March 20, 2010

Would Florida SB 6 criminalize Gates grant to Hillsborough schools?

Note (March 25, 2010): This entry was written on March 20, about an earlier version of Senate Bill 6. Early this week, the bill was modified to allow Hillsborough to seek an exemption; the amendment was crafted so that no other district could apply, even if they replicated Hillsborough's efforts using local funding. For my thoughts about the version that passed the senate on March 24, see my entry describing it as overreaching.

In the past year, supporters of using student test scores to help evaluate teachers have expressed incredulity when some teachers union officials have been opposed to those moves in states such as California. "We're not even talking about having test scores dominate all evaluation!" has been the tone of such comments, "but student achievement should be one of the important factors."

Whether or not you agree with that position, it's intellectually defensible. This month, though, I suspect DFER members and Obama administration officials are going to do their best to avoid writing or speaking about Florida Senate Bill 6, which takes the approach that student test scores should be an absolute criterion for continuing professional licensure, and undefined "learning gains" should "comprise more than 50 percent of the determination of the classroom teacher's performance" (ll. 1197-1198 of the 3/19/10 version), no matter what subject the teacher is responsible for and whether anything like a value-added measure is technically feasible.

This majority-of-evaluation position is essentially what the state department of education wanted districts and locals to sign off on for Race to the Top, and Commissioner Smith's public support of Senate Bill 6's approach is inconsistent with his earlier claims in December and early January that the department would be flexible about how districts and unions could implement the RTTT MOU. As the head of the Florida superintendents association wrote in a letter to the commissioner, "you and your staff have emphasized flexibility in implementing these elements" (Bill Montford to Eric Smith, January 8, 2010).

In fact, Senate Bill 6 is less flexible than the text of the Memorandum of Understanding on the use of student outcome data for teacher evaluation. Here is the relevant MOU paragraph:

(D)(2)(ii)(1). Utilizes the Department-selected teacher-level student growth measure cited in (D)(2)(i) as the primary factor of the teacher and principal evaluation system. Primary is defined as greater than 50% of the evaluation. However, an LEA that completed renegotiation of its collective bargaining agreement between July 1, 2009, and December 1, 2009, for the purpose of determining a weight for student growth as the primary component of its teacher and principal evaluations, is eligible for this grant as long as the student growth component is at least 40% and is greater than any other single component of the evaluation.

The second sentence beginning with However appears to be framed specifically to allow Hillsborough County to participate; Hillsborough and its teachers union won one of the Gates Foundation multimillion-dollar grants in the fall, and one of the provisions of the grant is to construct teacher evaluation around three components: student data, an administrative review, and observations from a trained classroom instruction evaluator (the last part of the Gates initiative to develop such evaluation expertise). And in the January letter noted above, Montford wrote that all districts should be able to do what Hillsborough and its union had agreed to for the Gates grant.

So what happens if Senate Bill 6 passes?  Well, there goes any value of the Gates award in Hillsborough; the arrangement in Hillsborough would violate the law because less than 50% of the teacher evaluation structure will use student outcomes. Is this really what DFER and the Obama administration wants? Teachers union and district take a risky step in a joint commitment; state punishes district.

Keep in mind that SB 6 is a moving target: on Thursday, a state senate committee changed the bill to eliminate constitutionally-dubious provisions in the original that would have forced local school districts to raise taxes if they didn't do what the bill rquired and that would tie half of teacher pay to test scores. And thus far there is no House companion. But the teacher-evaluation and licensure components of SB 6 are based on a fantasy of assessment data and state authority that is unrealistic and is a slap in the face of administrators and teachers who are working at the ground level to develop better teacher evaluation systems. 

I can't expect Commissioner Smith to acknowledge openly that his public support of SB 6 is a political calculation that he has no choice if he wants to keep his job. His capitulation is sad, since I like Smith and he's done a considerable amount of work in the background to educate members of the state Board of Education and legislators. But those outside Florida are free to criticize overreaching on teacher evaluation proposals, and this is a chance for them to prove that they are not as absolutist as teacher union activists in California and other states claim. So, is anyone from DFER or the Obama administration willing to speak up against the excesses of SB 6?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on March 20, 2010 4:16 PM |