A constructive look inside the classroom, but a word of caution

The Florida House today passed a landmark teacher pay and tenure bill — one Gov. Rick Scott said he will sign it into law — but one evaluation remains overlooked. Under the bill, parents could get a report card on their own student’s teacher.

The disclosure provision in SB 736 is narrowly drawn: “Each school district shall annually report to the parent of any student who is assigned to a classroom teacher … having two consecutive annual performance evaluation ratings of unsatisfactory, two annual performance evaluation ratings of unsatisfactory within a 3-year period, or three consecutive annual performance evaluation ratings of needs improvement …”

So this particular public rating is a distant cousin to the kind of value-added performance database of 6,000 third- through fifth-grade Los Angeles school teachers that was constructed and published last fall by the Los Angeles Times. First, no one will be rated and ranked. Second, no one’s teaching ability will be reduced to a numerical score. Third, this will draw on multiple years’ worth of evaluation. Fourth, this disclosure will be limited to teachers who have been judged as poorly performing.

Still, this is a significant step. It will give parents information that puts teachers on the spot, which will probably give pause to both. The ticklish part here is that evaluations will always be flawed to some degree, and we still are learning how best to deal with classroom factors such as student absenteeism or mobility, parental support, and the disadvantages of poverty. We’re still calibrating how to assess team teaching or courses, such as art and physical education, that are not as easily assessed.

These evaluations are sufficiently complex that they might be best offered with a warning label for parents. But they do have intrinsic value and play a constructive role in a public education system that keeps inviting parents to take advantage of different learning options and to find the right match for their children. This kind of data is also destined, much like the comparative performance scores that were revealed by the No Child Left Behind Act, to lead us to a greater understanding of what happens in the classroom. That’s never bad.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.