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November 25, 2013

‘A time of great anxiety’ or ‘great opportunity’?

How Atlanta’s new evaluation system will impact local teachers

Lawmakers in Atlanta seem intent on spurring better education across the state to make sure future workers are actually qualified for upcoming jobs. But are new reforms, such as stricter teacher evaluation, going to help or hurt education?

That all depends on who you ask.

Jennifer Phinney, director of school support for Dalton Public Schools, said a new statewide system, called Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, brings a “time of great anxiety” for local teachers. Meanwhile, Toby Westmoreland, curriculum and instructional facilitator with Murray County Schools, called the new system “much better and fairer.”

The new system overhauls how teachers are reviewed, including self-assessment tests and student evaluations. It also requires principals to be in classrooms for a minimum of two 30-minute observations and four 10-minute walk throughs to review how knowledgeable teachers are, how positive their classroom feels and how well they communications, among other benchmarks.

The prior system had no student input, no self-assessment and only required a one-time visit to classrooms by principals.

Most school systems, including the city and Murray and Whitfield counties, have been running the new evaluation system on roughly 10 percent of their teachers this year, expecting a full rollout next June.

A ‘runaway train’?

Westmoreland said — while he wishes politicians would stay out of education — the new system forces school leaders to get out from behind their desks and demands a higher work ethic from teachers. Some local leaders disagree.

City schools Superintendent Jim Hawkins said the new evaluation system will bog down teaching with hours of paperwork and create an unrealistic demand on educators. Hawkins said he is also worried lawmakers will soon tie teacher evaluations to their salaries.

“It’s coming at us so fast,” he said.

Performance-based pay is a new federal requirement if schools want Race to the Top cash — $4.35 billion of grant money approved by Congress and President Barack Obama as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was designed to spur more rigor and creativity in schools to make America more competitive in a global market.

Evaluation-based pay is already being discussed by the Tennessee State Board of Education, but no concrete plan has been adopted yet. John Barge, Georgia’s state superintendent, is only requiring a pilot year before deciding what to do with teacher salaries. Federal officials have said Georgia’s noncompliance to add a pay system this year could mean it loses $9.9 million from $400 million in grant funding before 2015.

Leigh Ann Noll, a teacher at Southeast Whitfield High School who thinks the new system is “mostly positive,” said most teachers are afraid of what could happen if their paychecks are tied to evaluations from students and administrators.

“Some classes just a struggle,” she said. “Some are inclusion classes, or first-learner classes. And they perform on lower levels compared to gifted classes. I think that’s what scares us. What does that system even look like?”

What it looks like to Phinney is a “runaway train” of state control that takes the power away from local leaders and hurts student learning.

“This will directly impact the experience our students are having at school every day,” she said, particularly worried about a caveat in the system called Student Learning Objectives that would require standardized end of course testing for all classes.

Currently several arts-focused classes, such as dance and theater, don’t require strict testing. Phinney says those subjects, among others, can’t fit into a standardize picture and the new system “could end up being the death knell for any design in instruction.”

“I’m very concerned,” she said.

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