Why Has Teacher Evaluation Bill Become So Political?

By cori

Retrieved from www.MIRSnews.com

When state lawmakers got rid of Michigan's "last-in, first-out" teacher tenure law four years ago, a new commission was created to craft a report on how public school teachers across the state should be graded.

After all, if school districts are allowed to fire ineffective teachers, what makes an ineffective teacher?

Instead of having each district create its own teacher grading system, shouldn't the state create one standard every district can use?

However, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness (MCEE) charged with making recommendations on that one system issued its report and disbanded two years ago. And the Legislature is still deadlocked on the extent to which its report will be used in any future law.

Why have teacher evaluations become such a contentious topic? One that is splitting Republican caucuses, causing Gov. Rick SNYDER to walk the tightrope of standing up for the MCEE, which he appointed, while not offending conservative legislators who don't support it's recommendations?

Rep. Adam ZEMKE (D-Ann Arbor) said last week "politics" is to blame. Bridge Magazine, a product financed by the Center for Michigan, published a report laying the blame squarely at the feet of Sen. Phil PAVLOV (R-St. Clair), the chair of the Senate Education Committee -- that Pavlov's strident quest for local control is getting in the way of meaningful reform that's produced positive results in states like Massachusetts and Tennessee.

For his part, Pavlov told MIRS he's boiled the problem down to three words: "Money, power and control." It's the money being made by a chosen few contractors through a new big-government program that sucks the power of teacher evaluation decisions out of local districts so teacher unions can ultimately control the process by exploiting legal loopholes in the courts.

After speaking to more than a dozen observers of the teacher evaluation legislation from various points of view, the answer is a more complex layer of personality rubs, distrust and skepticism, mixed in with the state's longstanding feud between the state's conservative school reform community and teacher unions.

A case where the teacher unions' support for a strict statewide evaluation system isn't viewed as a genuine belief students would ultimately benefit from rigorous teacher grading standards, but that they will use a state system as a way to challenge the teacher tenure reforms in court.

Since Pavlov and teacher union officials rarely talk, let alone have anything resembling a productive relationship, any misunderstanding -- if one exists -- isn't patched up.

"I think everyone's paranoid," said one neutral observer about the process.

It's also a case where a perfect solution crafted inside the academia laboratory is clashing with the reality of tight budgets, limited staff time and practical questions at the ground level. It's an experiment that -- while proven successful in at least two other states -- has its origins in a Democratic President's administration and comes fresh off of lawmakers' brush with Common Core state standards, a broad-reaching education policy that blew up into a toxic political football among conservatives because it de-emphasized local control.

Education professionals at the University of Michigan poured millions of dollars and months of research into a document they proudly presented as agents of the Governor as the answer to not only grading teachers, but also improving student classroom performance.

How anyone could conclude otherwise is puzzling to those who believe the goal all along was to improve academic performance in the state's struggling school district.

"We need to have minimum standards so all of our teachers understand what they need to be doing in terms of teacher performance and in terms of our students being able to find jobs and be success in our society," said Rep. Andy SCHOR (D-Lansing).

"If we don't have rigorous minimum standards, different local models may not be as efficient as others."

Pavlov has argued what he's calling for has minimum standards and what Schor and others are looking for are "impossibly high standards."

Meanwhile, lawmakers are hearing conflicting information from school district officials who don't see value in switching from their "perfectly fine" teacher evaluation system to one that will cost them more staff time and money, and others who see districts needing help and a standardized system as providing that help.

As a result, House Education Committee chair in Rep. Amanda PRICE (R-Park Twp.) is trying to piece together a compromise at a time when the various sides appear to be digging in along more Republican-Democratic partisan lines as opposed to scrambling for common ground (See "Teacher Eval Reforms Being Sent To 'Summer Camp,'" 6/18/15).

"It's a mess and it's keeping us from getting to anything else," said one education observer.

The teacher evaluation issue got off to a less than auspicious start when the educator effectiveness report envisioned in the 2011 teacher tenure reform was first slated to be finished April 30, 2012, nine months after Snyder signed the bill into law.

The working plan was that a new student assessment, likely aligned with Common Core State Standards, would create three years of data -- the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 -- with which administrators could judge the progress of a student in a particular teacher's classroom.

The idea was the data would be so complete, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation could be based on well his or her students are doing.

And once the MCEE came up with a standard assessment tool, all state school administrators would be evaluating their teachers off the same playbook and Michigan would be on the path toward a statewide continuity.

But then a pair of road hazards messed up this vision. First, Common Core became such a political hot potato, Republican lawmakers ordered the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to scrap plans to use it for whatever test they were planning on moving to from the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP).

This caused the MDE to hurriedly put together the Michigan Student Test of Educational Program (M-STEP) for spring 2014 (See "MDE Says New Assessments For Spring 2015 Ready To Go," 11/13/14), meaning schools wouldn't have three straights years of student test data until -- at best -- 2017.

Second, the body that became the MCEE, the Governor's Council on Educator Effectiveness chaired by the University of Michigan's dean of the School of Education, Deborah BALL, didn't hold its first meeting until December 2012, six months after the new law (See "Gov's Council On Its Own Timeline," 12/7/11).

Ball set an aggressive timeline to meet the April 30 deadline, but that date came and went when the scope of the project was enlarged to run a $6 million pilot program similar to what was done in Colorado.

"Pretty much all the states that have systems took quite a long time to do them," Ball said at the time. "Most of them had pilot systems before they fully implemented them." (See "Educator Effectiveness Council Won't Be Done April 30 As Planned," 4/20/12).

This was frustrating for lawmakers like Pavlov, who was quoted months earlier saying Ball's council had a lot of information at its disposal so "we are not reinventing the wheel."

Still, the temporary MCEE took all of the two years it was allowed to exist under the state constitution and returned with an extensive 157-page report (with appendixes) that represented 18 months of research from Ball and five MCEE colleagues.

The July 2013 product represented the best academia had to offer, with 16 advisory council members and a pair of consultants. The Dow Foundation, the Council of Michigan Foundations and the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research all were given acknowledgements for their contributions.

Along the way, however, it's pilot program in the Port Huron school district resulted in a MEA lawsuit when principals in different buildings weren't consistent in how they used the student growth data. While the MEA's lawsuit was thrown out, it didn't escape the attention of Pavlov, whose 25th Senate District includes Port Huron.

Sticking this product into legislation proved to be tall task.

In a confidential Sept. 12, 2013 document, the State Budget Office estimated that the costs of training the teachers and administrators on the new tool, the cost of the tool and other expenses would be $93.9 million in the first "build" year and $144.4 million in the year after that.

Then-Rep. Margaret O'BRIEN (R-Portage) and Rep. Adam ZEMKE (D-Ann Arbor) brought together a work group of some 30 various education stakeholders to craft the recommendations into a pair of bills that became HB 5223 and HB 5224 of 2014.

The two spent about 100 hours of work hammering out a product that received support from the Michigan Education Association (MEA) to the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) and many other groups in between.

GLEP's support in the full House was contingent on them being linked to a performance pay bill, but their support in committee was unconditional.

However, some members of the workgroups felt the gatherings were "very controlled," and that members were told "this is what we were going to do" and only those who agreed with that direction were invited to participate.

O'Brien rejected such criticism by saying she and Zemke were "methodical" about bringing together the various stakeholders because their first goal was to "help teachers help the kids grow."

"Anybody who felt slighted should get thicker skin or they needed to speak out," O'Brien said.

Meanwhile, some Senators were never completely sold. Pavlov was never involved in the workgroup, which was possibly a mistake, some confess. The senators saw the three-and-half years of lag time between the 2011 law the House bill coming over in 2014 as "lost time."

Then-Sen. Bruce CASWELL (R-Hillsdale), a former teacher, wasn't thrilled with even $27 million being set aside for Michigan implementing something that only came about because of the state's failed quest to win Presidents Barack OBAMA's Race To The Top (RTTT) grants.

"You can gussy this baby up and you can put all the lipstick on this pig you want to," Caswell said in March 2014. "But at the end of the day it's still a pig tied to this federal application." (See "Senate Committee Questions Educator Evaluation Plan," 5/5/14).

By the time, the O'Brien-Zemke bills were ready to move out of committee, Education Trust-Midwest, a foundation-based think tank pushing to see as much of the MCEE report passed as possible, sent lawmakers an e-mail that said if the bills didn't pass the House by the next day, Michigan's federal No Child Left Behind waiver could be pulled.

Everyone from O'Brien to the Department of Education vowed the claim wasn't true and it ticked off Republicans who felt the group was "bullying" them (See "Vote On Eval Bills Delayed Over Advocacy Group's Email," 4/30/14).

The bills ultimately passed the House in May 2014, 95-14, with the opposition coming from an interesting mesh of the chamber's most conservative and liberal members of each caucus.

In the Senate, the O'Brien-Zemke bills were shelved after one hearing. Several Senate Republicans questioned the need to steer limited School Aid Fund money to a federally induced process that puts more pressure on how well students score on a few high-stakes tests.

In the closing days of last year's lame duck, Pavlov expressed optimism that something could be passed, but nothing was completed.

One source said Pavlov proved "too difficult to deal with." However, advocates for a statewide system were not willing to "swallow the lowest common denominator," opting to continue to "fight for what you think is right."

This year, lawmakers had a new deadline to meet. In the 2015-16 school year, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on much students improve on a statewide M-STEP test that will have only been given twice, one short of the three years originally envisioned under the teacher tenure law.

Pavlov came up with Click to add MIRS Bill Hound SB 0103, a significant departure from the O'Brien-Zemke bills in that it gave more deference to the tools local school districts could use in grading teachers and stripped out the requirement that one of four specific vendors be chosen.

Leading up to the Senate Education Committee vote on April 28, the following groups turned in support for Click to add MIRS Bill Hound SB 0103 -- the Michigan Association of School Administrators, Grand Rapids Public Schools, West Michigan Talent Triangle, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the National Heritage Academies, the South Central Education Policy Consortium, Michigan Association of Public School Academies, Great Lakes Education Project, Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, then-Dearborn Schools Superintendent Brian WHISTON and around 40 southeast Michigan school superintendents and Zimco and K-12 Evaluation Solutions.

"Schools should be held accountable for results, but they need the flexibility to achieve those results," said Alicia URBAIN of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA).

The only groups stating opposition included Education Trust Midwest and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP). The MASSP's opposition was viewed as the organization having a financial interest in ACT, one of the four vendors mentioned in the O'Brien-Zemke bill.

MAASP's government relations assistant director, Robert KEFGEN, denied any such relationship. ACT has given partial sponsorships of less than $5,000 for an annual conference, which is a slim amount of money compared to the entire budget of the association.

Now that Michigan is moving toward using the SAT in testing high schoolers, Kefgen said he imagines SAT will begin making similar contributions.

The MEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) lay in the weeds on Click to add MIRS Bill Hound SB 0103 until making it known in the House that they preferred the O'Brien-Zemke bills.

"AFT-Michigan is actively supporting legislation that improves teaching through clear and concise guidelines," said AFT-Michigan's Julie ROWE.

But for other education groups, their support for the Pavlov bills signaled maybe more of a desire to get a new teacher evaluation system in place to avoid the problems of keeping the current law than a true belief that the bill is best public policy available.

Meanwhile, the nastiness seems to be escalating.

The Bridge article went out of its way to note Pavlov didn't complete community college. Pavlov, outside of having served in the Legislature 10 years, has a pair of policy advisors with a combined 26 years experience on education issues.

Suggestions continue that Pavlov is using the issue to garner local support for this 10th District congressional run, even though his reluctance to the original O'Brien-Zemke bills date back a year, long before U.S. Rep. Candice MILLER (R-Harrison Twp.) announced she wouldn't be seeking another term.

"It has no impact," Pavlov said. "I reject that."

Others have said O'Brien is going to bat for the MEA for the teacher's union allegedly staying out of her competitive 20th District Senate race, even though the MEA's political action fund gave $20,000 to her opponent, according to state records.

"The MEA did not support me in my election and I don't care," she said.

Then there are the issues involved.

Pavlov said he fears what the MCEE is pitching is a "direct attack on tenure reform," which he sees as a "transformational reform that is working across the state."

"Teacher reform is working and when you disguise something as an evaluation, that will unravel that reform."

Teachers are being evaluated under the current law, he said, and administrators don't need a "complicated system" from Lansing that isn't going to suck away staff time while not producing the perceived results.

"We have to trust our district leaders when it comes to personnel decisions," Pavlov said.

Is the threat of a viable lawsuit against a statewide teaching assessment system even well founded? Mark McINERNEY of Clark Hill wrote last month that a recent Court of Appeals ruling in Summer v Southfield Board of Education that a teacher evaluation my not be challenged directly, but can challenge on the basis that the evaluation itself didn't conform with state law.

Advocates argue the best way to make sure an evaluation conforms with state law is not to let locals craft their own, but create a statewide system that, if everyone follows, is safe from legal challenge. If schools screw up the evaluation, however, teachers should be able to sue.

"People are trying to come up with excuses on why they shouldn't change a dang thing," O'Brien said.

Teachers benefit from knowing what is expected of them wherever they are, and what avenues are available to them, she said.

"I believe schools have good intentions, but they don't always use best practices," O'Brien said. "Teachers are in a high-pressure environment and are often left up to their own without a strong evaluation system. So when we haven't invested into that system, we don't treat them like the professionals they are."

Over in the House Education Committee, four different committee hearings haven't moved a bill. Rather, conservative Republicans are digging in to support Pavlov's Click to add MIRS Bill Hound SB 0103 that provides more local control. Democrats and some moderate Republicans want to see a uniformed state system.

Education policy, once again in Michigan has gotten political, as Zemke said on Michigan's Big Show two weeks ago.

"It's not anything bad," Zemke told MIRS. "I don't think I said anything people in Lansing didn't already know."