JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The tug-of-war between self-described education reformers and teachers, principals and school administrators throughout the state is far from over and at the center of the debate lies the question of how to evaluate public school teachers and what to do about teacher tenure.
On one side are groups touting themselves as education reformers like the California-based StudentsFirst. On the other side, groups like the Missouri National Education Association and the Missouri Association for School Administrators (MASA). During the 2013 legislative session, bills moved in both the House and Senate that called for significant changes to the way educators are evaluated and the teacher tenure system.
The legislative tug-of-war ended when an early version of Senate Bill 125 came to the floor of the House for a vote. The close, contentious vote highlighted the clash between public educators who say evaluations and tenure aren’t the problem with failing or struggling schools and reform groups saying that student needs are being overlooked for job security and political concerns.
StudentsFirst, as well as its supporters and fellow reform organizations, pushed legislation to increase the standards for teacher evaluations. Early drafts of a SB 125 called for summative evaluations for all public school teachers annually. More formal and time consuming than formative evaluations, MASA Director of Legislative Advocacy Mike Lodewegen called the proposed language “unreasonable.”
“Right now, we do formative evaluations with teachers every year,” Lodewegen said. “It’s a little more informal and unannounced. It allows a principal to sit in a casual setting with an educator and they can talk to each other about strengths and weaknesses. Summative evaluations are large-scale and very formal and require a lot more work from our principals. It’s just not something that is feasible to ask a principal to do such a large-scale evaluation of every educator in his or her school every year. We simply don’t have the manpower.”
Lodewegen said most of the reform legislation was “shoddily” drafted and that organizations like MASA were not consulted, despite being “in the best position” to develop new standards.
“You get organizations like StudentsFirst, and this is a California-based company, and they come into Missouri without the background or the expertise on our state that our educators have and they try to take these nationally-crafted bills and insert them into the state, and that’s not the best method to repairing education,” Lodewegen said.
A StudentsFirst spokesperson told The Missouri Times the organization has more than 33,000 members statewide and that they took part in regular meetings with education bill sponsors including House Primary and Secondary Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff. The meetings, according to the spokesperson, were open to all interested parties.
MASA ultimately supported the version of SB 125, which was finally passed after much of the language dealing with evaluations, as well as report-card style letter grades for individual schools and districts, was carved out.
“Whether it’s nationally or in this state, there are so many changes happening in public education right now,” Lodewegen said. “All we want is for people not to screw it up and let us implement these changes before we try to do more.”
Missouri School Improvement Program 5
The Missouri School Improvement Program 5 (MSIP 5) is one of the changes happening right now in the state of Missouri. The program, which is in the final pilot stages in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), includes new standards for evaluating public school teachers and individual reports for schools. The program was developed with the input of Missouri educators from the NEA, MASA, the Missouri School Teachers Association (MSTA) and the Missouri School Board Association (MSBA), according to DESE. Reform groups were also included and, in its current form, StudentsFirst supports the MSIP 5 program.
But the new program is also part of a waiver associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and some of the new changes, like the consideration of student achievement as a contributing factor in evaluations, are federal requirements. Student achievement — measured by standardized testing scores — is not always warmly embraced by educators as measurements of student performance or teacher quality.
“Most reformers say we need a state standard for considering test scores in evaluating our teachers,” Chris Guinther, current Missouri NEA President, said. “But most of the high-stake tests have never been evaluated for that purpose. These tests were never developed to evaluate teachers.”
Guinther said standardized testing had a very narrow focus. Standardized tests for elementary and middle school students consist largely of math and science sections, and many subjects in school are not formally tested statewide at all. Language in early SB 125 drafts also did not include how fine arts or physical education teachers, whose subjects are never formally tested statewide, would be evaluated.
Reform groups largely have denied student test scores will be the only factor in evaluating teachers and several versions of SB 125 laid out other considerations to be included, but StudentsFirst and its counterparts regularly called for a statewide standard in student growth considerations, which MASA and the NEA both say should be determined at the local level.
“A lot about [teacher evaluations] was mischaracterized from the state,” said former state director of StudentsFirst Lea Crusey in an interview last month with The Missouri Times. “People out there claimed we wanted to evaluate teachers based on test scores. That is such an oversimplification and misrepresentation of language we fought for.”
MASA, as well as others, saw a statewide minimum standard as a loss of local control.
“Local districts tend to do pretty well if they have the resources they need,” Lodewegen said. “So if they make a determination that half of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on her test scores, then fine, but if another schools feels like a much smaller percentage of the test scores should be a factor, then we need to give them that flexibility.”
But reform groups claim setting a low percentage standard won’t inhibit local control. StudentsFirst supports mandating 33 percent of evaluations being based on student growth and performance, which is the “recommended” but not required percentage offered by the MSIP 5 program.
“That still leaves 67 percent of the evaluation parameters to be determined at the local level, by the local administrative mechanisms in place,” Crusey said. “This does nothing to limit local control.”
Despite broad differences of opinions on whether the state should standardize student growth factors, the Missouri NEA, MASA, MSTA and MSBA all support MSIP 5 alongside their reformer counterparts at StudentsFirst and the Children’s Education Council of Missouri.
CEC of Missouri State Director Katie Casas said that — while her organization favored mandated student growth considerations and letter grades, instead of percentage measurements for individual school grading — they supported MSIP 5’s full implementation, signaling a rare area of agreement between reform groups and statewide groups representing educators
CEC of Missouri also favored the elimination of teacher tenure in Missouri if it accompanied newer, stricter teacher evaluations that go beyond the now-accepted MSIP 5 measures currently being piloted throughout the state.
“If we change the way we evaluate teachers to reflect student growth, then teachers are evaluated on more objective measures,” Casas said. “They will not need the protection of tenure.”
But Guinther and the NEA say the fight to remove teacher tenure, above all other reforms, has angered teachers in the state. Guinther said many public school teachers felt “disrespected” and “disgusted” by attempts to “limit their job protection.”
“In Missouri, it takes five years for a teacher to obtain tenure,” Guinther said. “Up until that time, all one has to do to fire a teacher is simply not renew a contract. If you can’t figure out in five years that a teacher is not fit to teach, then there is something wrong with the way you’re operating as an administrator.”
Guinther said Missouri tenure is actually much harder to get in K-12 education than most other states. In fact, the waiting period for tenure eligibility is less than 5 years in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.
“There’s this myth that you can’t fire a tenured teacher and that just isn’t true,” Guinther said. “It’s a total myth. I’ve seen tenured teachers get fired.”
Guinther said better trained administrators could conduct better reviews, improve teacher performance and better train new or struggling educators in their respective strengths and weaknesses. But the state of Missouri allocates no money for professional development, because the benefit “isn’t always clear” to those working outside of education.
Lodewegen said it wasn’t hard at all to fire a public school teacher as long as an administrator did the proper documentation. He did, however, say it could be very expensive.
“It can cost money, and sometimes that’s a consideration for an administrator — do they want to go through a potentially expensive process and take that money from somewhere else in the budget?” Lodewegen said.
Currently, teachers collect regular pay as they appeal a termination through the tenure process. Lodewegen said some discussions have considered making that payment in escrow, and if the teacher successfully appeals, the money would be available after the process was complete. But if the teacher were fired, it would go back into the budget. But those negotiations are preliminary.
An interim education committee in the House, formed by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, is set to meet more than 10 times around the state during the legislative break, and eventually craft both a report on their findings, as well as legislation they deem necessary. Chairman Cookson said he was not given any specific instructions from Jones about the outcome of the committee, only that Cookson include “as many voices” as possible.
“This is just starting,” Cookson said. “And there’s a lot, a lot of information we need before we can really know what kind of statutory things or legislative things we might be looking at.”