Education

Teachers say it’s getting harder to get a good evaluation. The school district disagrees.

Ceresta Smith sits in her language arts classroom at John A. Ferguson Senior High School on Thursday, April 21, 2016.
Ceresta Smith sits in her language arts classroom at John A. Ferguson Senior High School on Thursday, April 21, 2016. mhalper@miamiherald.com

When Mayade Ersoff got her annual evaluation in late November, the veteran teacher barely made it over the threshold needed to be considered effective. Her score was dragged down by a portion of the evaluation based on her students’ standardized test scores in English Language Arts.

The problem? Ersoff doesn’t teach English. She teaches world history. And the 78 students her evaluation was based on represent only two-thirds of the students in her sixth-grade classes at Palmetto Middle School.

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Ersoff, who like all teachers was evaluated in November for last year’s performance. “It’s a slap in the face.”

In the weeks after teacher evaluations for the 2015-16 school year were distributed, Miami-Dade teachers flooded social media with questions and complaints. Teachers reported similar stories of being evaluated based on test scores in subjects they don’t teach and not being able to get a clear explanation from school administrators. In dozens of Facebook posts, they described feeling confused, frustrated and worried. Teachers risk losing their jobs if they get a series of low evaluations, and some stand to gain pay raises and a bonus of up to $10,000 if they get top marks.

“They’re killing us this year with morale,” said Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High School. “It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are teachers quitting right now because of this.”

Teacher evaluations that use a complicated statistical model based on test scores to measure student performance have been controversial since the current evaluation system was created by a state law in 2011. A third of the points on the evaluation are based on a “value-added” model that predicts how well students should do on standardized tests and assigns teachers a score based on whether their students meet those expectations. The other two components are a class observation by a school administrator and a plan that teachers submit detailing their classroom goals.

 

But teachers in Miami-Dade say the problems with the evaluation system have been exacerbated this year as the number of points needed to get the “highly effective” and “effective” ratings has continued to increase. While it took 85 points on a scale of 100 to be rated a highly effective teacher for the 2011-12 school year, for example, it now takes 90.4.

School district officials say this is because the formula used to calculate teacher evaluation scores has changed over the years, and point to the fact that the percentage of teachers who fall into each of the four categories — highly effective, effective, needs improvement and unsatisfactory — has remained the same.

“It’s not any harder” to get the highly effective rating, said Tom Fisher, an administrative director at the school district, explaining that the student performance component used to account for half of the evaluation and now only accounts for a third, which is the minimum allowed under state law.

The dispute underlines the complexity of the evaluation system, in which the data used to determine the student performance component varies depending on the teacher’s subject.

The scores of teachers who teach subjects like science or social studies that don’t have corresponding standardized tests at some grade levels, for example, are based on how well their students do on reading tests. The theory is that reading is an integral part of any class, but some teachers say this is unfair.

Since not all students take the standardized tests used for the evaluations, some teachers also end up with scores based on a small portion of their students.

Annette Quintero, a social studies teacher at Turner Technical Arts High School, said her evaluation was based on 11 students from one Advanced Placement class she taught last year, only a fraction of the 150 students in her classes. Measures like these drive teachers away from taking on difficult teaching assignments, Quintero said.

“I’ve already heard people say that they do not want to teach AP classes,” she said. “Knowing how this is calculated and the coursework that’s required and the different standards that are required to teach AP, I don’t see why anybody would.”

It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are teachers quitting right now because of this.

Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High School

The local teachers’ union negotiates with the school district to determine the number of points needed to get each of the ratings after the student performance data has been analyzed. United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats pointed out that the changes from year to year have been slight, but teachers say even small increases have consequences for them.

Some teachers who were rated highly effective last year — one of the factors needed to qualify for Florida’s Best and Brightest scholarship, which awards top teachers up to $10,000 — missed the cut-off by less than a point this year after the number of points needed to get top marks increased slightly.

“It seems like a large number of those who qualified last year are not qualifying this year,” said Ceresta Smith, a teacher at Ferguson High who serves as her school’s union steward and said she has received many complaints from colleagues about this issue.

For teachers with scores on the other end of the spectrum, the consequences can be even more serious. Teachers who fall into the “needs improvement” category three years in a row risk losing their jobs.

Dori Martin has been teaching for 21 years and said that up until two years ago she had always received good evaluations. But during the 2014-15 school year, Martin was out for several months recovering from surgery and scored 61.25 points on her evaluation, just under the 62 point threshold needed to be considered an effective teacher. For the 2015-16 school year, the score needed to be considered effective increased by half a point and when Martin scored 62 she again fell into the “needs improvement” category. Adding to her frustration, Martin said, is that she doesn’t understand exactly how the student performance portion of her evaluation was calculated because it was based partly on math scores, but she only teaches English.

Sandra Liantaud-Manzieri, who teaches third grade at Key Biscayne K-8 Center, said that in an effort to understand how her scores were calculated, she contacted her principal, the school district, her union representative and the superintendent. “I did hours and hours” of research, she said. “The night after I got my evaluation I didn’t go to sleep until 4:30 in the morning.”

Florida is probably at the top 10 of the 50 states that are the most extreme or most Draconian in terms of the way they are using teacher-level [value-added model] scores to punish and also reward teachers.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a professor at Arizona State University

Although the local union and the school district appear to be the targets for much of the teacher frustration this year, they say their hands are tied because of the state law.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the United Teachers of Dade have been committed to minimizing the impact of VAM [the value-added model] on teacher evaluations. Through negotiations, the weight of the VAM has been decreased to the minimum allowed by Statute,” said Dawn Baglos, Administrative Director of Labor Relations at the school district.

School district officials said they are trying to do the best they can given the state requirements. “We have a lot of safeguards that we’ve built into protocols to always make sure that we don’t negatively impact teachers,” said Gisela Feild, an administrative director who oversees assessments and research.

The one thing most stakeholders seem to agree on at the local level is that they don’t believe the value-added model is the best way to grade teachers. “I think it’s a dysfunctional system,” said union president Hernandez-Mats. “I think teachers want to be better and there should be an accountability system, but it shouldn’t be based on something that nobody can explain.”

The use of controversial statistical models has led to lawsuits in several states, including Florida. In response to widespread criticism, the Florida Legislature has made changes to the evaluation system, decreasing the student performance component from half to a third of the evaluation, for example.

But use of the value-added model remains an integral part of the state’s teacher evaluation system. “Florida is probably at the top 10 of the 50 states that are the most extreme or most Draconian in terms of the way they are using teacher-level [value-added model] scores to punish and also reward teachers,” said Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a professor at Arizona State University who studies teacher evaluations.

As a result, teachers say they are left with unanswered questions and the feeling that no matter what they do, their evaluations will not reflect the hard work they put into the job.

Jennifer Perez, an English teacher at Ferguson High, said she worked overtime last year to help her 10th-grade English students succeed, all the while juggling her responsibilities as a single mom. At the end of the year, her students had among the highest English test score gains at the school, but when she got her teacher evaluation, Perez got the lowest possible student performance score and ended up just two points away from “needs improvement.” She was heartbroken.

“You start feeling like you have no purpose because no matter what you do you’re stuck,” Perez said. “To me — the same way a student gets a grade A through F — this says a lot about who I am. It’s my net worth. It’s my value.”

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