State’s teacher evaluation plans too weak, federal reviewers say

The weakness of a plan to link teacher evaluations to student performance was a key factor in Connecticut’s failure to qualify for millions of dollars in federal school aid, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The proposed evaluation system lacks detail, won’t be ready for years, and fails to include adequate provisions for rewarding successful teachers or removing ineffective ones, said reviewers for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top school reform competition.

“They were not satisfied [the plan] was aggressive enough,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

Race to the Top

The plan for revamping teacher and principal evaluations was one of several areas where McQuillan believes Connecticut’s approach differed sharply from the strategies espoused by Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion effort to spur school reform.

Those differences, including a divergence of views on how to turn around low-performing schools, hurt Connecticut’s chances in the high-stakes competition, McQuillan said.

While neighboring states of Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island were among 10 winners named this week in the competition, Connecticut’s application had already been eliminated, failing to qualify as a finalist last month.

Connecticut won praise from reviewers in some areas, including its emphasis on math and science education, but lost ground for failing to turn around low-performing schools and for making only slow progress on data systems to measure student performance.

A major shortcoming, according to reviewers, was the weakness of the state’s proposal to link teacher evaluations with student progress – a central goal in the Obama administration’s education strategy.

One reviewer described Connecticut’s plan as “very weak,” saying it contains “no real commitments . . . to using the new evaluation system data for making compensation, tenure or removal decisions.” Another said the proposal to create “a collaborative framework” for designing pay and evaluation systems through union bargaining had little substance. “This is a very weak statement of commitment for recognizing the successes of highly effective teachers,” the reviewer wrote.

McQuillan said, “You have this push by the federal government to create measures of teacher effectiveness that are very aggressive.” However, he said the matter is complicated, with experts disagreeing on strategies such as using student test scores in reading and mathematics as a factor in evaluations.

“That sounds very seductive,” McQuillan said, “but when you think about it, how many teachers do we have that don’t teach reading and math, per se?”

Under legislation passed earlier this year, the state will help schools develop an evaluation system that links teacher performance more directly with student progress but also takes into account a range of other factors, including class size and student characteristics such as socioeconomic status and English language proficiency.

“We felt we needed to take a very careful approach, field test it, and come forward with a plan,” McQuillan said.

Connecticut failed to qualify for up to $175 million in Race to the Top funds despite a sweeping school reform package passed by the state legislature in May. It was the second time Connecticut failed to make the cut. An earlier application also was rejected in March.

Connecticut’s latest application received a score of 379 points of a possible 500 – an improvement of 34 points over the score on its earlier application. Nevertheless, out of 36 applicants, Connecticut ranked 25th – the same rank it held in the first round of competition.

The teacher evaluation plan was “probably the single greatest area [of weakness] the reviewers singled out,” said Alex Johnston, CEO of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN.

States such as New York and Rhode Island made student performance a substantial element of teacher evaluations and pledged to use those evaluations in making decisions on staffing, including removal of ineffective teachers, Johnston said.

“They did create consequences based on the evaluations,” he said. “Clearly, that’s an area where Connecticut didn’t go.”

One leading teachers’ union official questioned whether some of the systems in other states go too far in imposing consequences.

“That may have won them points. It may have won them money, but I don’t think it’s a good way to go,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut.

“I think we have significant work to do in that area, but honestly I’m glad Connecticut didn’t rush to some draconian system,” she said.

“Before we jump to a punitive plan, we have to have development of a system that works well. . . . What we’ve always advocated as a union is more mentoring and professional development for teachers so they are getting a chance for success.”

Mary Loftus Levine, policy director for the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said Connecticut took a responsible approach in calling for a collaborative effort to shape evaluation procedures.

“We obviously don’t agree with the [federal] reviewers who want us to stand teacher evaluation on its head without any regard for the consequences.”

Another factor that may have hurt Connecticut’s application is that its key strategy for improving low-performing schools – known as the Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative (CALI) – does not match up directly with the school turnaround models outlined in the Race to the Top guidelines, according to McQuillan.

Those models include replacing most or all of the teaching staff at low-performing schools, converting schools to a charter model or even closing failing schools, but McQuillan said there is little scientific research to support those strategies.

The state’s CALI model requires schools to revise classroom strategies, create new tests and adjust curriculum based on a thorough review of student performance data.

In the Race to the Top report, one reviewer said Connecticut’s application provided little evidence to suggest that CALI has helped to improve learning or close the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging behind white and more affluent students.

McQuillan, however, said the most recent results of statewide testing show encouraging progress at schools using the CALI program, but those results were not available until July – long after the Race to the Top application was filed.