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Debate on Evaluation Stalls Alabama Career Ladder

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Alabama's career ladder for teachers, which has already withstood a filibuster this year to gain passage in the legislature, now faces an additional hurdle on its road to implementation.

The 35 members of a committee charged with devising a teacher-evaluation system for the plan are sharply--and some suggest irrevocably--divided over the methods and criteria to be used to rate classroom effectiveness.

This month, the 18 teachers on the committee voted as a bloc to accept as a "working model" an 81-point evaluation instrument developed at their request by the education dean at a state university.

But most of the 17 nonteachers on the committee consider that model to be seriously flawed.

"I don't think it is an acceptable plan at all," said Edward D. Starnes, president of the Huntsville City Board of Education, in an interview last week. "It's only an overly long, impossible classroom-observation instrument."

On the other hand, much of what is contained in a seven-point counterproposal drawn up by the committee's nonteachers was termed "unacceptable" by teachers last week. They said, however, that they intended to modify their own plan and would accept amendments to it.

Meanwhile, the committee's4chairman, John Woods, chairman of the board of AmSouth Bank, has appointed a "conference committee" of three teachers and three school administrators to attempt a compromise between the two plans, one of which must be presented to an advisory council of state lawmakers by Dec. 4.

When the council approves a final plan, it will be field tested this spring and put in place statewide next school year, according to state officials. In 1987, lawmakers will decide whether or not the approved career ladder will be funded. (See Education Week, May 22, 1985.)

'Stacked' Committee

At issue in the current controversy are not only questions of policy, but also of politics. And while the debate within the committee revolves mainly around the issue of objectivity in evaluation, many in the state are charging that the committee itself lacks the objectivity to decide on a plan.

The group's composition has been one of the most controversial aspects of the career ladder since its development last year by the Governor's Education Reform Commission. Opponents charge that its membership, stacked on the side of teachers, gives them and their union, the Alabama Educational Association, effective control over the evaluation process.

"I totally disagree with the make-up of the committee," said the group's vice chairman, N. Carlton Baker, vice president of South Central Bell for Alabama. Mr. Baker had urged that the group include an equal number of school administrators, teachers, business leaders, and members of the public.

But teachers argue that, as in other professions, practitioners should set their own professional standards.

"The teachers don't apologize for having a big vote on the committee," said Cynthia K. Dodd, spokesman for the aea, "because ultimately they will be the ones being judged."

Teachers' Plan

The plan approved by the teachers on the committee makes use of an evaluation instrument, intended to be highly objective, that examines teacher behavior in 29 different areas. Evaluations would occur twice a year, with the evaluator--a school principal in most instances--checking 81 observable criteria.

To determine whether a teacher communicates "clearly and effectively," for example, the evaluator would look for signs that the teacher uses standard speech and correct spelling and grammar and "gives directions such that students perform the task." On each point, the evaluator would mark whether the behavior had been "observed" or "not observed."

But according to Mr. Baker, most nonteachers on the committee believe this type of evaluation process is too long, too objective, and superficial.

"We are devoted to developing a plan that would truly reward excellence," Mr. Baker said. "This plan does not support excellence."

The counterproposal calls for shortening the evaluation instrument to 25 items that would be rated on a five-point scale, adding subjectivity to the process, according to Mr. Starnes. It would also permit as many evaluation visits to the classroom as the principal considered necessary, and would require the fulfillment of a detailed professional growth and development plan.

In addition, Mr. Starnes said, while the nonteacher committee members recognize the shortcomings of testing, most believe that some form of teacher-competency and student-achievement testing should be built into the evaluation system.

Peggy J. Dotson, president of the aea, agreed that the teachers' plan was too long and that its section assessing teacher commitment to professional development needed improvement. But she said teachers strongly oppose permitting more than two formal evaluations a year and including any form of teacher or student testing. "That will not happen," she asserted.

At least one nonteacher on the committee, Jimmie R. Clements, a high-school principal, voted for the teachers' plan. Mr. Clements said he favored a highly objective evaluation tool because he questioned whether most principals are able to be subjective evaluators. "When you leave very little discretion to the principal, you are better off," he said.

Differences 'Not That Great'

Both teachers and aides to Gov. George C. Wallace, a strong supporter of the career ladder, said last week they were optimistic that a compromise could be reached. "The differences are just not that great," said Rex Cheatham, the Governor's education advisor.

But the committee's Mr. Baker said he believed the chances for a substantial compromise were "negligible."

"I think the odds are very long that we are going to come out with an instrument that will recognize teacher excellence in the classroom,'' Mr. Baker said. "Maybe a compromise can be reached, but those of us in the minority group are not going to compromise excellence."

Whether or not a compromise is reached, Ms. Dotson said, the committee will vote on the proposals by Dec. 4 and present the approved package to the legislative council.

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