 | Monday, August 22, 2011

AP Exclusive: Evaluations Worry Teachers

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – Tennessee education officials say they're taking steps to address teachers' concerns about a new evaluation system that for the first time will use students' standardized test scores as part of the process.

Recent changes in state law – including teacher evaluations and toughening the curriculum – allowed Tennessee to win $500 million in the national Race to the Top education grant competition.

However, The Associated Press recently obtained a list of about 30 questions teachers say remain unanswered about the evaluation process that is broken down into 50 percent qualitative – or the observation component – and 35 percent growth and 15 percent achievement.

Most of the questions provided by the Tennessee Education Association center around the growth portion that is comprised of students' value-added test scores, which many educators say is an unfair measurement because students test differently. The achievement component will be determined by the principal and teachers at each school.

Critics say the evaluation system, as a whole, is suspect and that it hasn't been determined how best to rate teachers whose subjects aren't covered by the state's value-added test scoring program.

"Teachers are rightfully very concerned that the state is moving forward without testing the system and knowing that it works," said Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters. "Tying student test scores to job security requires that a very proven evaluation system be in place for such a high stakes process."

Sara Heyburn, policy adviser for the state Department of Education, said officials are working on how to rate teachers whose subjects aren't covered by the test scoring program and hope to "pilot some measures next year around those non-tested subjects."

"We're working diligently at the state level with educators in those non-tested areas ... to make recommendations to the state about what might be the most appropriate way to measure growth in those areas," Heyburn said.

As for other concerns, Tim Gaddis, director of educator evaluation, said frequently asked questions will be posted on a web page and a series of online seminars and regional meetings will be held throughout the year to try to answer those questions.

Gaddis said districts are also invited to send in questions to the main office and education officials use Skype and other measures to meet with them and answer questions.

"Some of them can be fairly unique, and so with each individual situation, we may have to provide some guidance in that way," Gaddis said.

Dorcel Benson of Nashville has been teaching 33 years. She said she appreciates the involvement of education officials, but is still nervous about the new system.

"I don't think I'll be satisfied until I go through the process the initial time," she said. "I think we're anxious to see actually how it's going to work."

Before the change, Tennessee teachers were observed once every three to five years after becoming tenured. Now, they will be evaluated every year and observed multiple times a year.

House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner of Nashville believes the new system will be burdensome to educators and administrators.

"If we've got them filling out evaluation forms, as opposed to teaching, then we've done a disservice to them and our students," he said.

However, some leaders in education say the new system and other education reforms – such as requiring a teacher to be on the job five years instead of three to get tenure – will hold teachers more accountable and hopefully motivate them to better educate students.

"Teacher evaluations in this country have been broken for about five decades," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during a visit to Nashville last week. "You guys are trying something new."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam chimed in and said he realizes the new evaluation system is not perfect, "but the only thing worse than saying, 'Oh, we don't have it right,' is saying let's wait until we have it perfect to do it."

"I think we'll learn a lot, and shame on us if we don't continue to make it better," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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