Las Vegas educators view Nevada's proposed teacher evaluation system with some trepidation, but also say it represents an opportunity to improve the profession.
During the past year, a 15-member state board has been drafting standards for a new teacher evaluation system that aims to boost student achievement in Nevada's low-ranked public schools. The effort follows the Legislature's passage of a bill in 2011 mandating development of the state's first uniform system for evaluating educators.
The new system would take into account student achievement data -- test scores and growth measures -- for at least half of a teacher's evaluation. This new system must be adopted by the state Education Board by June 1, 2013, and be fully implemented in all 17 school districts by the 2014-15 school year.
The Teachers and Leaders Council -- composed of a wide range of educators and community members -- plans to present its final recommendations to the state Education Board on Dec. 14. Leading up to the presentation, council members and state education department officials are conducting four meetings across the state to seek public input on the proposed recommendations.
On Tuesday night, nearly 50 teachers showed up to a Las Vegas-area information session at the nonprofit Teachers Health Trust organized by the state Education Department and the local teachers union. The discussion over the contentious evaluation system was frank, with many teachers raising concerns over its implementation but praising the council for its work thus far.
"It's on the right track. This will help teachers become better teachers," said Jill Jaeger, a social studies teacher at Spring Valley High School. "But there are some glitches that need to be ironed out. The language needs to be worked on."
Karlana Kulseth, a seventh-grade English teacher at Faiss Middle School, agreed.
"No one likes change," she said. "There's a lot of angst over having to prove ourselves, but I honestly see a change. Hopefully teachers get better credit for their work."
Leslie James, an education program professional with the Nevada Department of Education, explained to teachers why the new statewide teacher evaluation system was being developed.
Currently each district has its own teacher evaluation system. In Clark County, evaluations are based on an administrator observing classroom instruction a couple of times each year, totaling at least 60 minutes. Teachers are considered either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, based on the observation.
This subjective and binary system fails to differentiate teacher performance and recognize there is a range of effective teachers, James said. As a result, about 99 percent of Nevada educators are considered satisfactory.
Proponents of teacher evaluation systems argue that excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance remains unaddressed in a two-tiered system. Furthermore, they argue it's statistically likely there are more ineffective teachers than the 1 percent currently rated unsatisfactory, and that substantive evaluations exist in many professions outside of education.
The new system will rate teachers using multiple measures over multiple years on a four-tiered scale: highly effective, effective, minimally effective or ineffective. The system is designed to drive professional development and support toward teachers whose students show little or no academic growth.
That worries some educators, such as special education teachers, whose students may not demonstrate much academic growth year over year.
The Teacher and Leaders council said evaluations would be sensitive to challenging student groups, setting appropriate goals for every student while meeting the needs of different learners.
Other educators said they were concerned about new system's continued reliance on administrators in evaluating teachers. One high school math teacher questioned how her former gym teacher-turned-principal could properly evaluate her teaching methods, coming from a totally different background.
The council has tossed around the idea of a peer review system, but it recommends teachers actively educate their evaluators on subject-specific teaching methods and subject matter. Administrators will receive extensive professional development on the new evaluation system, and some states have instituted requirements that administrators become certified to evaluate teachers, James said.
However, like many education "reforms," it is uncertain where funding would come from for professional development or a possible certification program for administrator-evaluators.
While the new system would use test and growth data to rate teachers, it also would allow teachers to demonstrate their performance through a portfolio of exemplary student work and model lesson plans. This portfolio review could be used to challenge a principal's evaluation of a teacher.
Under the new system, administrators would be tasked with doing more than popping into classrooms to evaluate teachers a couple of times a year. The feedback would be more immediate, and principals may be asked to survey students about their teacher.
This type of student feedback caused some alarm among teachers. Some students are "very hit or miss," which could skew survey results during a "drive-by administrator evaluation," a middle school music teacher said.
"What if they select the one student who isn't plugged in that day?" he asked. "This is Vegas and you pulled the wrong card?"
The council is still discussing how many students, if any, could be surveyed. Again, the emphasis of the evaluations will be on multiple measures over multiple years, James said.
The notion of putting teacher job security on the backs of young students and test scores irked some teachers. There are many challenges facing teachers and students in Las Vegas, they argued.
Aside from demographic challenges -- students in poverty, English Language Learners and special education students -- there are districtwide issues to contend with, teachers said.
Teachers complained of overcrowded classrooms, which could make raising student achievement and the caliber of classroom discussions challenging for even the most engaging teachers.
Teachers pointed at attendance problems, where some 15 percent of students nationally miss a month or more of school each year. One educator complained of administrators pulling students out from her class, as well as various school assemblies and district holidays -- all of which diminish instructional time.
Furthermore, the district's high transiency rate means students could be shuffled around several schools, all within one year. Other educators, such as librarians or elementary art teachers, work on weekly or bimonthly rotations.
"How can we gather evidence that these students are learning when we see them in just a hiccup of a moment?" a music teacher asked.
Furthermore, only 30 percent of Nevada's teachers have standardized test scores for their students. These educators include English, writing and math teachers in the third to eighth grades and high school sophomores.
The other 70 percent of educators in art and music, social studies and science, physical education and school libraries don't have standardized evaluations, which are supposed to account for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. How will these teachers be rated?
A middle school English teacher proposed peer evaluations. Some agreed, others didn't.
"I'm concerned about the equity between different departments," the teacher said. "Some teachers and departments have more pressure to deliver test scores."
"Not all of us are on equal footing," another teacher chimed in. "There are so many variables, how are they going to mediate all of them?"
The teachers' angst spilled over toward the School District, which has its own school rating systems and is piloting its own teacher evaluation system -- all under the promise that these changes would be used to aid teachers, not punish them.
With the teachers union and the district embroiled in a contract dispute that is now in arbitration, some teachers argued their trust in the district was wavering.
"Who's going to hold the district accountable for implementing this evaluation system the right way," a teacher and union official said. "Who's in charge of collecting the data? This is going to require us to trust the district."