Lame-duck watch:  Teacher evaluation bills aim to improve performance

By Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Bridge Magazine

It’s been a long haul for the Democrats and Republicans who have been working their sides of the aisle on the issue of teacher evaluations. More than two years.

During the ongoing, end-of-the year legislative session known as lame duck, the two tie-barred bills that seek to make teachers more effective are not as high profile as the road repair funding issue that is expected to suck up most of the air in the capitol over the next week.

But in a legislature often criticized for partisan in-fighting, these two bills are among a slim few that have bipartisan support. Add to that nearly two years of research, millions in state money already spent, passage in one chamber (the House) and a nod from Gov. Rick Snyder and you can see why the sponsors are hopeful that these bills have a passing chance during lame duck.

At Issue

A Michigan Department of Education survey, “Educator Evaluations & Effectiveness in Michigan” found huge disparities in the quality of the teacher and administrator evaluation processes that Michigan’s school districts adopted from 2011 until 2013. Those previous reforms required Michigan schools to implement evaluation systems and consider teaching effectiveness ‒ not just seniority ‒ when making decisions on teacher staffing and tenure.

The study found, for instance, that 97 percent of teachers statewide were rated effective or highly effective in evaluations – hard to reconcile in a state with student test scores ranked in the bottom rung of states nationally. The survey also found that evaluations are too often used to punish Michigan educators, not help them.

“Districts were less likely to use the evaluations to inform professional development support for new teachers and administrators than to use the evaluations for termination and/or removal,” according to the report.

House Bill 5223, is sponsored by Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, who was one of the sponsors of the 2011 teacher tenure reform laws. O’Brien’s bill would reduce the impact of standardized test results on teacher evaluations, though test results will still be heavily counted. Under the bill, 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student growth on tests next school year through 2017, with test scores increasing to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in 2017-18. Current law calls for 50 percent of an evaluation to be determined by students’ growth on tests. Multiple classroom observations of the teacher would also factor in.

The bill would have school districts across the state use one of four selected teacher evaluation tools, or a locally designed model that is approved by the Michigan Department of Education. This requirement would do away with a patchwork of evaluation models used by local school districts; the older models have been criticized for being too cursory or subjective and failing to provide teachers with insight into their weaknesses or a roadmap on how they can improve in the classroom.

House Bill 5224, sponsored by Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, calls for similar changes for evaluations of school administrators, requiring that management skills are adequately measured and training provided. Observers would be required to be trained every three years.

The bills attempt to remove some of the punitive sting from current evaluation processes by also identifying $15 million for training to help educators improve. And they require the state to use standard definitions for grading teachers.

The Politics

The bills were approved in the House last May and sit in the Senate education committee, which is not scheduled to meet during lame duck ‒ so far. Sen. Phil Pavlov, chair of the education committee, did not respond to Bridge’s request for comment.

Supporters include political leaders from both parties and teachers. Gov. Snyder supported the 2011 tenure reform law that created the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, an appointed commission led by Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. The MCEE made recommendations to the state about the evaluation process. He also supported the $6 million, year-long pilot study of four different evaluation tools, which according to the MCEE were all shown to improve teacher evaluation over the old, locally based systems. The new bills are based largely on MCEE and the pilot study results.

Stephanie Bogema, legislative director for O’Brien, said the major hurdle now is getting the bills out of committee. “I know my boss, the Speaker and the Senate majority leader are committed to helping get it out of committee,” she said. “With all of the time and energy put into getting these bills where they’re at, I think a lot of people would be disappointed,” if they don’t move.

Zemke called the bills a step towards putting school districts on more equal footing. Current law allows districts to design an evaluation process for themselves and as a result districts with more resources have been able to develop better evaluation systems, while others have not, the research found.

“This is the type of policy that will bring up the bar and educators in all schools. And it will really help the schools that struggle the most,” Zemke said.

He said legislators and educators from both parties recognized that the current evaluation system is unfair and lacks structure. “I think the reason this has so much support is because we started in a bipartisan fashion,” Zemke said. “Without structure, support and identified resources that are necessary to provide training, these bills probably wouldn’t have bipartisan support.”

Estimates vary widely on how much the these new systems of evaluating and training teachers would cost, with the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency putting the statewide bill at $16 million to $42 million.

Steven Cook, the president of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, a group that has been wary of evaulation reform, praised the bills, saying the fact that O’Brien and Zemke sponsored them “is proof that education reform is both good policy and good politics for both parties.”

What we know

The legislature will become more conservative when the newly-elected lawmakers take office in January. Conservative Republican lawmakers have traditionally sought to preserve more local control for school districts, suggesting that these teacher evaluation reforms may have an easier time passing in lame duck. However, with so much money and time invested in developing effective educator evaluations, both sponsors said they anticipate the bills will still have a shot later even if they don’t get a vote during lame duck.

The Education Trust-Midwest, an education reform group based in Royal Oak, said in a statement released Monday that the educator evaluation bills top the list of education issues that may arise during lame duck. The new system is “essential to elevating Michigan’s teaching profession; for setting clear expectations for educator performance; and for giving educators the feedback they need to excel,” the group said.

© Bridge Magazine, reprinted with permission. Bridge Magazine, a publication of The Center for Michigan, produces independent, nonprofit public affairs journalism and is a partner with MLive.