Change of plans. Meetings creating teacher evaluations will be public.

After holding numerous meetings behind closed doors to finalize details on how teachers and principals will be graded, the State Department of Education has said the public and the media can attend the sessions from now on.

“Something is different at this meeting. At this meeting — in the interest of transparency — the state department has invited the press to join us,” is how Elizabeth Shaw, the state’s consultant with Education First, started Wednesday’s “working group” meeting.

This decision to conduct open meetings comes one day after the Connecticut Mirror reported that several private meetings have taken place without public notice and that 10 more closed sessions had been scheduled.

It also follows a contentious Performance Evaluation Advisory Council meeting last week, the first public meeting in three months, where members butted heads on how much weight to give students’ standardized test results in teacher evaluations.

The council had planned to reconvene this past Monday to start to hash out issues raised during the meeting, but Monday’s session was cancelled, and the closed “working group” meetings scheduled instead. The next public meeting had not been scheduled until June 21, nine days before the panel’s June 30 deadline. The state Board of Education is expected to sign off on the evaluations shortly after that.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act defines a meeting as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency, any convening or assembly of a quorum of a multimember public agency.”

And though a meeting can include “any communication by or to a quorum of a multimember public agency” both the Freedom of Information Commission and state courts say the presence of a quorum isn’t essential for a meeting to have occurred.

Several members of the Teacher Evaluation Working Group that met Wednesday were surprised to learn that their previous meetings were not public, including one the previous day.

“I thought they always were public,” said Lori Rossomando, the leader of Stamford’s teachers’ union.

However, she said having the media present at a meeting “can do a disservice to the process” if a story is bias or does a bad job of reporting the meeting. “But that said, the press has the right to be here,” she said.

A spokesman for the state department agrees.

“We have decided that inviting the media to these working group sessions is the right thing to do. We are hopeful and confident that these sessions can proceed with the candor necessary for participants to advance this critical process,” spokesman Jim Polites said.

The next meeting is slated for Thursday, May 24, at 9 a.m. at the Connecticut Association of Schools in Cheshire. Other meetings are set for May 29 and June 5 and 12.

Some resolution and some lingering questions

One needs to look no further than a comment made at Wednesday’s working group meeting to understand the delicate situation the state department finds itself in as it works to reach consensus and implement a teacher evaluation system based largely on student performance.

Looking toward the teachers and their union leaders at the table, Dave Calchera of the state’s superintendent group, summed it up, “You’re concerned about monstrous administrators, and we’re concerned about ineffective teachers.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

But despite this, the 18-member panel found some agreement on how to move forward and “fairly” grade teachers based on improving student learning.

Following the lead of the “New Haven Model” — the Elm City’s nationally recognized teacher evaluation system — this state panel decided to support similar guidelines in an area that will make up nearly one-quarter of a teacher’s grade.

“That’s what we have in New Haven,” said David Cicarella, president of the city’s union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “And it’s worked out pretty well.”

The State Board of Education in February decided that between 45 percent and 50 percent of a teacher’s grade must be linked to student performance and growth. Half of that would be based on state standardized tests and the other half from “other indicators.” Last week’s testy debate revolved around whether those “other indicators” could be other standardized tests.

“No more tests,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the state panel. Palmer said she only agreed to tests accounting for 22.5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Members of the working group, however, may have found a way to move the full panel over this impasse.

They agreed that whatever goes into this remaining 22.5 percent must be “mutually agreed upon” by the teacher and the principal at the start of the year.

Garth Harries, the New Haven assistant superintendent who has been most involved in getting the district’s evaluation system up and running, said giving teachers and principals together the power to determine the indicators to be measured is key.

“There is going to be a tension in trying to over-structure this process,” he said. “New Haven is based on both what the teacher and the principal wants… The fundamental thing is that it’s mutually agreed upon.”

However, in New Haven, the decision is not completely left to the teacher and the principal. There has to be at least two indicators — be it a standardized test, student participation, the rigor of a teacher’s lesson plan, or a portfolio of student work — that play a role in a teacher’s evaluation. At least one of those indicators has to be a standardized measure. If a teacher wants to be graded by more than two measures then they can have up to four indicators, at least one being a standardized test accounting for 25 percent of their grade.

“True tests can be 25 percent… but they can also be 100 percent,” according to Harrise, who said several teachers do choose to overwhelmingly use standardized tests in their evaluations. “A teacher can have as many standardized assessments as they and their administrator agree to.”

Linette Branham, a member of the working group from the Connecticut Education Association, likes the consensus component.

“They have to be mutually agreed upon,” she said, calling it “bad practice” to force an arbitrary grading system on teachers. She is oposed, however, to standardized tests counting for more than 22.5 percent of a teachers’ evaluation.

Christine O’Neil, a science teacher at Park City Academy in Bridgeport, said an arbitrary grading system would “lead to fairness grievances.” 

It remains to be seen how much weight the State Board of Education will allow tests to play into these evaluations. Its deadline to make a decision is July 1.