After backlash from teachers throughout Connecticut, state officials and education leaders Wednesday voted to scale back the sweeping changes approved less than two years ago on how every teacher must be evaluated.
The amended standards – which need U.S. Department of Education approval – will require school officials to set just one specific goal to measure student growth as opposed to the multiple goals currently required. The state’s Performance Evaluation Advisory Council also scaled back the number of times some teachers need to be observed, with higher-rated teachers needing to be formally observed just once every three years. The changes also delay for another school year linking state standardized test results to nearly one-quarter of a teacher's final rating.
Calling the changes the “wishes of educators throughout the state,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor pointed to the next step: “We need to seek federal approval” in order to proceed, Pryor said Wednesday.
When asking for a waiver to the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind, the state promised to require districts to implement an evaluation system that educators now seem to agree is burdensome to implement.
Both Pryor and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy were optimistic Connecticut could get a waiver from Washington.
A spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Education said the request will be considered.
"All requests are carefully reviewed, and a determination is made based on the criteria outlined in the application," spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb said.
Every state that has been granted a waiver so far by the federal government promised to have a fully implemented evaluation system linked to student outcomes no later than the 2014-15 school year. They also said they would begin using the results of those evaluations to inform personnel decisions by the 2015-16 school year.
The state's education reform law, passed nearly unanimously in 2012, links evaluations to teacher dismissals.
Writing to the states' leaders last August, the U.S. Department of Education said it would review additional state waiver requests that would allow districts to delay -- until the 2016-17 school year -- the use of teacher evaluation results to inform personnel decisions. There was no mention of how state applications to detach standardized test results from the evaluations would fare.
Oregon’s request for a one-year delay in linking test scores to its teacher evaluation system was recently denied, The Oregonian newspaper reports. As a result, the state has been labeled as “high-risk” and could soon be subject again to the rules of No Child Left Behind.
The Connecticut panel, with members representing superintendents, school boards and teachers' unions, approved the current evaluation guidelines in July 2012 after a visit to the state from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who announced that the state’s waiver request had been approved.
Asked if the changes being sought would dilute the value or accuracy of a teacher's rating, the Democratic governor said he thinks they will still be worthwhile.
“I think that’s what everyone is trying to get to,” Malloy told reporters Wednesday. “One thing that will come out of this is that more teachers will be working together on district improvement, and I think that that’s exciting.”
These changes follow the state’s largest teachers' union hosting forums across the state during the last two weeks where hundreds of teachers have aired their grievances with the evaluations. Their concerns include what they say is the hours of wasted time they're spending filling out paperwork, a data system that routinely crashes and the lack of support to actually improve their teaching.
“It’s just not working. If Obamacare was rolled out poorly, well this was worse,” Tom Marak, a teacher at North Haven High School who attended a recent forum, said during an interview. “It’s a lot of paperwork to satisfy a bureaucratic need.”
With a state workforce of 45,000 teachers, the governor depends on organized labor for re-election. He dismissed questions about whether this move was a political attempt to win back teachers who feel alienated under his education initiatives.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican running for governor, called the administration's implementation a "failure."
“Many of the teachers I met with on Monday still feel personally insulted by the sharp criticisms Gov. Malloy levied against their profession in his haste to force his reform plan upon them. Teachers knew he was moving too fast then, and this school year has proven that out," the Fairfield Republican said.
House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said this is not a political move, but rather about improving education.
“We are trying to make it right,” he said.
Politics aside, teachers will still need to be evaluated this school year. Districts have until March 30 to ask the state education department to approve changes to their existing evaluation systems.
Many of these changes are things districts sought flexibility on in the first place. Of state’s nearly 200 districts, 12 were granted waivers by the State Department of Education to make changes. These included scaling back the number of required observations or not incorporating test results into the ratings right away.
However, West Hartford’s request to implement only certain sections of the state model in the first year (including linking teacher goals with student outcomes) was rejected. Madison also is still waiting approval on its application, which would reduce the number of observations required, among other things.
Pryor said the same flexibility offered to those who already received waivers will now be available to every district.