Teacher evaluation policies must reflect student needs

While most of the sound and fury during this legislative session has centered on the state’s budget deficit, there are crucial education issues that cry out for attention. For example, Connecticut’s current statutes related to teacher employment and evaluation policies are out of date. They are unfair to students and our best teachers and give us a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting and maintaining effective teachers.

Senate Bill 1160 is aimed at revising some of these issues but it needs to be strengthened to include the needs of students in termination decisions, significant weight on student academic growth in teacher evaluation decisions, and the consideration of factors besides seniority in layoff decisions. As a group of mainly business leaders focused on education reform in Connecticut, we see results-based evaluations and decision making as critical components in closing our widest in the nation achievement gap.

Starting with the basics, there is no mention of student instructional needs in the current teacher tenure statutes. Considering the fact that the primary job of teachers is to instruct children, the fact that there is no mention of children’s needs is absurd. SB 1160 should be amended so that all decisions regarding teacher tenure give primary consideration to a teacher’s demonstrated ability to meet the instructional needs of students.

The current version of SB 1160 attempts to provide a seventh way to terminate tenured teachers who are still underperforming following a year to improve after being deemed “deficient” by an approved evaluation system. While it is exciting to see some additional support for teachers and flexibility in removing deficient teachers, the bottom line is that unlike several other states (Maryland, Arizona, New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, Minnesota, Colorado and several others with current pending legislation), this bill does not propose giving significant weight to student academic growth in determining the effectiveness of a teacher.

The language in this bill needs to be changed so that all teacher evaluations are required to put significant weight on student results in addition to other important factors such as lesson planning and classroom observation. Of course, the academic progress of a student can’t be measure by just one test score. However, in a given year an array of evidence is available to schools and districts that demonstrate effective teaching and learning.

These changes ensure that our most effective teachers remain and improve in the classroom, our struggling teachers receive the help they need, and our students receive the instruction they deserve. They also ensure that Connecticut is able to compete for ambitious teachers– those who want to find new ways to help students perform at their best and to be recognized for doing so.

Then there is the hot-button issue of layoffs and teacher seniority. Given the current fiscal environment for school districts, SB 1160 must also address school district policies that give primary consideration to years of experience when making these layoff decisions. These policies ignore the documented performance of teachers when deciding who needs to be laid off. Additionally, because schools serving low-income students typically have the least senior staffs, they are usually disrupted most by these policies as they lose more of their teachers.

The bill should be amended to allow districts to give primary consideration to evaluation outcomes. This way, they could first lay off teachers identified as needing “intensive supervision and assistance” with their current evaluation processes. It makes no sense to lay off a teacher who has been documented as being a great teacher while keeping someone who has been identified as struggling simply because he has more years of experience. This practice is unfair to our best teachers but most of all to our students who will receive the ultimate consequence of poor academic instruction and preparation for the future.

It is time for Connecticut’s legislature to put the needs of our students and teachers over the archaic and debilitating policies and practices that govern our teacher employment decisions today.

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