Panels debate the merits of using surveys to judge teachers

Students and their parents will soon begin taking surveys in several districts across the state to evaluate their teachers.

These surveys — which can account for up to 15 percent of a teacher’s grade in the state’s new evaluation system — has drawn the ire of teachers and their unions and the praise of other education officials.

“I think we have wimped out all these years by not using this feedback,” said Garth Harries, assistant superintendent of New Haven public schools and a member of a state panel helping to create evaluation guidelines. Harries made his comment during a meeting Tuesday in Hartford of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council’s teacher evaluation committee.

But teachers and union leaders have fundamental concerns with the potential high stakes of the survey results. State legislators earlier this year passed a law linking these teacher evaluations to tenure and dismissal decisions.

“I am worried about the accuracy and fairness,” said Tiffany Haley, a middle school science teacher in Middletown and an evaluation committee member.

Haley told panel members that students and parents who may have vendettas because of a bad grade should not determine her fate.

The surveys will begin rolling out in many of the 16 pilot evaluation districts — which have 5,000 teachers — for the 2012-13 school year. While 10 percent of the state’s teachers will be included in this pilot, every district will need to implement the state model the following year.

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The state model requires 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score to come from parent or peer surveys, or both. Another 5 percent will come from student surveys or from schoolwide performance achievement.

“This is all experimental,” Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the state’s largest teachers’ union, told members of the state panel, shaking her head in disapproval. Loftus Levine spoke at a Wednesday meeting of the full Performance Evaluation Council.

Nationwide, six states include surveys in evaluations of its teachers. The National Council for Teacher Quality reports that Arizona, Colorado and New York make surveys an option, but not a requirement. Media reports also indicate that North Carolina, Hawaii and Rhode Island are also moving toward using surveys. New Haven, whose teacher evaluations have been called a national model by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, does not use surveys in teacher evaluations, though Harries hopes to change that.

“These surveys really could generate some improvement” of teachers, John Luczak, the state’s consultant for evaluations from Education First, said when proposing draft guidelines for the surveys during Wednesday’s meeting.

He pointed to a recent report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project, that calls surveys “value-added measures [that] do seem to convey information about a teacher’s impact.”

Possible proposed guidelines that the State Board of Education is to vote on by the end of the month include allowing survey responses to be anonymous, and giving every parent the opportunity to provide feedback. Likewise, for districts that decide to use student surveys, then every student — possibly from kindergarten through grade 12 — would be given an age-appropriate survey.

Union leaders said they oppose the use of the survey responses to lower a teacher’s rating. Linette Branham, a Connecticut Education Association official, said teachers should get the full 15 percent credit if the teacher is engaged with and available to work with interested students and parents.

The decision of whether surveys will account for 10 percent or 15 percent of a teacher’s score, and several other evaluation components, will be left up to local school boards and superintendents. Nearly half the evaluation, and what goes into it, will depend on “mutual agreement” between the teacher and principal. This includes setting annual goals and determining how much weight standardized tests will have.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the group appeared to reach consensus on language that tries to ensure that standardized test results don’t overly influence a teacher’s grade. Last week, the panel agreed upon the extent to which standardized test results could count. Under the agreement, standardized tests can count for up to nearly half of a teacher’s grade in an extreme case, if both the teacher and principal agreed. The proposed revised guidelines would require “a balance in the weighing” of tests and nonstandardized assessments.

“The goal is to avoid the over-reliance on standardized test data,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said.

How to handle evaluations where there is no mutual agreement has not yet been determined. The group appeared to reach consensus on the need for a judgment panel to be created, but what that would look like and who would pay for it is unclear.

The burden of conducting and analyzing these surveys was also raised by several panel members.

Diane Ullman, a State Department of Education official who will be leading the pilot districts, said she is confident “it can easily be compiled… It doesn’t have to be complicated” or expensive.

This panel is scheduled to meet next Thursday to approve guidelines to recommend to the State Board of Education, which is slated to vote on them June 27.