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Bills to alter teacher evaluations in Pennsylvania garner some tentative support, with caveats

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Bills that would change the way Pennsylvania teachers are evaluated were supported by some educators, but some concerns were also raised during a Pennsylvania House Education Committee meeting.

The bills introduced by Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, and Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, would make changes to 2012’s Act 82. Senate Bill 751 and House Bill 1607 aim to increase the weight of the teacher observation portion from 50 percent to 70 percent of the overall evaluation. The scores will focus less on building level scores that access the overall score of the school.

The change is supported by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

“What we’ve discovered since 2012 is that student achievement data for an entire school building has overshadowed the performance of individual educators, causing artificially inflated or deflated scores,” said Rich Askey, president of the PSEA. “As a result, great teachers in challenging school buildings oftentimes have lower ratings than struggling teachers in higher performing buildings.”

Rachael Curry teaches algebra and geometry in the Red Lion Area School District to students who may not go on to college. Under the current rating system, she will never rank as high as someone who teaches college prep, she said.

And the rating system has created a competition for some teachers, Curry said.

“If the teacher next door to me has an effective instructional strategy, the person might not share it anymore because there is fear that a teacher with a higher rating has slightly better job security in the case of a furlough,” Curry told the committee.

The bill has the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, but other groups expressed some concerns.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) is neutral on the bill because it removes the “gross deficiency” clause in the evaluation process.

“Prior to 2012, superintendents had the authority to issue an overall unsatisfactory rating to any professional employee if just one category of the evaluation was marked unsatisfactory,” testified Eric Eshbach, superintendent of the Northern York County School District. “This was an effective tool for superintendents that assisted in removing professional employees who should not be working in schools with children. We continue to advocate for the reinstatement of this clause.”

The bill will erode the authority of administrators by limiting additional reviews of employees rated as “failing” or “needs improvement” to two times, said Kathy Swope, who represented the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and is board president of the Lewisburg Area School District.

“For those individuals who are being rated as ‘needs improvement,’ this change would result in a time period of approximately 2½ years before an underperforming educator could be removed from the classroom,” Swope said.

The PSBA is also concerned about a provision that allows an employee to create part of their improvement plan, Swope said.

The Pittsburgh Public School System does not support changes to the weight of the observation component, said Allyssa Ford Heywood, director of performance management for the district.

“We believe that this model gives disproportionate weight to teacher performance while minimizing the use of student growth scores as a metric for teacher assessment,” Heywood said in written testimony. “Specifically, we maintain that the proposed change could dampen the impact of student achievement outcomes by giving an even greater weight to the observation results.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said test scenarios in his district showed that only 4.59 percent of teachers there would see improvement in their evaluations while 11.49 percent would see a decrease in their scores.

“Quite simply, the legislation proposed in SB 751 does not move the needle for a significant number of educators,” Jordan said in his testimony.

Jordan and Swope both said the bill should apply to public charter schools. Aument said they are trying to be consistent with Act 82, which did not include charter schools.

“We are talking about a law that is going to govern teacher evaluations and whether teachers are at a charter school or whether they are at a traditional public school, they should be handled appropriately and equally,” Rep. Mary Isaacson, D-Philadelphia, said.

Aument and Topper said those conversations would be a part of charter school reform.

“Or we could just add them and take care of it now,” Isaacson said.