In 2009, Patrick Hayes, a fourth-grade teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary, was at a banquet, waiting to receive an award, because from fall 2007 to spring 2008, 81 percent of his class had met their standardized test score goals in reading. As Hayes sat at the celebration, he thought about his current class — and how only 29 percent of them were set to meet their own goals.
Fortunately for Hayes, that was a few years ago, before S.C. State Superintendent Mick Zais submitted a new teacher evaluation plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Under this new system, officially proposed in July, the annual performances of teachers like Hayes would be judged based partially on those kinds of test scores. Zais' plan would also evaluate teachers based on an A-through-F scale. This would be the first time teachers would be graded like their students, and the first time a teacher's job security would be so closely linked to the failure of their class.
If Zais' grading scale were in place when Hayes received his award, he could have walked out of the banquet and gone right into a meeting about his failing performance.
Zais' new plan is part of a waiver request to give South Carolina some flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act. Currently, South Carolina uses a statewide teacher evaluation system called Adept. According to Jay W. Ragley, the director of legislative and public affairs at the S.C. Department of Education, Adept scores a teacher's performance based on their professionalism — how well they manage their classrooms, how well their students behave, how good their lesson plans are. However, it does not take into account students' scores on standardized tests, like the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS), SMARTER Balance (which will replace some forms of PASS starting in 2014), or a combination of the two. The new plan would take into account both sets of criteria.
"It gets at the heart of what education is about, which is student learning," Ragley says of the plan. "An evaluation system at its core must have student learning, and the current evaluation system in place for teachers and principals does not have student learning or a component of student learning at its core."
Teachers will be graded according to certain criteria, depending on what they teach. Instructors in English, math, science, and social studies will find that 60 percent of their scores are based on their professional performance, while 30 percent will be based on students' test scores. "We look at where the students entered that teacher's classroom, where did they finish at the end of the year, and what was their growth," Ragley says. The final 10 percent of a teacher's grade is based on how a school's entire student population performs on their tests.
"We believe, and many educators have also said this, that every teacher plays an important role in every student learning," Ragley adds. "It's not just a single teacher. Because schools work together as teams, we felt it was important to make sure that everyone was a part of the evaluation by having a school value-added component."
For art, music, and other non-tested subject teachers, 70 percent of their evaluation will be based on professional standards, while 30 percent will be based on the scores of the student body as a whole. Previously, teachers like these were evaluated on a 50/50 ratio, so Ragley points out that the new system is actually not as stringent as the old one.
Currently, Zais' plan is being beta tested at 22 failing schools that have been given federal grants. Six of these schools are in the Charleston area: Burke Middle High School, Greg Mathis Charter High School, Morningside Middle School, and North Charleston, R. B. Stall, and St. John's high schools. The state Board of Education will then use the feedback and data to make changes to the evaluation plan after this school year.
Ragley points out that teachers were consulted on the plan almost as soon as the waiver announcement was made, with public meetings held across the state. The proposal was submitted at the end of February, and after some tinkering, it eventually moved forward in July, though Zais is still waiting on final federal approval.
Earlier this year, Patrick Hayes was in the press for his petition efforts to restore teachers' contractually promised annual salary increases, and he's turned that energy into the non-profit organization EdFirstSC. Hayes plans to continue his advocacy for a strong public school system on a more permanent basis. Like some teachers across the state, he's not happy with the Zais plan and sees it as an attempt to motivate teachers through intimidation and humiliation.
Were it to be implemented, Hayes thinks Zais' plan would ultimately impact morale. His peers tell him that they would feel disrespected, disregarded, and compared to children, since they'll be given the same letter grades as students, and he thinks that the many instructors who don't even give standardized tests, like art, music, or kindergarten teachers, would be unfairly impacted by school-wide scores. "Not only are you going to get a D, you're going to get a D just because of the building you work in," Hayes explains. "It could have absolutely nothing to do with your job performance. That's just preposterous." He wants people to know that average classroom teachers are already working as hard as they can.
Ragley, on the other hand, stresses that the teacher grades are not going to be available to the public. "That was a lie put out by the teacher labor unions in this state, so the A-to-F grading is not going to be public to anybody except to the employer and to the teacher," he says. "Most teachers are going to do very well, we think, under the system because they're doing an effective job." Ragley asks teachers to have an open mind, and to recognize that other states and school districts around the country have implemented evaluation plans that include student growth, including the heavily unionized Chicago Public Schools. "The Chicago teacher's strike, one of the concessions that the Chicago teachers' union had to accept was that student growth was going be part of their evaluation system, and in their system it counts 30 percent regardless of what type of teacher you are," Ragley points out.
There are currently structures in place in South Carolina schools to allow principals to remove underperforming teachers. Hayes says that the protections for instructors in the state are weak in comparison to others around the country, but Ragley claims that superintendents and school board members have spent years telling the state that current dismissal laws are inadequate and take too long. "As Dr. Zais has said many times, we cannot put the job security of an adult ahead of student learning," Ragley says. "And while it's only a small minority of teachers who are ineffective, the reality is we really don't know who they are yet because our system of teacher evaluation doesn't measure the most important factor in a teacher or principal's career, which is the student learning that happens under their watch and their care."
If the department decides to take the plan statewide, it will first need to be approved by the state Board of Education, and then it will have to pass in the General Assembly. However, that sort of progress is at least a year away. Currently, EdFirstSC is encouraging its members to contact the state Board of Education — who will be deciding in early October whether to accept or reject the plan — via phone or e-mail with their concerns. If Zais' plan is accepted, the organization would immediately employ the same tactics with the state legislature.
The plan is still waiting on final approval from the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education decided to delay action on the plan until November at a recent meeting.
To learn more about EdFirstSC, visit edfirstsc.org.