DES MOINES — Education reform is at a standstill in the Statehouse with the politically rocky issue of teacher evaluations one of the main stumbling blocks.
Specifically, Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform proposal, which was picked almost whole hog by the Republican-controlled House, calls for reviews of teachers that include a way to tie student test scores to teacher pay and promotions.
Republicans say they won’t approve any legislation that doesn’t have what they’re calling teacher accountability measures. Democrats say schools need time to digest the changes made last year before embarking on new evaluation programs that aren’t perfected yet.
It’s an argument that has played itself out over and over again across the country as the tools for tracking test scores and measuring teacher effectiveness have become increasingly sophisticated.
“Why wouldn’t you?” asked Tom Narak, lobbyist for the School Administrators of Iowa, who was sitting with Carlisle Community School Superintendent Tom Lane at a Capitol lunch table last week. “It’s the way (evaluations) going now.”
One of the most controversial ways to tie student performance to teacher evaluations is using what’s called value-added models. That’s a system that attempts to measure a teacher’s effectiveness in any given year by tracking the test scores of his or her students.
In an ideal system, teacher effectiveness based on student scores across a school would look like a bell curve, with 20 percent or so being highly effective, 65 percent being effective and a tail end of 15 percent of the teachers being deemed not as effective. That bell curve could then be used to help administrators evaluate their teaching corps.
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 11 states, including Iowa’s neighbors Illinois and Minnesota, require student achievement to be the dominant factor in teacher evaluations. In Iowa, individual districts determine the criteria by which teachers are evaluated.
Scott McLeod, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky and author of the education blog “Dangerously Irrelevant,” is not impressed with current value-added modeling.
“They can’t seem to come up with statistical systems that are workable and fair,” McLeod said.
He cites several studies that show a portion of teachers who were ranked highly effective in one year end up being ranked in the lowest range the next.
“So you have 30-40 percent completely changing where they land,” he said. “It’s an issue of fairness because you have high-stakes decisions attached to these results. Professional reputations are at stake, salary considerations are at stake … can you imagine being in a job where you have such a volatile scale which is subject to a 30 percent change randomly?”
Department of Education director Jason Glass, who gave the state Board of Education its first introduction to value-added measures in 2011, said he understands why some people are skeptical.
“That’s why the governor’s proposal makes this a three-year process,” Glass said.
In the Republican-supported language, a task force would be appointed to work out a student-achievement evaluation that would likely have value-added testing as part of it in the first year. The model would be tested in select districts the second year, and the third year would be used for refinements before it is expanded statewide.
Glass has his own set of studies he points to that show how value-added measures help districts identify low-performing teachers so they can get extra help or, perhaps, move on to different careers. It also helps districts identify high-performing teachers whom districts can reward in an effort to keep them in the classroom.
“This is going to be an inclusive process," he said. "It needs to be.”
Also skeptical is Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, co-chairman of the 10-lawmaker conference committee charged with finding a compromise bill on education reform.
The committee did not meet at all last week, and no meeting has been set yet for the coming week. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Friday.
“We haven’t fully implemented the Iowa Core, which is also the Common Core. We don’t have our (student) tests aligned to that, there are at least three testing systems out there, and none of them are finished,” Quirmbach said. “Those are the standards we’re supposed to test students on, and they’re not done yet. You’re telling me that we should tie teacher evaluations to an incomplete system? I don’t think so.”
But Rep. Ron Jorgensen of Sioux City, who serves as Republican co-chairman of the conference committee, is just as adamant.
“Look, if we’re going to spend this kind of money — $144 million more on education — teacher accountability has to be part of it, or it’s not reform," he said. "And that’s something we just can’t accept.”