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Miami-Dade teachers anxious over principals’ evaluations

Big changes in how Florida’s teachers are graded will take effect this summer, with test scores put into the equation. But already Miami-Dade teachers are expressing concern about how the more traditional part is being handled: their principals’ classroom observations.

Their union, United Teachers of Dade, has received hundreds complaints from members at 65-100 schools, said UTD President Karen Aronowitz.

Among them: Principals didn’t observe teachers in the classroom; they didn’t follow the evaluation guidelines or used their own criteria — like creating a website — for what makes a teacher “highly effective,” the top out of four ratings.

Aronowitz said the dramatic increase in complaints comes from both heightened anxiety over evaluations and poor management from principals who weren’t fully trained in the new system or didn’t follow it.

“There are processes, a negotiated manual between UTD and [the district], that is the bible of the evaluation system. The whole thing is teachers have to adhere to the procedure, and so do the administrators, but administrators don’t feel compelled to do so,” Aronowitz said.

For principals, the new system was difficult and time-consuming, said Jose Enriquez, principal at Hialeah MAST 6-12 Academy and president of the Dade Association of School Administrators. He said principals read the rules and participated in training.

“It’s all new, and we have to trust the people who put it together built a fair system,” Enriquez said. “What I’m hearing from other principals, they finally have a little bit more of a say on how a teacher’s being evaluated. In the past, it’s been basically pass or fail.”

Now there are four grades a teacher can receive: highly effective, effective, needs improvement (or developing for beginning teachers) and unsatisfactory.

Usually, teachers would know their final evaluation before school ended. Teachers are now waiting for their student score-driven piece, called their “value-added” score, from the state. In the meantime, teachers have received the first half from their principal. That traditional principal observation was changed this year, negotiated by the school district and the union.

Later this summer, student scores on standardized tests will count for the second half of teacher grades for the first time. In the future, the whole evaluation, including half from student scores, will determine a teacher’s pay and continued employment, under state law. It’s part of a national shift on how to evaluate teachers, who in the vast majority receive satisfactory marks. Earlier this year, a report by the National Center on Teacher Quality found the Miami- Dade district is not doing enough to weed out underperforming teachers.

So far, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has received more than 50 complaints, but no official appeal yet. In past years, only a handful of teachers appealed their ratings.

The new system is a “quantum change,” said Enid Weisman, assistant superintendent for human resources. “It’s a change for our administrators. It’s a change for our teachers.”

Christine Master, administrative director of professional development, said principals and assistant principals were trained at region meetings twice this school year. About 50 of them joined a volunteer session, where they watched videos of teachers in the classroom, graded them and then compared notes. Master said that type of training tries to ensure the reliability of how different people rate teachers and will be expanded next year.

“If there is a rating, effective or highly effective, I want to be highly effective,” Master said. She explained effective means “You are doing a really good job, you are doing what you are supposed to do.”

Highly effective means more. “It’s like being LeBron James, how he was in the playoffs,” she said.

At Hialeah Gardens Middle School, Karla Mats received “effective” — the second-highest rating — on the majority of her evaluation this year, leaving her frustrated.

Last year, her peers voted Mats, who works with students with disabilities, teacher of the year.

“This appraisal really has to do with what your administrator feels about you, not the effectiveness you have, not the impact you have in that classroom,” Mats said, venting online in a YouTube video, Diary of a Mistreated Teacher.

Mats added: “A gifted student is not going to put up with a ‘B.’ They’re going to fight for an ‘A.’ It’s the same with teachers,” Mats said.

The union is surveying more teachers online about the process.

Bill Younkin, a statistics instructor at the University of Miami and an education consultant, said the heightened anxiety is just one of the consequences of the new system that will ultimately tie teacher pay to student scores and evaluations.

“It no longer becomes an improvement instrument; it becomes a source of friction,” Younkin said of the evaluation. “Teachers want to fight with their principals about their evaluation. They don’t want to listen to what they need to improve — they want fight for their salary.”