Teaching Profession

Teacher-Evaluation System Likely to Be Replaced in Miami District

By Bess Keller — December 13, 2005 4 min read
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Miami-Dade County school officials are poised to jettison their teacher-evaluation system.

The 5-year-old system is tied to a contract that the Florida district’s former inspector general criticized as flawed in a report that also raised questions of cronyism and conflicts of interest.

In addition, evaluations conducted under the Professional Assessment and Comprehensive Evaluation System, or PACES, failed to prevent two teachers who flunked from winning back their jobs this year in rulings at the state level.

Nonetheless, school leaders here say the most important reason by far for turning elsewhere is that PACES is outmoded, both because of new requirements in state law and the advancing state of the art.

“We are building something much bigger [than an evaluation system],” said Ava G. Byrne, the deputy superintendent for professional development in the 362,000-student district, the nation’s fourth-largest. “We are looking at a system that … tells where we want people to head and how we want people to develop.”

With interest in teacher quality as a key to student achievement soaring in Miami and elsewhere, there’s widespread acknowledgment that teacher evaluations are too often neither rigorous nor the basis for improved instruction. Yet districts face formidable problems in devising and carrying out plans that are fair and effective, especially without substantial new money.

Enthusiasm for a new system in Miami-Dade, not surprisingly, is matched by an equal measure of doubt from leaders of the local teachers’ union and one member of the school board.

In October, the board committed $300,000 for a PACES replacement, probably entailing the purchase of an off-the-shelf framework. Ms. Byrne said that finding a system, rather than devising one from scratch, makes sense because she expects the plan will have to be ready for state review before the end of the school year. Training would have to start even earlier, she added.

But Marta Perez, the only school board member to vote against Ms. Byrne’s recommendation, believes it might be better to try to fix PACES. “There’s no guarantee a brand-new system won’t have its flaws,” she said. “There’s just so much redoing you can do in education, given that the money is not limitless.”

Lawyers, however, have advised the district that there is “a moderate level of risk” in undertaking revisions to PACES because its developer, Chad Ellett, holds a copyright to the system, according to Ms. Byrne.

In fact, the school board lawyer’s office recommended that the board change the district’s contracting process after a review highlighted the copyright problem. The lawyers advised that clearing the legal way could require a new agreement with Mr. Ellett, whose relationship with the district administrator overseeing his work raised conflict-of- interest questions, according to an official report.

Leaders of United Teachers of Dade question whether a new program is the answer when, they say, the existing system falls short less on concepts than on the resources to make it work.

The framework dictates the terms for the annual observations that determine whether a teacher’s job might be in jeopardy. Teachers are observed in the classroom by the principal or another administrator, usually for less than an hour, and possibly as little as 20 minutes. They are rated as meeting or not meeting 44 PACES standards, such as whether students are engaged in the lesson and whether its goal is made clear.

If all the standards are met, the evaluation is completed. If not, a second observation is made within a month.

Weeding Out vs. Improving

Observations are also supposed to be part of a larger program to help all teachers get better through “professional growth” plans drawn up with the principal. Yet union officials say the plans are often perfunctory, and even the few teachers who fail their observations do not get the help the system promises.

“There was never enough time given for professional-growth teams,” said Karen Aronowitz, the president of UTD.

Ms. Aronowitz also criticized the system as focusing too much on student behavior as opposed to a teacher’s actions. She said that focus—intended as a corrective to the evaluation system that preceded PACES—is more open to abuse because an administrator can easily find one or two students engaged in behavior that casts a teacher in a certain light.

The Miami Herald has characterized the evaluations as a well-known “joke” in an editorial because, the newspaper said, they are too cursory.

Still, a case can be made that, for the purpose of weeding out the worst teachers, the district’s current system works no worse than many others and better than some.

Madelyn P. Schere, a former lawyer for the school system, said the district has been a leader in that area. “We’ve always fired and counseled out teachers in large numbers in comparison with other districts in the state,” she said.

Of the six firings under PACES that teachers have challenged in the past five years, Ms. Schere said, three had been overturned, two by the same state administrative-law judge. He had argued not only that the evidence against the teachers’ practice was too vague, but also that Florida law now requires that evidence of student achievement be considered in teachers’ evaluations.

Deputy Superintendent Byrne said a new evaluation framework for the district must take into account that element.

Experts caution that making a teacher-assessment system good enough to allow administrators to get rid of bad teachers is less difficult than devising one that makes teachers better.

“There really ought to be more peer evaluation,” said Michael E. Hickey, the director of the Center for Leadership in Education at Towson University in Maryland. “There’s a disconnect in the minds of school leaders between evaluation and true professional development, and that disconnect is part of the problem because those two are the dancer and the dance.”

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