Miami Union Cooperates on Tough Evaluations
The union representing the Miami area's 12,500 teachers is cooperating with the Dade County school system to put in place an intensive new evaluation plan that will make it easier to fire incompetent teachers.
Officials of the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) say they have broken with the traditional teacher-union position of vigorously opposing any plan that could jeopardize members' jobs, in part because of intense public criticism of the quality of teachers in the nation's fourth-largest school system.
"We are realistic enough to understand that if we cannot change the public perception of public schools they are not going to get the support they need to survive," said Marie P. Mastropaolo, UTD's director of professional standards. "Teacher evaluation is not going to go away. We can either play ostrich or get involved. But there is no question that taking this position means biting the bullet."
The Dade County union's move to accept what those familiar with it say is the most comprehensive evaluation program ever instituted in a major urban school system comes at a time when issues that affect teacher quality--such as tenure laws and the effectiveness of principals as instructional leaders--are receiving increased at-tention from advocates of school improvement throughout the country.
The UTD's endorsement of the new evaluation plan has triggered a barrage of criticism from the Dade Teachers' Association (dta), the challenger in a districtwide representation vote this week.
The dta, an affiliate of the National Education Association, took out a full-page advertisement in the Miami Herald last week claiming that the UTD, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, had undermined teachers' job security by endorsing the new evaluation plan.
Officials of the Dade school system acknowledge that their current system of evaluating teachers is inconsistent and, in some cases, ineffective.
"We have 251 school sites and the current system of evaluating teachers permits 251 interpretations of what constitutes acceptable [teacher] performance," said James A. Fleming, an assistant superintendent. "Principals are not trained systematically to observe and evaluate teachers and there is a lack of prescriptive support for teachers who are found to have problems. You rate a teacher unacceptable, then what?''
Mr. Fleming said a major focus of the new plan is to give more instructional support to Miami teachers. The UTD also supports the plan for this reason.
He also said that the unsystematic quality of the district's current method of evaluation--a check list of teacher performance in six broad categories--makes firing incompetent teachers "next to impossible."
"Time and time again, I've seen principals build a case against grossly incompetent teachers, only to have a hearing officer throw the case out on the grounds that it's the principal's word against the teacher's or that the principal can't show that he or she has made an effort to help the teacher," Mr. Fleming said.
The new evaluation plan, officially called the Teacher Assessment and Development System (tads), is intended, Mr. Fleming said, to change this situation, as well as improve the quality of instruction and the image of the school system.
tads was developed at a cost of $60,000 by Performance Assessment Systems, an Athens, Ga., consulting firm, and is being pilot-tested with about 1,000 teachers in 16 schools this year.
It requires that each tenured teacher be observed for a minimum of 30 minutes once a year. (Dade's current policy says only that each teacher must be observed once annually for an indefinite amount of time).
Nontenured teachers must be observed at least twice annually; beginning teachers, under a new Florida law that went into effect this year, must be observed four times.
The principal--who is given four days of training in observation, evaluation, and conference skills--then evaluates each teacher's performance in six categories (such as "preparation and planning" and "knowledge of subject matter") and 20 sub-categories (such as "the teacher develops lesson plans" and "instructional materials and methods are appropriate for the learners").
These are described by the school system as "minimally essential teaching skills." If a teacher does not receive an "acceptable" rating on each of them, he or she must be given formal written and verbal notice of his or her weaknesses within a week and be given a "prescription," such as working with a curriculum specialist or taking an inservice course. Each principal is given a manual with 340 pages of prescriptive activities to choose from. A second observation follows.
Principals must document the entire process and submit monthly reports to the superintendent.
If a teacher receives a second negative rating from the principal, a third classroom observation must take place in the presence of another administrator, usually a curriculum specialist, from outside of the school.
If a third negative rating results, the school system can demote a tenured teacher to probationary status. Dismissal proceedings may be begun against nontenured teachers.
A teacher who has received a negative rating must get two consecutive positive ratings before the end of the year, and he or she must also "pass" a separate set of professional-conduct standards that includes such items as obeying school rules.
The Dade school system tentatively plans to require every one of its teachers to complete the evaluation process annually, beginning next fall, according to Mr. Fleming.
There are mixed feelings about tads in the Miami schools.
"A lot of teachers were scared to death when tads was first announced," says Nancy Cooper, who has taught 2nd grade at Royal Green Elementary School for 13 years and has been evaluated under the new system. "They were all running to the union. I like it, though. Now you know what you are responsible for and what exactly you are doing wrong."
"After the principal was in my classroom, he called me into his office and went through the whole evaluation with me," adds Daneen Regna, an 8th-grade science teacher at Cutler Ridge Junior High School. "No one had ever done that before in the 10 years I've been teaching."
"Everyone thinks tads is some kind of green-eyed monster," says Ms. Regna, who plans to vote for the United Teachers of Dade in this week's union election. "The only valid complaint that I've heard is that some administrators are too picky. It's more objective and I think it's going to make people better teachers. You sure can't go in and complain that you are being faulted for vague, foggy things; the system is very clear cut."
Adds Ms. Mastropaolo of the UTD: "If anything, there is more due-process protection under tads than under the old system."
The Dade Teachers' Association, however, does not agree.
"The standards are vague, imprecise, and very subjective," argues Ned K. Hopkins, a National Education Association employee who has spent the past two years in Miami organizing the dta "It's quite dangerous. We're actually pretty happy with the current [teacher-evaluation] system. It's pretty standard."
Principals, who must carry out the evaluations, seem to support the concept but wonder how they will find the time to make all the classroom visits.
"We've gone from a system of not enough time for evaluations to one with an inordinate amount of time," said Charles J. Gelfo, principal at Royal Green Elementary School and president of the Dade County administrators' association. "The standards are also confining. But it's more objective than anything else I've seen in 25 years as a principal here. I see it as a fine process."
Says Mr. Fleming: "tads has given us at least some hope that we can show the public that we are setting reasonable standards. The test will be when a principal tries to dismiss a teacher under tads"