In Our View: Grading the Graders

Teacher-evaluations billsigned by governor

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Although it remains to be seen if this year’s legislation mandating K-12 teacher evaluations will lead to meaningful progress, there is no question that impressive early momentum has been established. Gov. Chris Gregoire on March 8 signed the bill that gives teachers, students, parents and taxpayers exactly what they need: a viable system for grading teachers and principals, accompanied by a well-defined method to remove poor performers from schools.That’s a plus for many factions beyond public education. The business world will benefit from a better-educated workforce, and the economy will be bolstered by a more advanced and diverse business climate. Gregoire said this about the more rigorous evaluation of teachers and principals: “They will receive the guidance they need to grow and improve for our students, and for a small number, let’s be honest, they will learn that this is not their chosen profession.”

Unfortunately, rigorous performance reviews have not been the norm in Washington’s K-12 schools. Teachers are graded either as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with few criteria in place, and lightning-quick rubber stamps often deployed.

Gregoire also was correct in describing how the bill serves parents: “This is important, because in my experience, parents who lack confidence in our public school system talk about one bad teacher or one bad principal, and they then say the public school system is not doing what is right for their kids.”

For the first time, improvement in student test scores will be added to the list of factors in evaluating teachers and principals.

School districts must start implementing the new evaluation system no later than the 2013-14 school year, with full implementation by the 2015-16 school year. Four grades will be given: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished. Teachers or principals with five years’ experience who are rated “basic” for two years in a row will have to reach “proficient” or face losing their jobs. For new teachers to advance beyond the customary provisional status to a continuing-contract status, they must first reach the “basic” level.

Business groups and education-reform advocates strongly support the change. The teachers union opposes it, partly because the new plan is based on state templates rather than locally designed systems. But the reform advocates argue that weak local evaluation programs caused the problem in the first place, and the new plan offers four state templates from which the districts may choose.

As we said in the opening of this editorial, whether the new plan actually works is a variable, as explained by the Washington State Wire: “The jury is still out, because of the deal-making compromise that got the bill through the Legislature. The final bill allows unions to bargain with school districts about the way student performance will be used and the weight that will be given to the evaluations in termination decisions.”

Still, there is ample reason to feel confident about steps taken this year by legislators to mandate teacher evaluations and to use those standards to steer low-performing educators toward other careers.