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Bill would shift focus of teacher evaluations from 'punishment to improvement'

In the last few minutes of the House Education Committee meeting today, Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, said the message to educators is, “We have heard you.”

I never doubted lawmakers heard teachers; it would be hard not to with all the education groups sending representatives to the Gold Dome. But have lawmakers believed teachers?

The General Assembly has given educators a lot of lip service over the years, publicly thanking them for their testimony and then privately writing off their comments as self-interest.

That is changing. Because it's no longer just Georgia educators raising the alarm about the use of test scores to evaluate their performance or the distillation of learning to a single standardized test score. Even the U.S. Department of Education has reversed itself on this issues.

That explains the flurry of bills this year designed to ease the pressures on teachers. One of them earned an airing today in House Ed, although the committee did not vote on  House Bill 1061 by Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta. It is likely bits of Dickson's bill could surface in Senate Bill 364, which has already gotten further in the process and which speaks to testing as well as evaluations.

A former teacher, principal and superintendent, Dickson wants test scores to matter less in gauging how well teachers and principals do their jobs. While Georgia law now says student test scores count for 50 percent of a teacher's rating and 70 percent of a principal's, HB 1061 lowers those percentages to 30  and 40.

Under Dickson's bill, student test scores only impact an educator's evaluation if the student has been in the school for 90 percent of the year. The law now says scores count if the student has been in the class for 65 percent of the year.

With today's accountability climate, Dickson said test scores must play some part in a teacher's review. But how much of a part, he said, is debatable. "Is there some kind of a logic that says 30 percent is the magic number? It’s the magic number because that's what is in there, but I could live with 20 percent or 10 percent.Test data is important; we need to look at it, but that is the least important thing we do. Test data is going to show up there but I am more concerned with how can we improve the teacher."

As a young educator, Dickson said he had to figure out whether the goal of student discipline was to punish the behavior or correct it. He opted for the latter, saying that's what an evaluation should also seek to do -- correct rather than punish. "Is it solely to get rid of somebody who is not doing what I think they ought to be doing," he said, "or is it about improving instruction and leadership?"

In slashing the influence of tests in educator evaluations, Dickson creates another scoring category, professional growth, which looks at how teachers strive to improve their practice and their craft. Top rated teachers could earn points by serving as mentors, while teachers who need improvement could gain credit by being a mentee.

Dickson's bill also relaxes the rules on how often principals have to go into classrooms and observe teachers, saying, "Every teacher doesn't need the same amount of observation. If you have an outstanding teacher you have seen performing for years, it isn’t necessary to spend six full observations in her classroom. For teachers performing at exemplary or proficient, three observations is an acceptable number, rather than six. Personally, for some of the top teachers, one formal observation is probably sufficient."

An overlooked part of observations is the conversations that ought to follow, said Dickson. "If we don’t have time where they sit down and talk about what they saw, observation is worthless. If you are only looking for someplace to ding somebody, you don’t worry about the conversation."

The majority of teachers want to improve, said Dickson, but that has not been a focus, in part because Georgia has not concentrated enough on developing effective school and district leaders. "If  we do a good job with that, it will take care of a lot of other problems we have," said Dickson.



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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.