No applause for implementation of education reforms

Only two hours after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a compromise education reform bill to near universal applause, a disagreement erupted at the State Department of Education over how to implement a provision on evaluating teachers.

At issue is how much students’ performances on standardized tests will count when grading teachers. The new reform package relies on linking tenure and dismissal decisions to a new state-created teacher evaluation system.

“We are going to have an evaluation system that actually means something,” Malloy said Tuesday afternoon, before signing the bill to the applause of administrators, teacher union leaders and others at the state Capitol.


From left: Phil Apruzzese and Mary Loftus Levine of the CEA; and Joe Cirasuolo, representing superintendents.

But a panel working across the street at the education department on finalizing the details for these new evaluations by July 1 split on how much standardized tests will count.

“Now that we’ve finished with the celebration, it’s back to the trenches,” said Patrice McCarthy, general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

If those representing principals, superintendents and school boards get their way, local officials will get to determine if standardized tests will be able to account for 50 percent of a teachers’ grade. But teacher union leaders will not let that happen without a fight.

“No more tests,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the state panel.

A decision was made in January by this same panel to allow 22.5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to come from state standardized tests. Another 5 percent could come from overall school performance on these standardized tests.

But there is dispute whether local districts will have the authority to allow another 22.5 percent of a teacher’s grade to come from her students’ performance on other standardized tests, such as Advanced Placement tests.

“A district should get to decide,” said Karissa L. Niehoff, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, which represents the state’s non-unionized principals.

“There was never any discussions that would preclude a district from using such measures,” said McCarthy, of the school boards association. “Many of us thought this would be an option.”

Some panel members argued that using multiple student tests will ensure the evaluation is an accurate measure of performance.

“Then include it in the 22.5 percent,” said Palmer, which represents about a quarter of the 50,000 teachers in the state.

Palmer was backed by Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the other teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association.

“We said ‘No’ to this… We are moving in a very different direction then what we agreed to,” she said. Loftus Levine is also a member of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council. “It is a problem,” she said.

Attempting to diffuse the situation on what started as a celebratory day for educators, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said there clearly was “diversity in opinion of what we agreed to.”

He asked the panel to devote their next meeting to resolve this, “while we review the videotape” of what was agreed upon by the unions last January.

If no resolution can be achieved, he said, the decision is ultimately up to the State Board of Education to decide on by July 1.

“That’s how issues get resolved that cannot be resolved here,” he said.

There is no shortage of officials applying to participate in the state’s 10-district pilot evaluation system for the coming school year.

Bridgeport and Windham — two of the lowest-performing districts in the state — are two of the nearly 30 applications the state has received so far.

“This will be a big step forward for us,” said Steven Adamowski, the state-appointed special master of the Windham school district. “Windham has very little on this now. We hope to be a pilot. We need it.”

The superintendents of Hartford and New Haven, who attended Tuesday’s bill signing, said their districts do not intend to apply before the May 25 deadline to immediately launch the state’s evaluation system.

Every district in the state will be required by the 2013 school year to have an evaluation system that complies with the state standards. Waivers will be available on a limited basis when districts have created evaluations of their own, Pryor has said.

The state model, unanimously approved by the State Board of Education and this panel earlier this year, requires that teachers be evaluated as follows:

  • 45 percent on student learning indicators (things like attendance, graduation rates and standardized tests);
  • 5 percent on how the school performs as a whole or a student feedback survey;
  • 40 percent on teachers’ observations and practices;
  • 10 percent on peer and parent feedback surveys.

These new evaluations, and specifically the pilots, are already causing consternation among teachers and other school officials.

One problem is that if standardized tests are to account for a teacher’s and principal’s grade, they must be more timely. How students perform on their state tests is not available until after the end of the school year, well past when a teacher must be evaluated.

Also, only 10th grade students are tested in high school, so Loftus Levine and Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said it would be unfair to rate teachers on how last year’s 10th graders compare to this year’s 10th graders for student growth.

Pryor said these issues for high school evaluations will be sorted out after and possibly during the pilot year.

Another issue is how evaluations in these pilot districts will be used.

“It’s gotta count,” said Niehoff, from the principals’ group.

Loftus Levine said it would be unfair to link an untested evaluation system to tenure and evaluation decisions in these 10 districts.

And then, finally, questions were raised about how frequently and how long a principal must sit in a teacher’s classroom for observation.

A subcommittee recommended to the full board Tuesday that non-tenured teachers be observed three times a year for 20 minutes. Tenured teachers would need to be observed twice.

“Forty minutes a year? I think that’s a problem,” said Cirasuolo, with the superintendents’ group.

“The biggest problem is when someone comes in and does a drive-by evaluation,” said the CEA’s Loftus Levine.

Others complained that a two- to three-times-a-year requirement could consume 25 percent of a principal’s time, leaving little room for other responsibilities.

How the parent, student and teacher peer surveys will play out also still need to be resolved. Connecticut will be one of the few states to use such surveys to grade its teachers.

The panel has just over six weeks to find answers to these questions, or let the state board settle areas on which the panel could not reach consensus.